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The Fight Opinion Five: Supporting the Black Man

By Zach Arnold | December 27, 2009

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Throughout the past decade, we have looked through our site archives and all of the various notes written during the time period to come up with five of the most interesting and important stories that Zach Arnold and the Fight Opinion team have covered. This is an arbitrary list of themes, but each theme carries historical importance and also emotional importance to not only the fans but also the authors, too. This is not an article series meant to cover everything that happened over the past decade, but rather to highlight what were some of the most fascinating stories to cover.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled against Mixed Martial Arts this past decade involved the issue of race. Was MMA a sport only for white people? Are the people in the business racist? Where are the non-white superstars? Forever and a day, we’ve seen and heard the criticisms about MMA not appealing enough to different racial and ethnic demographics. There were newspaper articles, including one in The Los Angeles Times, talking about the demographic make-up of your typical UFC show in Las Vegas.

The situation with MMA is almost a reverse of what is happening in boxing. The mainstream media laments about boxing looking for the next great white American hero.

So what is the truth about MMA and it’s ability to appeal to those who aren’t white? You have to consider the business as a whole and how each market has played out. In Japan, Mixed Martial Arts is open for both the native Japanese stars and the foreigners. Of course, race has always played a huge role in the country as far as which fighters the fans are willing to look at as drawing cards that they are willing to pay to watch in person. We know about the large connection MMA has with the Brazilian community. (Even the newspaper writers understood that the Gracie family did exist.)

There have been some failures for sure in terms of outreach. In the past decade, we haven’t seen a major drawing card yet for the Hispanic market. Tito Ortiz was supposed to be the guy, but he doesn’t speak Spanish. Roger Huerta could have been the “it” guy but he had his problems with UFC management and sought other opportunities outside of Mixed Martial Arts. What about appealing to African-American fans? In the last 10 years, MMA has seen a shift in terms of creating big-name fighting stars who are Black.

The dilemma? The jury is still out as to whether or not these superstars appeal to minorities who then become fans of the sport or if they play into the stereotypes that White America has about what Black fighters should be? The four biggest African-American stars in MMA that most casual fans think of are Bob Sapp, Quinton Jackson, Kimbo Slice, and Rashad Evans. There have been other Black fighters like Kevin Randleman and King Mo (Lawal), but if you asked the majority of fans who the major stars in this demographic have been over the last 10 years, those are the four names that pop up.

So what about the success of each of these individuals? Did they appeal to minorities or did they play into the stereotypes that other demographics have about what a Black fighter should be?

Bob Sapp was the first huge African-American star in the MMA world, both figuratively and literally, in Mixed Martial Arts. As the saying goes, K-1 promoter Kazuyoshi Ishii proverbially lit a bottle rocket up his ass and gave Sapp the career push of a life time. Sapp came in as a giant monster who got disqualified in his first K-1 fight and then managed fighting in MMA. He had a legendary fight against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira at the Dynamite event in August of 2002 at Kokuritsu Stadium. Sapp lost the fight, but became such a big house-hold name in Japan afterwards. Sapp was protected to the point that Ishii, the promoter, worked as a special guest referee fight for his fight against Cyril Abidi. Sapp played into a bunch of stereotypes in Japan. He was the big, black scary guy who then turned around and cuddled a kitty to make you say “awwwww” while hawking a music CD. Then, the next minute he was hyping up a pro-wrestling match against Manabu Nakanishi in the New Japan ring at the Tokyo Dome by going on TV-Asahi cameras and acting like a ape, eating bananas on television in the process. And if that wasn’t enough for you, Sapp would then turn around and go on camera and start acting philosophical and talking as if he was a professor. In other words, Sapp was an entertainer first and foremost but he understood how to play into stereotypes that the Japanese had of him.

Sapp’s career flamed out prematurely because he was doing kickboxing, pro-wrestling, and MMA all at the same time in order to cash in on endorsement deals and other activities outside of the business. He never had any time to really train properly to maximize his potential. Nonetheless, he made a lot of money. During the time he was getting pushed by K-1, he was also wrestling for the K-1/PRIDE combination pro-wrestling league WRESTLE-1 where he fought The Great Muta. In 2002, he beat Ernesto Hoost twice and it set up a horrible wrestling match between the two in January of 2003 at the Tokyo Dome where Hoost got his “revenge” win. The Sapp train took a hit in March of 2003 when Mirko Cro Cop broke his eye socket in a fight at Saitama Super Arena. Sapp would eventually rebound and find himself in one of the highest-rated television matches of all time in Japan, a New Year’s Eve bout against Akebono in a kickboxing match.

2004 was supposed to be a big year for Sapp. However, things didn’t turn out as planned. Sapp had been IWGP champion for New Japan Pro-Wrestling. He was given a push by Antonio Inoki because of his appeal as a pro-wrestler and also because he had been doing well in MMA. Sapp would end up fighting on a bizarre K-1 MMA show called Romanex (Romance + Extra) against Kazuyuki Fujita, an Inoki understudy. Fujita beat Sapp at the Romanex event in an MMA fight and Sapp ended up vacating the IWGP belt after the loss. Fujita would end up with the title, which was standard protocol under Inoki’s influence of New Japan (awarding wrestlers who won shoot fights with title runs). After finding himself in legal trouble for corporate tax evasion, Kazuyoshi Ishii and K-1 wanted to book Sapp in a program against Mike Tyson. It got to the point where the two had a stare down at a Las Vegas K-1 event with Ishii in the crowd. The judge who was overseeing Ishii’s court case got furious that the promoter was involved in the promotion still. Because Tyson had a felony rap sheet, the fight couldn’t happen in Japan. There was a lot of talk of the fight happening in Hawaii, but in the end the fight never happened.

In May of 2006, Sapp found himself in major trouble when he backed out of a fight at a K-1 show in Holland. As we detailed on the site in the past, Sapp found himself in the middle of a major power play between PRIDE (Sakakibara) and K-1. Sapp was going to fight Ernesto Hoost, who wanted the bout to be his retirement match. Adding to the mix of chaos was the fact that Kunio Kiyohara, the Fuji TV producer who was close to Sakakibara, was involved in the event because of Fuji TV’s contractual rights to the show. Sapp would leave the building and reportedly be taken to a ‘safe house’ for protection. He later emerged at a press conference with someone named Michael Connette as his attorney. Connette, however, had connections to PRIDE. He was a visible name during the time PRIDE had a legal battle with Royce Gracie when Gracie was going to fight for K-1. In the end, Sapp lost a lot of valuable time and ended up settling back in K-1 but by then, things were starting to flame out. Sapp had made a significant amount of money in the fight game but always left fans wondering “what could have been.”

Quinton “Rampage” Jackson was fighting for King of the Cage when he got the call to fight Kazushi Sakuraba at a PRIDE event in Fukuoka at Marine Messe. Jackson was promoted by PRIDE as a man from Memphis, Tennessee who was a “homeless fighter” that lived on a bus, wore a big chain, and talked to pigeons. Jackson was photographed by the press on a bus and playing up the stereotype the promotion had given him. He naturally played up the gimmick since he was a huge pro-wrestling fan and grew up in one of the hottest wrestling territories ever. Jackson fought Sakuraba tough but ultimately lost to the legend. However, the natural charisma was apparently and his howling to the crowd made him a favorite. His tag line soon became, “Support the Black man.” Quinton understood the stereotypes that the Japanese had about him, so much so that he played right along with it and did a lot of crazy things (much of it has been documented on the Internet and can be found on YouTube). Jackson also dabbled in K-1 fights at a time when K-1 and PRIDE weren’t at each other’s throats totally.

His first big splash with American fight fans never really got a lot of attention in the States until years later when it was discussed by Dana White and others in UFC as if everyone in the world had known what had taken place. Jackson faced Chuck Liddell in the PRIDE ring and Dana White made a big bet on the fight (and lost) when Liddell lost. Quinton would go on to lose to Wanderlei Silva for the first time. The second time would prove to be more violent.

Jackson ended up facing Ricardo Arona and powerbombed him during a fight to win by knockout. Arona bounced off the mat and got hit again which resulted in the finish. Around this period of time, there was a Japanese escort web site that had taken photos of Rampage and framed it in such a way to make it look like he had endorsed their company (he was an unwitting victim). The legend of call girls being sent to the Japanese hotel rooms of fighters (both by the fighters themselves and by their opponents trying to cause trouble) were antics few discussed openly. After Jackson beat Arona, he appeared on a radio show to announce that he had become a born-again Christian — a radio show that I produced. It was one of the strangest conversations I can ever recall listening to at the time, including stories about what Rampage saw with his son and why the conversion took place. Soon after the conversion, there was a lot of concern in MMA circles about how it would impact Rampage’s fighting career. He lost violently to Wanderlei in a re-match and then had troubles with Chute Boxe fighters. His trainer, Colin Oyama, berated him, which resulted in a move to Juanito Ibarra. Rampage would later dump Ibarra after losing to Forrest Griffin and having a hit-and-run meltdown in Southern California.

Rampage was set-up to fight Liddell in a re-match in May of 2007. The fight would take place at the end of the month, which would be a couple of weeks after the Oscar De La Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight that caused everyone and their mother in media publications to scream, “Is this the end of boxing?” Rampage would beat Liddell for a second time. After the fight, White would continue to push Liddell significantly more than he pushed Rampage. It was an odd feeling, considering that Jackson was the company’s champion but Liddell was still getting the big treatment. Jackson would go on to beat Dan Henderson in a very tough five-round fight in London. He eventually would become a coach on The Ultimate Fighter (paired opposite of Forrest Griffin), but it didn’t turn out so well. Griffin would beat Jackson by decision and soon things fell apart for Rampage.

Eventually, he got back on track and married (not literally) in a program with Rashad Evans on The Ultimate Fighter. The two men did a wonderful job of hyping up a fight that, to this point, didn’t happen. Jackson was supposed to headline UFC’s Memphis debut but he backed out to film the A-Team re-make. Evans was left on his own to fight at UFC 108. Out of the four major Black stars in MMA this past decade, Rampage exhibited a ton of charisma and appealed to a lot of different demographics. That said, he is a crafty veteran who does play up to certain stereotypes.

Speaking of Rashad Evans, he’s one of the first true stars UFC has created from start to finish. From The Ultimate Fighter to top contender at 205 pounds, Rashad Evans brings you a little bit of everything. He’s a heel who gets booed by everyone. He knocks people out, including Chuck Liddell (that one really pissed off a lot of people). He can talk with the best of them, as we’ve seen on The Ultimate Fighter. And yet, out of the four major Black stars in Mixed Martial Arts, Evans’ appeal seems to be the most limited. He’s honest to a fault and doesn’t play into racial stereotypes. Everything about him as a fighter is commendable and he’s not someone with a highly-troubled past. As a drawing card, he’s respectable but it doesn’t appear that he reaches across a lot of different demographics — just mostly appealing to UFC’s core audience plus a few casual fans.

The pairing of Evans and Jackson on The Ultimate Fighter produced great television and saved what had been an incredibly stagnating format for a reality show. However, The Ultimate Fighter would have never been the success that it was this past season without Kimbo Slice.

Slice appeals to every stereotype and yet has the magical ingredients that will extend his career if he plays his cards right. He understands how to reinvent himself and how to hustle. Kimbo Slice was not created by the UFC marketing machine. He was pushed to the moon by Gary Shaw, who saw that the Big, Black Scary Guy from Youtube as the porn bodyguard would be palatable enough to market on CBS television. Of course, Shaw wasn’t a genius — he just saw Kimbo draw big numbers in Atlantic City against Ray Mercer of all people.

The same Ray Mercer that beat Tim Sylvia.

Kimbo’s aura alone blows away the aura of most stars in the history of Mixed Martial Arts. He may not make the kind of money that Bob Sapp or even Rampage has made in the business, but Kimbo Slice will be remembered by a lot more people than Jackson, Evans, and Sapp will ever be. His loss to Seth Petruzelli was crushing for Elite XC and cost the promotion their television deal. You couldn’t make up the fact that the Big Black Scary Youtube guy lost to the Smoothie King if you had written the script at the last minute, given that Ken Shamrock somehow got hurt before the fight happened. Kimbo is by far the biggest television ratings drawing card of any African-American in Mixed Martial Arts — but is that a good thing? He went from Big Black Scary Youtube guy to Trying to Feed My Family and Start Over aspiring MMA fighter on The Ultimate Fighter. It helped that he had someone scared to death of him like Houston Alexander to practically give him a win last December. Yes, there are questions that after losing to Roy Nelson and beating Houston Alexander by decision that the Kimbo train could be derailed at any time. However, the truth is that his star will shine bright for a while. Kimbo may not have the longevity of Rampage or Evans or the ability to get people to pay to see him like Sapp, but his Q-rating is by far the biggest out of all the Black stars in MMA, let alone everyone else in the business, too.

The question you have to ask yourself when you deal with critics of MMA saying that the sport is for white people is this — have the minority stars in the industry appealed to different demographics for who they are or did they attract white fans based on the stereotypes promoted and fed into? We know that Rampage’s personality appeals to a lot of fight fans, but the jury is still out on whether or not he brings large amounts of minority fans to MMA. Rashad Evans doesn’t appear any time soon to be appealing to fans outside of UFC’s core constituency. Bob Sapp largely appealed to the Japanese based on playing a character that appealed to the stereotypes that the public had of him in terms of his size and skin color. And Kimbo Slice may draw the biggest buzz in terms of media attention (with sports writers like Dan Le Batard), but does that really translate in bringing in non-white fans to Mixed Martial Arts? We don’t know the answer to the Kimbo: Reborn experiment yet.

Will there be new African-American stars in the next decade? Absolutely. Will these athletes be able to be themselves or will they have to play up certain racial stereotypes in order to attract attention?

Will we have Hispanic MMA drawing cards in the next decade? Unsure, given the way the promotions have marketed their product so far. Bellator was on ESPN Deportes and did good ratings, but they moved to a new television deal. UFC claimed big numbers for the UFC 100 telecast airing on Televisa in Mexico, but so far no MMA live events have been planned for that country or for other countries with traditionally large fighting fan bases like Puerto Rico.

The biggest question is whether or not Mixed Martial Arts will be able to grow its fan base by appealing to different demographics and if the athletes are pressured into playing up gimmicks or stereotypes to draw attention onto themselves. So far, the jury is still out on answering that question.

Topics: All Topics, Japan, K-1, Media, MMA, UFC, Zach Arnold | 56 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

56 Responses to “The Fight Opinion Five: Supporting the Black Man”

  1. Alan Conceicao says:

    How about white americans? Why dont we get to be in boxing?

    A bunch of tough answers regarding funding/organization of amateur programs, the advent of free agency, and the attitude towards boxing by white people. Interestingly, there are white Americans who box. Have you seen Kelly Pavlik? The best amateur heavyweight for the US during much of the last 5 years was Mike Wilson, a white guy. He never really went far internationally though, since he ran into army trained Russians/Ukranians/Uzbeks/etc.

    The rest of your post illustrates why its difficult to appeal to the inner city. If Gleason’s Gym and Kronk had been in New Rochelle and Farmington Hills instead of Detroit and Brooklyn and cost 6 times as much, boxing would be a very different sport.

  2. Fluyid says:

    Yo, check it: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1496412

    He shouts out to Zach and Ivan in his acknowledgements.

  3. Fluyid says:

    ^

    Understanding and Regulating the Sport of Mixed Martial Arts

    Brendan S. Maher
    Oklahoma City University School of Law

    Hastings Communications and Entertainment Law Journal, Forthcoming

    Abstract:
    The past fifteen years have seen the emergence of a new sport in America and around the world: mixed martial arts (“MMA”). MMA is an interdisciplinary combat sport whose participants engage in and combine a variety of fighting disciplines (e.g., kickboxing, wrestling, karate, jiu-jitsu, and so on) within one match.

    In this Article, I examine and analyze the sport’s evolution, articulate a theory of sporting legitimacy, supply a conceptual taxonomy of regulation, and highlight potential reform. More specifically, my foundational treatment proceeds as follows. I first explain the modern history and development of MMA, tracing it from its shaggy, brutish beginnings to its current incarnation. I next offer a pragmatic justification for the legitimacy and propriety of MMA, consider objections, and compare it to other sports and entertainment accepted as part of modern American life. I then review the state-based and administrative nature of MMA regulation, and identify the three conceptual categories of existing MMA regulation that are most useful in understanding the connection between legitimacy and regulatory oversight. I conclude by briefly highlighting two reform possibilities – federalization and unionization – that are of interest to industry players, reformers, and scholars.

  4. robthom says:

    “Have you seen Kelly Pavlik? ”

    I have heard of Kelly Pavlik. Dont know much about him but I was proud of him. I just assumed he was some kind of Irishman… an Irish Irishman.

    “The rest of your post illustrates why its difficult to appeal to the inner city. ”

    Its my fault now ?!!!

    😉

  5. Jimmy says:

    Exposure to new communities and other countries will further bring down race questions. Bringing several UFC events to South America would be huge too. I think Dana White’s grand 10 year plan will see more events in other countries only growing the fan base even more.

  6. […] The Fight Opinion Five: Supporting the Black Man | FightOpinion … […]

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