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Peter Dabbene (guest columnist): Lost in translation (why worldwide growth could backfire on the UFC domestically)

By Zach Arnold | July 26, 2012

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Peter Dabbene is a writer of short stories, novels, graphic novels, and plays; he is a reviewer and a columnist, and yes, a poet (but a tough one). His website is www.peterdabbene.com.

I’ve been a dedicated UFC fan for a long time—my wife and I watched UFC 44 in a hospital room a few hours after she gave birth. In the years following, I’ve seen the UFC exhaust the supply of adjectives for their events—no more “UFC 46: Supernatural” or “UFC 112: Invincible“, or my choice for most misleading title, “UFC 73: Stacked”, which, disappointingly, did not feature the fighting debuts of Arianny and the other octagon girls. I’ve witnessed the UFC grow worldwide and sign more fighters than ever, sponsoring more events per month than the local PTA. But even as the UFC expands, there’s a factor that could put the brakes on that growth, at least in the U.S.A.—the language barrier.

Unwatchable though it was, that first two-hour episode of The Ultimate Fighter: Live—in which Urijah Faber, Dominic Cruz, and Dana White were collectively reduced to the occasional whisper of “Wow” or “He’s good”—was at least in English. TUF: Brazil proved worse: I like Wanderlei Silva and Vitor Belfort as much as the next guy, but the MMA audience doesn’t generally overlap a whole lot with fans of foreign films and subtitles, and reading translations of Portuguese at the bottom of the screen gets old quick. It’s bad enough when fighters give the same canned threats in those pre-fight sound bites; having to read them in captions is cruel and unusual punishment.

To make clear that I’m not declaring war on an entire country, a la Chael Sonnen (everyone’s favorite xenophobe), let me say that I have nothing against Brazil, or Brazilians, other than the fact that I’ve suffered through a few too many excruciating post-fight interviews featuring high-pitched Brazilian voices and staccato English-y summaries by translators. I think Ed Soares is cool and all, but I’ll take a fun blowhard that I can understand like Matt Mitrione over a more technically skilled foreign-speaking fighter any day.

See, the thing is, after a while, even the best technique gets boring; the blowhards and larger-than-life characters keep it all fun. Despite their technical shortcomings, Brock Lesnar and Tito Ortiz made fights interesting, just through their personalities. Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, too. For me, a less-skilled slugger like Chris Leben or Matt Brown is a helluva lot more interesting to watch than Renan Barão or the latest (Brazilian) Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. Love them or hate them, at least these U.S. fighters are memorable.

Brazilian fighters overall seem very humble and respectful of the sport—and that’s a good thing. But it doesn’t play well for a nation reared on reality TV meltdowns, like the U.S. Even when a Brazilian fighter is talking smack, it’s just not quite the same in halting English or after they’ve had to give the nod to their manager to indicate that they’re done talking now.

We’ve all learned that in Portuguese, starting R’s make the English “H” sound, and W’s make the “V” sound. Then, just to throw us all off, Jose Aldo came along and informed us all that we’re supposed to pronounce the “J”. Short of free Berlitz classes for all, it’s not likely that the U.S.-Brazil communication gap will narrow anytime soon.

Some Brazilian fighters are undeniably exciting, English-speakers or no. They bring something different to the table—Lyoto Machida’s style is unlike any other fighter, as are, to some degree, Vitor and Wanderlei’s “go for the KO, make an exciting fight” style. And Anderson Silva’s just a freak.

But there’s a generation of fighters coming up who are technically sound in every way—and boring as hell to watch. This is true of U.S. fighters, too, not just Brazilians; the difference is that U.S. fighters can find other ways to differentiate themselves—a U.S. audience can relate to them. The language barrier makes a lot of Brazilian fighters seem all but interchangeable—and the fact that most of them are named Silva doesn’t help, either.

I’m picking on Brazil because given the current names at the top of the weight classes, you can make the case that Brazil is on the verge of dominating the UFC. Demographics seem to indicate a tidal surge of Brazilian fighters heading for the UFC in future years; aside from the current crop on TUF: Brazil and elsewhere, every poverty-stricken kid in Brazil is probably looking at Anderson Silva and Junior Dos Santos right now and thinking, “Why not me?” Many of these will wash out, but 5 or 10 years down the road, it’s likely that there will be a large number of very, very good Brazilian fighters.

Meanwhile, the UFC seems to be looking at the global market in the same way that any Fortune 500 company might—they have a “product”—mixed martial arts, UFC-style—and they want to scale up production to maintain the flow of new fighters and increase profits; hence, the upcoming TUF: India, and soon, in all likelihood, TUF: Japan, TUF: Thailand, and TUF: France.

OK, just kidding about TUF: France.

Just as many big companies have done before, the UFC may be overreaching. McDonald’s once charged into China with grand plans, only to watch competitor Kentucky Fried Chicken better adapt to local tastes (squid on a stick, anyone?). While KFC hasn’t exactly forced McDonald’s to tap out just yet, this and other cautionary tales might serve to warn the UFC that the local culture is always different, and rarely as simple as making more of the exact same thing.

Even if the UFC’s international efforts succeed, getting Americans to watch FOX and pay-per-view events—let alone foreign-based Ultimate Fighter shows— at the rate the UFC is cranking them out requires interesting fighters, big personalities that make people want to watch every event. And to “experience” a big personality, you generally have to speak the same language.

So how will the UFC reconcile trying to expand their audience to mainstream U.S. sports fans through the FOX TV deal, as an increasing number of Brazilians and other foreign-speakers rise to the heights of the sport? Hopefully the core of what made the UFC popular won’t be lost in translation.

Topics: Media, MMA, UFC, Zach Arnold | 5 Comments » | Permalink | Trackback |

5 Responses to “Peter Dabbene (guest columnist): Lost in translation (why worldwide growth could backfire on the UFC domestically)”

  1. Ditch says:

    Two thoughts:

    1. There won’t be a “UFC Japan” because UFC isn’t going to regularly run shows in Japan like they do in Brazil, and the demographics for Japan are reversed. Plus, if the PRIDE boom couldn’t generate more quality Japanese fighters, TUF certainly won’t.

    2. The plight of women’s pro golf comes to mind. It’s becoming more and more dominated by Asians who don’t speak English, and have less in the way of personality. This is hurting the LPGA in the US, which in turn is an overwhelming majority of its market. I doubt MMA will ever go that far; the Brazilian fighters have more personality than South Korean golfers, and even now MMA has plenty of quality US talent. But that doesn’t mean a surplus of Brazilians will have no ill-effects, as your article lays out.

  2. Jason Harris says:

    Guys like Anderson who refuse to learn English are the exception, not the rule. The bulk of these guys are training in the US and at the least learning English no matter where they are. Junior Dos Santos, Wanderlei Silva, Vitor Belfort are all good examples. Gustaffson, Struve…speak English fine.

    Where is this glut of guys who don’t speak any English at?

    • Jay Bell-Brown says:

      Struve and Gustaffson cant be mentioned in the first place. In Netherlands (lived for 5 years) and Sweden, english is taught as a secondary/tertiary language in Secondary Schools. Its automatic that they learn english in the first place. Brazilians of course portuguese or spanish is learned and its up them and their own will to learn english anyways.

  3. theYiffer says:

    I’m sorry, but I thought we were a great big multi-cultural nation, joyfully celebrating all cultures and languages equally if not more important than out evil western ways… I hope Peter Dabbene isn’t one of those people who get a hair up his butt every time he see a patriot waving around an American flag. Personally speaking, I could just as easily throw the xenophobe label in his face.

    Setting my sarcasm a side, I can see his point, having a bunch of Portuguese-speaking fighter might turn-off a lot of casual fans. Sure guys like Ortiz and Lesnar do draw eyes and put butts in seats. But at the end of the day, MMA is still a sport. It’s great when you have strong personalities like Sonnen show up in the octagon, but they still have to win fights. What I think Dabbene’s looking for is more towards pro-wrestling than fighting. I think the days of whacky characters like Griffin, Rampage, and Shamrock being common place in MMA have long past. Current and future generations of fighters are taking the sport more seriously, working on every facet of their game. Yeah, I miss the smack talk (that’s supposed to be passe now), but a side from Sonnen and Griffen/Ortiz, there hasn’t been a pre/post-fight interview that I’ve been aware of with a lick of originality in five years if not longer. (I’m sure after posting this some wise-ass will come up with something I’ve forgotten or overlooked.) But I haven’t care about pre/post-fight interviews ever. I can’t remember anyone that I’ve ever known mention something a fighter said in a pre/post-fight interview during a PPV or televised show.

    I guess this leads me to my defense of Brazilian fighters. I’m not too concern with their lack of English, although it never hurts to learn some. I only care about the fights they put on. It’s just a sport. Yeah, a lot of people prefer kick boxing matches, but there’s also the ground-game. As far as the entertainment value of any given fight, most times, that’s just a matter of opinion. But if you’re dead set on making fights more interesting than the commissions need to old the old Pride rule of considering the fighter’s efforts at finishing the fight when judging a fight.

    When it comes to market expansion, the key is marketing. In the U.S., I was at first skeptical of UFC’s FOX deal, but seeing how FOX has boosted UFC’s exposure and profile, it seems like a stroke of genius. UFC/Zuffa so far has been able to adjust to most every market it invades. (Except for Japan, due to the Pride/Yakuza scandal killing the market there.) Now if Zuffa could only promote other assets like StrikeForce and the former WEC as well as they do the UFC, Dana and Co would be looking even better than they already are. That WEC show in San Antonio still leaves a bad taste in my mouth due to the piss-poor promoting. ick!

  4. Light23 says:

    I was skimming the front page and as soon as I read the line “I’ve been a dedicated UFC fan for a long time”, I instantly knew it was a guest article. =)

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