Jake Shields is a good MMA fighter who just got fired by the UFC for hazy reasons. The decision seems odd, given that the UFC advertises itself as "The Super Bowl of MMA" -- a slogan that suggests the promotion has all of the best MMA fighters under its roof. To both casual and hardcore fans alike, Shields has earned his place under that roof, even if his attrition-based style of hybrid jiu-jitsu can often be described as boring. UFC president Dana White attempted something resembling an explanation in his usual style:
"I like Jake Shields a lot. But let's be honest here: Where was he going in this [welterweight] division of animals we have? He's on the downswing, and he's never going to be the guy. His stand-up never improved. He hasn't really shown anything in his last couple of fights to make you go, 'Holy [expletive].' Right now, at this point, he's just another guy."
Let's ignore the problematic nature of referring to your employees as "animals" and get to the obvious: Jake Shields was fired because he's not what the UFC wants their fighters to be. He is, at worst, one of the 15 best welterweights in a company that currently employs a total of 89 welterweights. Unfortunately for him, however, he does not Face The Pain or Step To This in the manner that White desires. This makes him not just expendable, but an outright hindrance to the UFC's business plan, which really hasn't changed much since day one. It's taken 21 years, but this is starting to become a problem.
Most of the UFC's history can be understood as an extended flirtation with self-destruction. The promotion made its debut in 1993 as a sort of delayed hangover to America's psycho-capitalistic '80s excesses and the resulting disregard for human life. There's really no better way to explain how the promotion got away with organizing a barely-regulated, one-night, eight-man tournament that winked at the possibility of witnessing a live death on pay-per-view. Luckily, the spectacle of ultimate fighting ran headfirst into the sport that it would eventually become.
In the inaugural UFC tournament, Royce Gracie -- a 175-lb. Brazilian with the musculature of a fit high school drama teacher -- won the by being the smartest guy in the arena. He scored no knockouts, landed no flying tiger spin kicks of death and didn't do much of anything that would impress anyone outside the Brazilian jiu-jitsu community. Mostly, he settled for carefully tripping dudes to the mat and choking them out in anticlimactic fashion. In retrospect, it was the best possible outcome. Had anyone died that night, it's hard to imagine how the UFC would have put on a second show, never mind the 200-plus it's put on since then.
Despite White's routine proclamation that MMA is "the safest sport in the world," the fact is that he's dead wrong. MMA is as dangerous a sport as one could imagine in modern times, but its inherent risk is subject to some malleability. Promoters, like White, play a significant role in deciding how dangerous the sport is on any given night. The handful of deaths that have occurred in MMA fights are more a result of poor regulation and unscrupulous promoters than the sport's obvious dangers. As far and away the sport's biggest promoter, the UFC has the most to lose if the implicit promise of UFC 1 is ever fulfilled and the sport's modern regulations fail to prevent the seeming inevitability of an in-cage death aired on live television. However -- due to its own success, ignorance or corporate hubris -- the UFC is slowly but surely altering the equation in a way that ends badly for anyone with any interest in MMA.
As an isolated case, the decision to release Jake Shields is not indicative of anything -- but the thing is, it's not an isolated case. In the past 13 months, the UFC also released Yushin Okami and Jon Fitch, both top-10 caliber fighters in their divisions who could be generally classified as boring, especially among violence-minded fans. Simultaneously, the UFC's roster has grown as it scrambles to meet the logistical demands of putting on events on what amounts to a weekly basis. Many of the fighters being brought in are, at best, mediocre regional talents desperate to hold on to a UFC spot. The best way to do that is to put on the kind of fights the UFC wants -- the kind of fights that involve reckless brawling for a bloodthirsty public, followed by nervous medical exams in private. It's not hard to see how this could end with someone collecting a postmortem paycheck.
The irony is that, at its highest level, MMA has always been a fundamentally risk-averse sport. Fighters who have the skill and athleticism to become champions quickly realize that the easiest way to win is to control the terms of any given fight and quickly exploit their opponent's weaknesses. It's no coincidence that every current UFC champion does not fit the UFC's ideal -- that reckless ideal is how fighters end up losing fights they would otherwise win. And even if it doesn't kill anyone in the cage, it will at least claim its pound of flesh in the form of slurred words, lost brain cells and shortened life spans. That is the price of a sport drifting toward spectacle.
The spectacle may be profitable in the short-term -- it certainly has been for the UFC -- but spectacles operate differently than sports. While a sport lives and dies on its own merits, the spectacle must escalate into an ever more debased version of itself to hold the public's attention. However, there is a breaking point, when the escalation becomes out-of-step with what the broader public will allow. The UFC of 1993 came dangerously close to that point. The UFC of 2014 seems determined to reach it.