Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock 3
Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock III—Oh My!

Last night at Bellator 145, the mixed martial arts (MMA) audience watched 31-year-old Daniel Straus contend for 28-year-old Patricio “Pitbull” Freire’s Bellator Featherweight Championship in an incredible bout that epitomizes what MMA fans love about the sport.  Two high-calibre, talented, youthful professional athletes at the prime of their career exchanging world-class techniques until they went the distance, and one of them was judged to be the superior athlete. 

When Straus had his hand raised and was crowned the new Bellator Featherweight Champion, it should’ve been the crowning achievement of not just Straus, but of Bellator: a new, young champion who could rise to be considered one of the best featherweights in the world.  However, the biggest takeaway coming out of Bellator 145 had to do with something else.

Prior to the Straus-Freire clash, an announcement was made.  Legendary competitors: Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock, who had their first fight in 1993 at UFC 1, and a critically panned 36-minute rematch at UFC 5, will finish off their long rivalry in a third fight at a Bellator event in February 2016—a little over twenty-two years from their first clash. 

To say that the reaction was a bit polarizing would be a massive understatement.

What Is a “Masters Division”?

It’s an idea that MMA fans have been proposing for over ten years: the idea of a “Masters" division in MMA, not unlike the Masters Tournament held in professional golf each year and considered a major championship in that sport.  The idea is generally proposed to be a division exclusively for fighters over a certain age (usually proposed to be 45), where older fighters can continue to earn a living from the sport fighting other competitors relative to themselves.

A 45+ MMA division, and considering that niches it down already, one would assume that such a division would be “open weight,” meaning that, hypothetically, a welterweight like Pat Miletich would be able to fight a heavyweight like Tank Abbott.  In some respects, this wouldn’t be unreasonable (I would guess that Miletich might even open up as a favourite on the betting lines, due to the whole cardio and technique things, which have become a big deal since the ‘90s). 

The announced Gracie-Shamrock III fight has already been approved by the Texas State Athletic Commission to take place at open weight.  Much like the division itself, this weight class forgiveness would be consistent with the nostalgia such a division would be created for, as MMA in North America started off at open weight, with welterweight Gracie infamously sweeping early weight class-less tournaments by defeating heavyweights like Shamrock.

Nobody Wants to See Old Guys Fight—or Do They?

The obvious argument to make when comparing a hypothetical Masters division in MMA to the Masters Tournament in professional golf is that golfers aren’t trying to hurt each other.  Golf is a relatively low-intensity sport, and older competitors aren’t putting their health at great risk to compete professionally. 

Older mixed martial artists, however, potentially are risking serious damage or other medical issues (coronaries in particular) if they continue to train and fight at the high-performance level required from professional MMA—especially from fighters who may already have a history of concussions, neck/spinal injuries, torn knee ligaments, and so forth.

The reaction of such fights when booked are typically more negative than positive from the MMA audience.  Though, there’s one fighter who has consistently proven that nostalgia sells big in MMA.

Ken Shamrock returned from his pro wrestling career in 2002 to break a PPV record with Tito Ortiz at UFC 40 in what was, and has always been, a “pro wrestling-esque” rivalry.  Though Shamrock had adopted some boxing skills and had evolved past being just a catch wrestler, he was still considered past his prime in 2002

Nonetheless, Shamrock was the main event draw three years later in 2005 at The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 1 finale, which infamously featured Forrest Griffin’s and Stephan Bonnar’s epic showdown that is credited with lighting the UFC on fire on its way to becoming a mainstream sport.  Had Ken Shamrock not main evented and brought in the initial audience, would the Griffin-Bonnar fight have received the same viewership?

A year later in 2006, Shamrock re-ignited his rivalry with Ortiz, coaching the TUF3 reality series, which has remained one of the highest-rated seasons to date, culminating in a rematch that took place at UFC 61 and again, broke the UFC PPV record.  A disputed finish set up a rematch on Spike TV months later, which set UFC’s television record, and made Ortiz into a megastar heading into his rematch with Chuck Liddell at UFC 66, which, again, broke the PPV record and was the UFC’s first PPV that did over 1,000,000 buys.

When Liddell TKO’d Ortiz, Ortiz passed a steaming hot baton to Liddell, who passed it over to Quinton Jackson after losing the Light Heavyweight Title to him, and that baton would pass through Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida, Shogun Rua, all the way to Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier in what was and has been the UFC’s hottest division—their light heavyweight division—which was originally built on a nostalgia-based rivalry between Shamrock-Ortiz. 

This is the narrative the UFC doesn’t tell, presumably due to their previous and current conflicts with Shamrock and Ortiz, respectively.

So What? Why Is a Masters Division Important Now?

It is important—though, chances are we won’t be getting any Daniel Straus-Patricio Freire-like showdowns from such a division.  The purpose of such a division is marketing, and trying to tell a story to the casual audience beyond the MMA audience, and to pull in eyeballs from them and former MMA fans who have since abandoned the sport, but would return to watch familiar names and faces square off against each other.

This is important for Bellator, because Bellator has to find a way to obtain a dedicated audience while distinguishing themselves from the juggernaut that is the UFC.  Bellator will probably never be able to claim that they have the #1 and #2 light heavyweights in the world squaring off against each other, like the UFC will be able to when Jon Jones inevitably returns to square off against Daniel Cormier.

The UFC has such a strong and wide grasp on MMA’s highest-ranked talents, that unless Bellator’s parent, Viacom, decides to invest a lot of money to lure UFC’s biggest stars over (which they have shown no indication in making such an investment), then Bellator is pressed to find attractions without having the best-ranked mixed martial artists in the world.

So Bellator tried an experiment earlier this year, and it was Kimbo Slice vs. Ken Shamrock in what was clearly a “freakshow” match.  The bout ended up being the highest-rated and most-watched Bellator fight on Spike ever.  The experiment confirmed what we already knew, and that’s that nostalgia sells.  Meanwhile, a competitor like Shamrock has an avenue to continue making a living off of the sport he helped build, while facing other competitors who are closer to his skill level at this time of his career.

Nostalgia Sells

If a Masters division can raise Bellator’s profile, then this would be important for MMA because the sport sorely needs a competitor to the UFC so that a marketplace can be created—to give more options to fighters to ply their trade in and increase their value, which would then go on to benefit those fighters’ staff, teammates, gyms, and so on, and would be good for MMA as a whole. 

Michael Chandler getting exposure on the undercard of Shamrock-Slice is the desired by-product of an otherwise controversial booking, as is the hope of future cards—that they will shine a spotlight on younger talent who are the bread-and-butter of the promotion, and the ones who should be consistently carrying the cards.  Anything that brings in higher-than-normal viewership to an MMA product is good for the sport.

Rumor has it that when UFC booked their own nostalgia match-up at UFC 109 when Randy Couture faced off against Mark Coleman, the UFC were quick to release Mark Coleman after his loss because they were genuinely concerned he could die in the octagon if he continued fighting.  Whether that rumor is true is anybody’s guess, but if it is, it’s somewhat of a legitimate concern when 40-50-year-olds are pushing their bodies beyond what they can, or should, be outputting. 

The hope is these older athletes will train intelligently rather than aggressively to achieve their goal, which is more likely a paycheck, a performance, a roaring crowd chanting their name, and a standing ovation once the fight is over, rather than a legitimate desire to obtain another “win” on their record. 

Though some hardcore MMA fans are under the delusion that mixed martial artists should only compete to become the best, and if they take too many losses after being in title contention, that they should immediately retire, the truth is that a lot of these athletes have no other career after their road to title contention is over.  MMA is their career.  And as Shamrock eloquently put it, he has earned his right to make a living from this sport.  We must allow them to make it, and if we enjoy a little bit of nostalgia in the process, we’ll probably survive it.

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