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Decade Of Change: MMA's Continued Growth Relies On Several Key Alterations

Welcome to SB Nation's 'Decade Of Change' series. We'll present a series of articles throughout the week, representing every sport. Each one is authored by a blogger from within our vast network and will outline various aspects of their favorite league they'd like to see changed by the end of the new decade. Now up: MMA, authored by Brent Brookhouse, editor of SBNation.com's MMA page and contributor to Bloody Elbow.

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Decade Of Change: MMA's Continued Growth Relies On Several Key Alterations

No. 1: Olympic Style Blood Tests

The truth is, steroids are a massive problem in sports.  And I don't only mean athletes actually being on them, but speculation of who is and isn't.  Look at what happened in boxing over the past few weeks.  There has never been any actual evidence tying Manny Pacquiao to steroids, only the Mayweather family deciding that he must be using to be as good as he is. That alone resulted in the fight of the century for boxing falling apart. 

Olympic style blood testing goes a long way toward at least assuaging the constant chatter of who is and who isn't using.  The last thing the sport can afford -- if it wants to continue growing -- is a massive steroid scandal.  Which, given that there have been steroid accusations made about UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, Strikeforce heavyweight champion Alistair Overeem and UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, does not seem that far away.  It would be an incredibly progressive move for an American sport to have blood testing. The only real question is, are state athletic commissions ever going to become progressive enough to move to something so comprehensive?

No. 2: The UFC On Network TV

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the Strikeforce product.  But, the next giant leap in the growth of the sport comes with capturing the imagination of the general sports fan with the biggest and best fights that can be offered.  The average American sports fan is not going to devote a part of a weekday night to tracking down a fight between Nate Diaz and Gray Maynard on Spike TV, but they may be willing to stick around after a football game to watch BJ Penn defend his title.

MMA fans are familiar with the stories of why the UFC has yet to get a deal done for network TV.  The networks want to control production and place their own announcers on the events while the UFC maintains that they're the only ones who understand how to do it right.  They're probably right.  CBS putting Gus Johnson on commentary for the Elite XC run led to the classic moment of calling Seth Petruzelli "Rocky" and comparing his knockout of Kimbo Slice to the greatest sports upsets ever.

For the good of the sport, I hope that a deal to put the premier promotion in the sport on network TV can eventually be worked out.

No. 3: An American Single Payer Health Care System

From a pure MMA fan viewpoint, the introduction of single payer health care in America would be a tremendous relief.  The cost of the training camps that fighters have to go through are severely underappreciated by fans and when you subtract the cost of the training camps from the purse for most of the fighters on the undercard (as low as $5,000 - $10,000, not including sponsorship money), there isn't a ton of money left over.

The UFC no doubt helps out a guy like Corey Hill, whose leg snapped while throwing a kick in his Fight Night 16 bout, but the medical bills do add up.  And then there are the multitude of injuries that happen while in training.  We'd have many more fighters coming into fights healthier and losing less of their paycheck if they were able to seek medical care under a system which didn't require either paying outrageous sums of money for doctor visits or having to pay thousands of dollars a year for health care.

No. 4: Improved Judging

I make no appologies for being a supporter of the current 10-Point Must System in the sport. The problem with the way fights are scored right now isn't the system, it is the men who are put in charge of using the system.  The need for more rounds to be scored 10-8 is clear (although the need for more draw rounds is massively overstated).  In boxing, it is usually clear when a round is 10-8 because one boxer is knocked down.  In MMA it is far more complicated to determine what amount of control and damage it should take for a round to be determined as dominant.  I would love to see proper guidelines established for the scoring of rounds as 10-8 and 10-7.

There also needs to be a focus on training judges on the sport.  I've heard a lot of stories from reliable sources of judges not knowing what submission holds are called and the like.  How can you properly score a fight if you don't understand what is happening and the amount of danger a fighter is put in?  There must be training for these judges as well as a review process for questionable score cards.  As long as a judge can stand in front of a group of officials and explain point-for-point why he scored a fight as he did, that is a start.  We can't afford to have men like Cecil Peoples running around giving interviews about how he doesn't really count leg kicks as offensive maneuvers at this stage in the sport's growth.

No. 5: Featherweight and Bantamweight Fighters In The UFC

When Mike Brown fought Jose Aldo for the WEC featherweight title in November, it was a showdown between two of the top three fighters in the world at that weight.  After Aldo destroyed Brown to take the title from the undisputed No. 1 man at 145 pounds, the small crowd provided a background of what sounded like polite golf claps.  A fight of that level of importance deserves a bigger stage.

There is no denying that the WEC events have been providing great entertainment almost every time out.  But Zuffa needs to turn the promotion into a development league.  The WEC should be a place where guys like a Phil Davis can get some seasoning while remaining under contract and out of rival promotions like Strikeforce.  Once a guy is developed enough he can be brought into the UFC and start to compete on the main stage.  Fighters like Jose Aldo, Mike Brown, Urijah Faber, Brian Bowles, and Miguel Torres deserve to more than they're currently able to get fighting in the WEC.

The inclusion of two new weight classes in the UFC also solves the problems that come up from a show like UFC 108, where injuries ravaged the event and left the top end of the card weak.  Rather than sticking Aldo/Faber on a WEC PPV that will ultimately fail, they could be used as the main support bout for a UFC event in need of a major fight.

No. 6: A New, Successful Japanese Promotion

At the top of it's run, PRIDE represented the best of MMA.  Exciting fights between top level talent were the norm.  At it's worst, the promotion was marred in controversy due to involvement with the Yakuza, which ultimately led to its downfall.  Now, every Japanese promotion to attempt to follow in PRIDE's footsteps seems to hit a snag.  Be it problems with major sponsors, reported money problems, overpayment of marginal talent, the new "big" promotions in DREAM and Sengoku have been entertaining but still far from great in the way that PRIDE had managed to be.

No. 7:  Marketing Strides Made In The Mexican And African-American Communities

MMA Facts posted an article about the diverse fanbase of Mixed Martial Arts and included possibly the most ironic photo ever at the head of the piece.  Just look at that diverse fanbase!  Yes, the sport's growth has naturally encompassed some progress among minority fanbases, but boxing remains the combat sport of choice among the majority of Mexican and African-American combat fans.

It is vastly undervalued just how deep of a cultural meaning boxing has to these groups.  For decades, boxers from Jack Johnson to Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali to Ray Leonard to Floyd Mayweather were huge sports figures in the African-American sports world and likewise for Mexican fans with Kid Azteca to Jose Becerra to Vicente Saldivar to Salvidor Sanchez to Julio Cesar Chavez to Marco Antonio Barrera.  These fighters all had a cultural significance that made the sport of boxing a part of the culture.  MMA has yet to fully establish this connection and it is likely to take more than ten years to do so.  And it will take more than a fighter like Cain Velasquez becoming successful to do it for the Mexican fanbase.  A fighter like Miguel Torres has the most easy to access style for a boxing fan and he sits on the small stage of the WEC.

It is going to take time and a sustained effort to create cultural connections to the sport.  A major promotion like the UFC will eventually have to put in this effort.  It will be rewarded down the road.

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