Warrior was supposed to be part of mixed martial arts' mainstream coming out party. The well received drama was the sport's opportunity to introduce itself to a broader audience, to prove that cage fighting is just like baseball, basketball, or even boxing. To prove that you can take the girl you dig from accounting to a movie about ultimate fighters without worrying about securing a second date.
The verdict is in. You can not.
Warrior was a box office flop, opening with just a paltry $5.6 million. It's impact was described by pundits as weak, disappointing, and a disaster. Fans refused to embrace the drama, disguised in its marketing as an action flick. The second week was no better. The movie lost 47 percent of an already meager audience, falling to eight place. At this point the chances of making back its production and advertising budget of approximately $45 million are slim and none.
It's a stark reminder for MMA fans quick to proclaim the sport ready for prime time. The truth seems simple - much of mainstream America is not ready for mixed martial arts. Almost eighteen years after its American debut, it's still not an event appropriate for mixed audiences. At a family barbecue, football is a staple. Fathers and sons get together to go to the ballpark. In the right circumstances, even boxing can bridge generational and gender divides.
Americans enjoy a common culture. There are events that are part of this shared experience, things you can guarantee people will talk about the next day at work or church. Sports are part of that conversation. On a Monday like this after a big football weekend, I will have 15 discussions about the SEC and the NFL at work. That's the beauty - I can talk with someone I barely know and we can immediately find common ground in sport.
Mixed martial arts is just not a part of that conversation. Most people don't pay the slightest attention to MMA. There is a limited group of hardcore fans, enough to sustain a massively successful enterprise as the UFC has demonstrated. But for most Americans, the sport doesn't exist. They don't think about it, see it, or care.
Fans of the sport are at a loss. How can this be possible? Don't people get it, they ask? This is the greatest sport ever. Nothing comes close to it, the primal battle of man against man. But the visceral thrill that attracts the few to the sport is the same thing that turns many others off. The reason MMA has failed to attract large television audiences, struggling to find a million viewers in a country of hundreds of millions, has nothing to do with lack of access. Fox won't necessarily be a panacea. The problem isn't ignorance- it is the sport's inherent ultra violence.
Despite our protests and histrionic discussion of safety, it's still men fighting in a steel cage. Viewers have to be prepared for a savagery most people are unaccustomed to. Knees, elbows, twisting armlocks and even chokes are part and parcel of any MMA show. It's a staggering level of real life violence, even in this desensitized media environment. I read with amusement some MMA columnists who discuss the sport as competition, insisting it's not about violence at all. Respectfully, I disagree.
For the majority of the fans and the bulk of the fighters, it's not simply an athletic contest. It's a fight; the closest you can come to the adrenaline rush of a street confrontation without ending the night in handcuffs. That's been the appeal of MMA since we called it "no holds barred." That's the appeal today. Many Americans aren't ready for that. As fans, we have to prepare for the fact that they may never be.