Examining MMA’s Support of the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health as PR Strategy

Brain Trauma Study

When combat sports representatives publicized a joint effort with Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Harry Reid (D-NV) to support the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health’s study of professional fighters last Tuesday, the announcement represented a huge success for the MMA world, in more ways than one.

By devising a strategy to attentively address such injuries without compromising the integrity of combat sports, the fight industry has set itself a tall order. The magnitude of this task was represented by the notion of UFC, Bellator and Top Rank officials pooling their resources (including $600,000) for a joint cause. As little as three months ago, when UFC President Dana White and Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney were at the height of their public verbal joust, this collaboration was virtually unthinkable, a sentiment echoed by Kevin Kay, Spike TV’s president, at the conference from Capitol Hill.

“If organizations that are as fiercely competitive as Viacom and the UFC are, and in the boxing world Top Rank and Golden Boy, can come together today, I think there’s still hope for North and South Korea,” Kay joked.

While the potential of enlightening research by the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health has dominated the headlines this week, this unlikely partnership suggests there are commercial gains, beyond the physical well-being of MMA athletes, that also warrant discussion.

McCain, the most outspoken opponent of the UFC’s early years, sharing a stage with UFC, Viacom (Bellator, Glory), Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank Boxing officials marked a phenomenal turnaround for MMA. In that one photo opportunity, the sport made great progress in countering its early notoriety as a senseless instigator of human injury.

Although the sting of McCain’s iconic “human cockfighting” label still endures media coverage today, the commitment of MMA’s elite organizations to better understand head trauma is also a vessel for taking MMA deeper into the mainstream audience’s line of vision.

Flanked by a Republican former presidential candidate and a Democratic Senate Majority leader from Nevada, the strongest forces in MMA are addressing the popular topic of professional athletes’ protection from brain trauma in contact sports. This move has arguably profiled the sport onto its grandest stage yet.

The result is more eyes than ever on the MMA product in the domestic market. With a positive and active approach, MMA’s representatives have an opportunity to convert this attention into positive coverage and a larger viewing audience.

Although the combined donation of $600,000 from the UFC, Bellator and Top Rank was likely offered in good faith and with genuine intentions, the fee could be a small investment relative to a public glowing endorsement from one of MMA’s greatest opponents during the sport’s inception.

Since his original comments between 1996 and 2001, McCain has offered a more positive appraisal of MMA. In 2007, he acknowledged that “the sport has grown up. The rules have been adopted to give its athletes better protections and to ensure fairer competition.” McCain’s change of heart, however, received a fraction of the coverage that his now famous “human cockfighting” analogy did. The union between McCain and the UFC over brain health in athletes gives the UFC a fresh opportunity to deconstruct a stigma that tarnished its reputation from the sport’s very first shows. McCain’s most recent sentiments, including praise for MMA as an “incredible, entertaining sport,” fuels this endeavor.

The united efforts of UFC, Bellator, Glory, Top Rank and Golden Boy to raise the profile of combat sports, attract larger audiences and gain more mainstream attention as safer sport can capitalize on the recent fervor surrounding brain trauma in sports. Following the NFL’s notorious efforts to supress knowledge of concussion severity, formalized by a lawsuit payout of $765 million from the NFL to its former players, an opportunity has emerged for another entity to convert this negative publicity into mainstream attention.

By actively supporting the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, MMA and the combat sports world are combining their genuine effort to better understand brain trauma with the added benefit of capitalizing on the ill-feeling left on sports fans by the NFL.

To fully understand the gravity of this turnaround, we must look back at the UFC’s proactive conduct during its most vulnerable period. Doing so underlines the UFC’s attentiveness to market demands on its road to establishing MMA as a successful sport. Such business savvy also justifies the theory of alternative public-relations motives to supporting brain trauma study.

The scale of adversity that MMA faced during its formative years is defined by the hypocritical attitudes towards boxing during the same time. McCain, a boxer during his time in the U.S. Navy who sat ringside during the bout that ender Jimmy Garcia’s life, condemned the UFC as “a brutal and repugnant blood sport . . . that should not be allowed to take place anywhere in the U.S.” in his 1996 letter to the governors of all 50 states.

Shielded by the minor legislation he sponsored to promote boxing safety, consisting of physicians being present at ringside, McCain refused to acknowledge a similar occurrence in MMA as viable evidence of the sport’s relative safety. This discrepancy should have raised more eyebrows. When McCain became chairman of the Commerce Committee in 1997, the National Cable Television Association stopped airing UFC events. It was a temporary death knell for the organization.

In response—and much like the UFC and Bellator’s actions today—the UFC answered this negative publicity with active, positive resolution. Bouts are now timed, weight classes are established, gloves are required. No groin strikes, no head butting, no blows to the back of the skull. No small joint manipulation, no neck hyperflexion. Cups and mouthpieces are mandatory. HIV testing, referees and medical equipment are commonplace. The list goes on.

By April 2000, the sport’s overhaul paid off. California became the first state in the United States to sign off on a set of codified rules that governed MMA, with New Jersey embracing the rule changes soon after. Measured against the public bashing of politician Roy M. Goodman’s claims that “no form of regulation that will make [MMA] acceptable,” the sport’s success only tasted sweeter.

McCain, arguably the greatest influence behind the UFC being banned nationwide and taken off pay-per-view in the late 1990s and early 2000s, had been MMA’s biggest adversary. But from the seeds of his doubt, the sport has blossomed with the intent focus of achieving proper regulation and sensible rules. Now, MMA and the UFC enjoy the fruits of their labor, securing the biggest publicity coup in the sport’s history.

“I have to give [McCain] credit,” UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta said last Tuesday. “Without him doing what he did back in the ’90s to force regulation, this sport would be dead. It wouldn’t exist. Honestly, for all the negatives he caused, he actually allowed the sport to foster and grow.”

Unlike the suppressive opposition MMA endured from politicians and mainstream media in its early days, the united forces of MMA are now suggesting, executing and financially backing tangible solutions. The sport has supplanted its vulnerability for more media-friendly authority through its commitment to brain trauma study. The PG sensitivities of politicians have been met by MMA’s leaders, without shamelessly deserting the sport’s values.

With this achievement, a symbol of effective regulation, perhaps mixed martial arts can finally lay the ghost of “human cockfighting” to rest.

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