It’s been labelled “brutal” and “barbaric” by some, but just why has MMA spawned a whole generation of loyal fans in recent years?
Coral Barry is chief sports editor for boxing and MMA at Metro Sport. Sports Gazette got in touch with her to find out about this ever-growing sport, and what MMA is like in the UK right now.
How do you think MMA in the UK has changed, particularly the last 5 years?
“In the last 5 years it’s a completely different landscape. That’s mostly down to Conor McGregor because he is such a personality, and he kind of transcends the sport in a way that no one else has.
“He’s brought the sport into being more mainstream, whereas four or five years ago, MMA wouldn’t do any traffic, no one was interested, no one would know who anyone is even though there were some big English names.
“Fighters such as Michael Bisping has been around for 15 years and we have Brad Pickett as well who has been around for almost 20 but it was really Conor who brought it into the mainstream. The McGregor vs Mayweather saga threw MMA into the spotlight and got fans talking.
“But now we’re starting to see a bit of a drop-off in traffic, just because Conor hasn’t fought in an Octogan in over a year.”
A lot of people say the British fighters struggle with some aspects of MMA particularly wrestling. We don’t have a wrestling programme over here like they do in the states. Do you think this needs to change for us to see more British high level fighters?
“I don’t think that’s got a lot to do with it, I think it’s more of the coaching set up that’s here, it’s just not on the same level as in America that’s why you see so many British fighters going over there to train.
“Conor again is unique that he stayed with SGB in Ireland and Brett Johns who is seeing some success now has stated he’ll always stay with his team in Wales despite making it to the UFC, but Michael Bisping trains out in California where he now lives so I don’t think it’s a case of not having a wrestling programme here in the UK, it’s just the UK has always been playing catch-up and I don’t think the gyms here are on the same level as in the USA and Canada.
“If you’re in a town in the UK starting out, it’s important to build quality with consistency. In many parts of the UK, it’s just like the old days where fighters are traveling to one place to train Muay Thai then traveling to another gym to train Jiu-Jitsu and so on.
“You just can’t build a top level fighter like that. Joe Duffy mentioned it when he moved over to Tristar in Canada, saying he was just gobsmacked at the difference in quality.
“Over there, you’re constantly training and sparring with great competitors whereas over here, once you get to a good level you’re a big fish in a small pond!”
As of now, Michael Bisping and Darren Till are really the only main card guys representing Britain at the moment. With Bisping set to retire early next year, can we expect to see more British fighters on the UFC roster?
“Well there is Bret Johns and he still is undefeated and I think he will keep going and bridge that gap into the top 15.
“Similarly to boxing, that undefeated record is so important to keep people interested and it’s harder in MMA because it’s very unlikely that you’re going to go through your entire career without getting beaten, there’s just so many ways you can lose!
“Unfortunately, people will just loose interest once that undefeated record has gone but Darren Till is an interesting one.
“He last fought Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone and put on such an amazing performance and like you say, was a main event for him but I would expect Darren to headline for a main event in Britain but I wouldn’t expect him to headline over in the States just yet But, I do think Darren is definitely one for the future.
“Brad Pickets prodigy Nathaniel Wood is looking really good too even though he hasn’t had the call up from the UFC just yet.”
We’ve got some good guys in British organisations such as BAMMA, Cage Warriors and on the European circuit at the moment, do you think we’ll ever see these guys in the UFC?
“Nathaniel Wood is probably the most likely candidate to go to the UFC because not only is he an excellent fighter, but he’s got the connection through Brad Pickett.
“Michael ‘Venom’ Page is already with Bellator, but his record is deceptive as he’s never really fought any elite fighters and although he is incredibly entertaining, there’s now a real shout for him to be in the UFC.
“Paddy Pimblett is another personality and although an injury has set him back, if there ever was a UFC: Fight Night in Liverpool, the UFC would sign him up to fight on the card because he can draw people in.
“Nathan ‘Bag & Tag’ Jones is maybe a while off a call up from the UFC largely because of the fact he just doesn’t get the traction he deserves. BAMMA are a good organisation but because MMA in the UK is still growing, the British shows just don’t get that much traction, and exposure for fighters then suffers.”
Does the future look good for MMA in the UK?
“I think there’s going to be a big hole left when Michael Bisping retires, we’ve already lost Brad Pickett who retired earlier this year so now somebody needs to step up and into the role of ‘main card’ fighter.
“I assume Darren will step into that and perhaps Brett, but no one who has attracted the eye of UFC president Dana White more so than Darren has, so there are fighters there to step into those shoes but with MMA you just don’t know.
“From a journalist’s perspective though, excluding Conor McGregor, I’d say MMA is still far behind being mainstream.
“There just isn’t enough transcending fighters that brings the sport into everybody’s attention. That sets back the British guys as well because they can’t get on the cards that are attracting a million PPV buys.”
It’s likely there may be a ‘slump’ in up-and-coming UK fighters after Bisping retires, but there is no doubt MMA in the UK will be consistent amongst the mainstream sports in due time, as it’s just so entertaining to watch.
But for now, it would seem the UK is just waiting for its very own Conor McGregor.