Opinion: Deconstructing the Stepping Up Myth

By Danny Acosta Apr 14, 2016

It’s time to distinguish praise for stepping up to fight a well-prepared opponent without adequately training oneself from the hard fact that the opportunity is born out of a slanted offer that should not be celebrated with applause.

Stepping up is given more positive spin because we constantly see the ugly opposite side of it all too often: Those asserting their right to not fight the world’s best on short notice are called cowards. Legitimate injuries are being dissed, as fighters are criticized by their opponent -- and others in high places -- for being scared or faking an injury.

Fighters like stepping up on short notice even with potentially damaging outcomes because doing so results in what amounts to a surprise paycheck. At other times, an interim championship might be in play, whatever that’s worth. This is all to disguise what has become overwhelmingly obvious: “Stepping up” is bro code for pumping up someone who brings a knife to a gunfight.

Nate Diaz’s post-UFC 196 media appearances have done much to contextualize this issue. Fighters are tired of being treated like inconsequential nuisances or afterthoughts until they are needed to bail promoters out of an injury-near-fight-night bind. Few garner the kind of favor that’s equivalent to being represented by an individual promoter rather than a league filled by disposable independent contractors. The search for a late-replacement opponent is akin to fighters scratching a lotto ticket while they hope to be granted the lucrative open slot in whatever high-profile matchup fell apart. The reason: It’s the quickest way to court the promotion’s favor in a world where there’s little criteria for what constitutes loyalty. Simply training, fighting hard and fulfilling media obligations isn’t enough; fighters are rewarded for being on-call, even though they aren’t being compensated for it.

It’s not just the fight that’s subject to change, either. Weight classes are, too. The Diaz-Conor McGregor feud -- where the reigning featherweight champion was submitted by a perennial lightweight at 170 pounds -- will continue with their rematch, again at 170 pounds, at UFC 200 on July 9. It’s the best example of the fight game stretching its nebulous standards.

There’s a certain allure to how badass it is for someone to step off the couch into competition and excel. It’s why Diaz’s post-fight UFC 196 comment resonates so much: “I’m not surprised, mother [expletives].” That doesn’t change the fact that Diaz assumed unnecessary danger. Look at Chad Mendes, McGregor’s previous short-notice opponent from eight months prior. McGregor might have cracked Mendes’ chin for good, if Frankie Edgar’s first-round KO of the Team Alpha Male ace is any indicator.

Since his trademark victory against McGregor, Diaz has publically laughed off the promotion’s justifications to provide the Irishman with a mulligan. Diaz never received such consideration, nor does the majority of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s roster. McGregor has been celebrated for taking short-notice opponents despite the matchups favoring him, as he was in a 25-minute title-fight training camp each time. Between Diaz and Mendes, McGregor -- through no fault of his own -- was going to benefit from facing two men with less than a month’s notice to fight combined.

Diaz spoiled those plans, but as he mentioned in an ESPN.com interview, he’s still waiting on compliments from the promotion for which he has fought for nearly a decade. It was far more difficult than what McGregor has battled against -- especially since “Notorious” asked for and was granted an immediate rematch with Diaz -- yet the SBG Ireland rep is still the promotion’s epicenter of appreciation.

MMA is self-defense, so lowering the threshold to which a fighter can defend himself is stacking the odds in one direction almost to a criminal degree. Stepping up is a celebrated feature because “the show must go on,” but fighters are beginning to recognize the fact that there is no show without them. They are not replaceable with a few phone calls.

What separates mixed martial arts as a sport is the preparation time required to approach a physical confrontation with proper respect and survive it with one’s faculties intact. It’s not a random fight that occurs in the real world where no preparation is the norm.

It’s an extreme circumstance, but there is a fine line where MMA constantly borders on the extreme. Remember, in February, Dhafir Harris, aka “Dada 5000,” was foiled after an alleged 40-pound weight cut and more than 10 minutes in a fight with 42-year-old brawler Kimbo Slice. Slice had terrible cardio to push the pace and then failed a post-fight drug test for steroids, but it still was enough to nearly introduce Harris to his maker. It was a disgusting reminder that MMA can be more about dollars at any cost than showcasing worthwhile athletes in controlled environments they are ready to handle.

Harris is essentially a part-time, low-level professional by the loosest definition. That shouldn’t prevent us from recognizing how challenging fighting is to mortality on a regular basis. The upcoming Season 24 of “The Ultimate Fighter” will feature the flyweight division. Over a 12-week filming period, a fighter can cut weight and fight up to four times. Weight cutting becomes more rigorous the lower the weights go -- a lesson that has been learned repeatedly in amateur wrestling and boxing. MMA demands more preventive measures, not more business as usual. With the exception of the rare heavyweight season, “The Ultimate Fighter” raises this issue each time filming commences and when it airs, too, although the subject is largely bypassed with this tired response: “Make weight or you’re an [expletive].”

There are ways to step up, like if a fighter competes twice in one night. The benefit: It’s one less weight cut in a grueling career. Still, it might be dubious, but it is possible to regulate where a fighter will not suffer more damage than he or she would during regular time constraints against one opponent. The fact is fighting is already one of the hardest jobs in the world without the absurd weight-cutting culture or cheap promotional tricks.

Weight cutting is a ritual amplified by short-notice situations. The list is too long and jarring to document here. Just know it happens too often. What a fighter and his or her opponent weigh on fight night is a significant negotiating point. The desired agreement is about balancing competitiveness, fairness and finance.

A recent study on human sacrifice from the University of Auckland resulted in these findings: “That in order for human sacrifice to be exploited by social elites, there must first be social elites to exploit it.”

Of course, fighters are not coerced ritual sacrifices. People in ritual sacrifice were killed in the name of a supernatural entity. The element of life and death is still ever-present in combat sports, though, no matter how sanitized, palpable or welcome the activity may seem to society. How do those findings apply to modern MMA? The sport is not free from different exploitations that mirror or affirm long-held or emergent social norms.

It’s why it’s irresponsible to call this martial arts iteration “sports entertainment” or anything similar. Compartmentalizing it to entertainment where compensation is based on how much money a star makes for the producers fails to reach other professional sporting standards enabled by unions, player associations and other protections for the athletes that, yes, entertain. It demeans the risk in the live-combat scenario, treating it like something fake on television or in movies where all the participants go home unscathed. It’s not even true for scripted pro wrestling, so the more MMA ventures toward forgetting about damage done on the last event and thirsting for the next one, the more it feeds the monster that leaves fighters in the dust.

Fighters -- if they are lucky -- are known simultaneously as wealthy, international athletes and the people hardest hit by the “gig economy” shift, with little to no future assurance for a pension, retirement and healthcare, no matter where in the world they reside. It’s a high-stakes rags-to-riches game in which poverty of wealth and health should remain under intense scrutiny.

With instantly gratifying social media, prizefighting is shaping up into a modern, live-action sacrifice display. The difference is it’s an economic exercise rather than a spiritual ritual for its core purpose and observers. Pro fights exist under supernatural economics, a system in which an obfuscated meritocracy lines bank accounts for a few and causes everyone else to scrounge for whatever financial scraps they are granted. That has been the powerful force behind McGregor’s rich -- literal and figurative -- appeal in calling the shots.

On Diaz’s UFC.com profile, he is asked, “What was your job before you started fighting?” The reply: “High school student.”

Stepping up isn’t an applicable trait for a resume once a fighter is done. Fighting is a small window to establish an athlete’s post-combat life. Fighting for the eye on the pyramid is a double-edged sword. How fighters live and die by that sword in the sport’s next maturation phase will be telling. Will fighters receive stronger protections from built-in pitfalls or regress further into the gig economy abyss, believing stepping up is always worth it?

Danny Acosta is a SiriusXM Rush (Channel 93) host and contributor. His writing has been featured on Sherdog.com for nearly a decade. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @acostaislegend.

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