As internet users, we’re all familiar with the abbreviation “LOL”. It may be one of the most ubiquitous terms we encounter daily during informal, text-based communication: internet forums & message boards, social media, SMS and various other real-time text messaging apps. LOL stands for “laughing out loud”; of course people rarely actually laugh out loud while typing away at their computer or a phone. At most, they might crack a grin. Nonetheless, LOL has become the most common way of expressing amusement in a text chat. It can also be used sarcastically – to shoot down a blog post, comment, statement, or dismiss an opinion that one finds so ludicrous that it doesn’t deserve a proper response or counter-argument. When you see a simple “lol” in response to something you’ve stated that wasn’t meant to be funny, the other person is laughing at you, not with you. A three-letter retort which indicates that you’re worthy of ridicule, no more and no less.
Now, the abbreviation LOL could come to mean something very different in the context of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA): League of Legends. If you haven’t heard, Vitor Belfort is making a pitch to the UFC brass to create some type of a “masters” division in the UFC, where aging legends of the sport can face each other under a modified rule set. At first, the idea appeared so absurd to me that the abbreviation LOL seemed very fitting. However, I’ll try to be a bit more open-minded and list a few reasons why I think this is a terrible idea.
First, let’s take a look at the list of rules that Belfort proposed for the League of Legends: “Three-minute rounds with 90 seconds of rest in between. No elbows or knees. Fighting on the ground would be limited to 30 seconds at a time.” Hmm. Is this a rule set designed to be easier on an older fighter’s body? Or is it one that’s tailor-made to Belfort’s strengths, while limiting his weaknesses? Shorter rounds – check. Belfort has always been a spurt fighter whose best offence comes in the opening minutes of the first two rounds. At no point in his career has Vitor had a deep gas tank. 30-second limit on the ground – check. Despite being a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (he was even billed as Victor Gracie early in his career), Belfort has always been in trouble once the fight hit the mat. Thirty seconds might just allow Belfort to stall until the stand-up, because getting back to his feet after a takedown is one skill this legend never quite mastered. No elbows or knees? When was the last time we’ve seen Belfort use these as significant weapons? For some odd reason, Belfort also calls for bigger MMA gloves. I have a feeling that Belfort’s long time rival Randy Couture – as well as his contemporaries, fellow legends, and one-time opponents such as Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva – would all have very different opinions on what the rules for this League of Legends should look like.
Next issue: who is going to determine a fighter’s eligibility to compete in the League of Legends? We can’t simply go by a fighter’s age, as fighters don’t all start their careers at the same time, don’t fight at the same frequency, and take varying amounts of abuse in training camps as well as in the actual fights. All this contributes to large disparities between a fighter’s physical age, and the ability of their body to perform at the peak level. There are a number of UFC fighters pushing 40 who are still champions or in title contention. On the other hand, there are fighters who suffer a precipitous drop in their abilities barely after turning thirty (Miguel Torres comes to mind, among others). While generally the higher weight divisions are more forgiving of age as the fighters tend to rely more on power than speed, there is no set age at which an MMA fighter can be considered over the hill. Participation in the League of Legends would have to be self-determined by the fighter, with perhaps some input from their management and coaching team, and the promoter (in this case UFC). So, what happens when UFC decides that a fighter is ready for the League of Legends, while the fighter believes they can still hang with the best 25-year-old in their weight class?
Finally, even if we settle on the rule set and define a clear-cut criteria for participation, whom does this League of Legends actually benefit – is it the fans, the fighters, the promoters? If there’s a net positive for all parties involved, perhaps this is something that should come into existence, as silly as it seems at the first glance. Let’s use Bellator as a case study. Since taking over the chief executive position formerly held by Bjorn Rebney, Scott Coker has not shied away from signing well known fighters who are far past their primes, and building ‘tent-pole events’ around these fighters. Bellator has consistently struggled to promote home-grown talent into stardom, retain the stars they were actually able to develop, or leverage the few elite fighters they were able to score on the free agency market. The one thing that Bellator has had consistent success with is the ratings of the tent-pole events, which showcase the stars of yesteryear like Ken Shamrock, Royce Gracie, Tito Ortiz et al. So it seems that fans still have interest in seeing the legends compete – even if they produce sloppy fights devoid of much action, or end up in shenanigans that leave the audience muttering “this fight was fixed” to themselves. And if the fans are tuning in, the promoters are obviously making money.
That leaves us with the fighters. Are the aging MMA stars better off with an option to keep competing against other legends who are at a similar place in their careers, than facing the choices of retiring or continuing to fight the young lions? My feeling is no. MMA is not a sport for old men (or women). Ice Cube’s BIG3 basketball league – featuring retired hoops legends in 3 on 3 games with modified rules – will probably turn out to be a failure, but it might produce some enterntaining moments along the way. But shooting hoops is a whole different animal than shooting for takedowns while getting punched and kicked in the head by your opponent. Even when your opponent has just as much fight mileage as you do, and are also not able to get their body to respond the way it used to, they’re still a professional fighter who was at one point an elite in the sport and has decades of training in the art of turning someone’s lights off. When a fighter’s chin is shot, and they get knocked out time after time, by increasingly lesser level of competition – it’s time to call it quits. Of course, nobody can force a man to retire, and if they can no longer get fights in the UFC, there are other promotions who will welcome them with open arms. Ultimately it’s a personal choice, but I find it sad to watch a fighter in his 40’s who was once on top of the world, struggle to do what once came to them so easily.
Josh Koscheck is a good example of this. An alumnus of the very first season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’, Koscheck had a very successful UFC career despite never winning a world title. After accumulating a 15-5 record in his first 20 fights inside the Octagon, Koscheck lost five in a row and was stopped in his last four UFC outings. UFC rightfully declined to renew Josh’s contract, and a few months later he announced the signing of a new contract with Bellator. It took a while for Josh to make his Bellator debut. When he finally stepped back into the cage last month, he was stopped in the first round by Mauricio Alonso: an opponent only a couple of years younger than Koscheck, who had almost as long of a fighting career, except I don’t recognize the name of a single opponent he defeated and only a couple of the names of opponents he lost to. Not a legend, not a young prospect, just another journeyman nearing the end of his career – and yet Koscheck was not able to generate any offense in the fight and was put out by the first solid shot he received. Not a good look for a legend. Would it have been a better look if his opponent has been another legend, say BJ Penn for example? I fail to see how that would have played out any better. We would either still see Koscheck take more unnecessary brain damage, just like he did against Alonso, or we would see him beat up another legend who deteriorated even more than the current version of Kos. Either way, it would be a sad spectacle.
To sum it up, I don’t see how UFC establishing a ‘League of Legends’ under their banner benefits aging fighters. They can still choose to battle young prospects, like Anderson Silva is doing. They can continue their careers in another country or a smaller promotion, like Antonio ‘Bigfoot’ Silva chose to do when UFC decided to not re-sign him. They can move on to Bellator, like Ortiz, Chael Sonnen, Stephen Bonnar, Josh Koscheck – this is likely the closest thing to a League of Legends that Belfort dreams of. Or they can decide to use their skills to train the next generation of fighters. Holding focus pads for the next big star is a lot better for an older legend’s long-term health than waking up staring at the arena lights and wondering what happened, time and time again.
And maybe I should just not take anything Vitor Belfort says seriously. After all, Vitor just called out CM Punk for the final fight of his UFC contract. One word: LOL!