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Editorial: Finally The Little Guys Are Getting A Fair Shake

Many’s the time you will hear me preaching the virtues of the little guy in MMA, and with ever increasing coverage of shows like WEC by the media, it seems they are beginning to get the credit they deserve. I present to you exhibit A: Miguel Torres’s title defense against Takeya Mizugaki. There was a time, not too long ago, when 95% of MMA fans couldn’t have told you which fighter was Torres and which was Mizugaki. Okay, perhaps I exaggerate, but the likes of Torres, who now graces every pound for pound list in the world, would never have received a mention on a forum or tv show. Not least due to his fantastic attitude and immense knowledge of MMA, the WEC Bantamweight champ now appears regularly as a panelist on MMA shows and is a huge source of excitement in the MMA community. This all begs the question; What kept the little guys down so long, and what must happen for the lower divisions to realize their full potential?
For a long, long time boxing has successfully sold its smaller fighters to the public, with such greats as Roberto Duran, Julio César Chávez, Oscar De La Hoya, Sugar Shane Mosley, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao becoming household names along the way. However, despite the tremendous quality of their boxing, the lighter fighters have never had it as easy as their heavyweight counterparts, generally garnering less recognition among casual fans and making a fraction of the money. There’s a school of thought that people are less impressed when they look at a fighter and contemplate that, with the size advantage, it’s possible they could give them a fight (trust me, even 125 lb champ Shinichi “BJ” Kojima would paste us all, and he would fit in your pocket). Of course, were the fans to take the time to watch them, they’d surely appreciate the superior skills, speed and conditioning of the scrawnier scrappers. Maybe the best most little guys can hope for is to have the respect of the fans. Then there are the exceptions to the rule. Sometimes all it takes is one exciting, charismatic warrior to draw mainstream attention to an entire division, just as Oscar De La Hoya shared his limelight with Mayweather, Pacquiao etc. Perhaps fans are so excited by Torres because he may just be that one; A teak tough Mexican with near perfect technique in every facet of the game, outstanding athleticism and a warrior spirit. A glimpse of one of his or Urijah Faber’s fights should be enough to catch the attention of the most ardent “I only watch UFC” fan. An additional benefit of Mexican and the Japanese fighters’ success at the lower weight classes is their ability to draw the curiosity of fans from new demographics toward MMA.
With unbelievable talents like Faber, Torres, Mike Brown and co. bubbling under the surface, it’s hard to see why the lower weight classes have never broken through before in the West, until you look at the history of the sport. The UFC began as an open weight tournament, only beginning to use weight classes at all in 1997. They created a lightweight division in 2000, but dissolved it from 2002 until late 2006 due to a perceived lack of interest. The majority of the talent migrated to King of the Cage, various regional promotions, and Japanese organizations, such as Shooto, DEEP, ZST and later PRIDE FC. Since none of these smaller promotions had an outlet to reach the US fan, fighters were doomed to live in relative obscurity, they would not generally prove good attractions for promoters and the cycle perpetuated itself. Among the hardcore fans Shooto has long been a favorite, as guys like Takanori Gomi, Rumina Sato, Kid Yamamoto, “Lion” Takeshi Inoue and many more continued kicking ass and taking names under the radar. Unfortunately, most Shooto events have not been made available with English commentary, making it hard to become engaged by the action for the average viewer.
As the UFC and PRIDE Fighting Championships expanded their rosters to include lightweights, the world became aware of just how much ferocity, technique, stamina and explosion the smaller fighters brought to the table. As the UFC’s parent company Zuffa saw the interest in the lightweight division, they elected to purchase the promotion WEC and begin to market the bantamweight and featherweight divisions. With their ability to sell the WEC to the casual fan, the UFC has recently pointed the media spotlight on the smaller fighters, and the divisions are gathering momentum fast. WEC 39, headlined by Mike Brown vs Leonard Garcia, two featherweights, did a 0.6 rating on the Versus network. This just goes to show that even two of the less heralded, though equally talented fighters in the low weight classes have the fans’ attention. The world’s best bantamweights and featherweights are now flocking to the WEC, where top ranked fighters are now colliding regularly. Japan’s largest MMA promotions – DREAM and Sengoku – are holding featherweight tournaments, which will no doubt uncover future greats and solidify the stature of some veterans. Most tellingly, the WEC plans to introduce a 125 pound division, providing an opportunity for thousands of dedicated pint sized MMA practitioners to fight for their slice of the pie.
So things are looking up for the little guy in the MMA world. However, there are still steps to be taken to ensure the continued success of these divisions. Good match making can make sure the best in each weight class lock horns regularly and that exciting fights are the result. The media need to recognize the talent and charisma of guys like Faber, Torres, Kid Yamamoto, Brian Bowles and Jose Aldo, and bare in mind the example of Yamamoto’s stardom in Japan, where he is without doubt the biggest (and ironically one of the smallest) stars in the sport. English commentary coverage of Japanese promotions will provide viewers the background stories which will keep them emotionally invested in the fights. Lastly, and certainly not least, we the fans need to get behind our favorite small fighters and take interest in the divisions where these phenomenal athletes do their thing. After watching wars from some of the shows WEC has put on lately, I’m left wondering why I’d ever bother watching a heavyweight fight again.