In the past few years, mixed martial arts has enjoyed remarkable commercial success. Some fans imagine that its popularity is a result of its vast technical superiority over traditional martial arts styles. But neither MMA techniques nor training methods are particularly innovative; much of what you see in the competition ring was pioneered decades or even centuries ago.
The recent success of the MMA product is best explained with a sociological model, not a technical one; and this model predicts an inevitable fall from grace. MMA will decay, like every style before it, into a traditional martial art.
MMA and the Product Lifecycle
MMA is more than a martial art, or combination of arts; it is a multi-million dollar industry. It is a product sold on pay-per-view television and in training halls across the United States and the world. And like any other object of commerce, it is subject to the product lifecycle.
Credit: Nate Bailey
The lifecycle model defines the different stages that all products travel through on their journey from birth to death. These life stages are marked by shifts in market awareness, profitability, and competition; and most importantly, by a migration in the psychology of the consumer.
Philosophically speaking, today’s MMA is an expression of heterodoxy, a rejection of traditions gone stale. As such, this modern style has attracted many of the best and brightest fighters: men and women who, in an earlier age, might have practiced a purer form of Judo or Taekwondo. In the language of business, these people are known as innovators and early adopters.
The vanguard of every product adoption curve is composed of such consumers. Statistically, these individuals are younger, richer, and more risk-tolerant than the marketplace as a whole. They prove a product’s potential, escorting it from obscurity to commercial success.
MMA: A Tradition in the Making
Pokemon and Digimon
Entering the this stage of rapid product growth, competition floods the marketplace. Producers introduce variations on the product, to target the mainstream and low-end consumer, with the goal of maximizing income. After Pokemon, we got Digimon; similarly, the UFC concept has been extended to dozens of televised MMA competitions and reality shows.
As the novelty and quality associated with the art starts to fade, early adopters will be the first to abandon it. Transitioning out of the growth stage into maturity (market saturation), MMA will be directed by a very different psychology.
Late adopters of any product are by definition conservative and risk-averse. They reject change, and embrace the familiar. These are the consumers of “traditional” martial arts products, and MMA producers will adapt to suit their tastes. To do anything less would be bad business.
So, industry marketing teams will re-discover the values of “discipline, respect and honor”—as profitable euphemisms for non-threatening social stability. Unpredictable elements of the authentic traditional practice, such as free sparring, will be de-emphasized. After-school “kiddie MMA” will rise to prominence.
Big business will choke the vitality out of modern mixed martial art, but we should not shed a tear for its demise. This is the circle of life, and hasn’t every decrepit traditional art we recognize today followed the same course?