Is Now The Right Time for Team Based MMA?


It all seems very familiar.

Last week, Ariel Helwani read off news about a new player in the world of mixed martial arts (MMA). It’s called “The World Fight League”, and the news created a small buzz because who doesn’t like more of something popular? MMA has grown a lot in popularity in recent years, but is too much? Too little? Or, is the timing just right?

First of all, who would not mind a new player in the world of MMA? Competition is good for business, just look at what’s going on in the world of pro-wrestling. The new player there (AEW), seems to be going head-to-head with the WWE.

But, for MMA, it’s been done before and always fizzled.

With the most recent attempt being, the MMA Pro League. A team concept from 2018 that looked like it had legs, but only held one event. Helwani listed a bunch of bullet points in his Substack post but the things that stood out were that the group's funding is, “made up of several former/current professional athletes from the world of NFL, NBA, and MMA, including multiple MMA world champions, five former respected MMA promoters, former MMA Executives and matchmakers, actors and recording artists.”

The other thing was its format; the league will consist of four conferences (North America, South America, Europe/Africa, Asia/Oceana), each conference will consist of no less than eight teams and no more than 24, each team will roster 24 athletes, comprising of three athletes per weight class, and that they are launching in North America first.

The team concept from the MMA Pro League, which seems very similar. Both promise/promised something fans have never seen, but obviously they have. And, if the MMA Pro League is not familiar enough, older MMA fans may remember the International Fight League (IFL).

The IFL was fun. It was co-founded by Gareb Shamus of Wizard: The Comics Magazine, and a real estate developer. They even had a presence at the New York Comic-con in 2008 just before they folded. The IFL didn’t leave without making a mark in the sport though. Fighters like Roy Nelson, Vladimir Matyushenko, and many others grew their brand and experience in the sport there before it ended.

They’re not the only ones looking to jump in the loop. Brave Combat Federation is looking to have a National League that will follow the FIFA model according to an announcement they made in the same week.

The problem with all these great ideas to reimagine MMA is that bringing a team format into something like combat sports, especially in a ruleset so close to real fighting, is that it’s always based on one-on-one competition. Often, fighters refer to their “team” but it is not in the sense of an NFL or NBA team. They are referring to those that helped them prepare for their fight. Sparring partners, coaches, managers, all help fighters up until their night to perform but on that night, it’s just them and their opponent’s that enter the cage or ring.

Someone that knows a thing or two about the fight game and how to market it is Campbell McLaren. McLaren is one of the co-founders of the UFC so he knows a thing or two about starting something that fans will get into. While he did have a hand in reimagining combat sports, he also seems to see this as a dead-end too. “The fight game doesn’t change,” McLaren wrote on Twitter, “ Cain and Able. David and Goliath. Two men or women enter. One leaves a winner. Reimagine something else.”

McLaren was responding to the comparison of The Professional Fighters League (PFL), an MMA promotion that has a seasonal format. The season champions also get $1-million dollars too. That league seems to be working, but it’s still one-vs-one.

So, has the sport of MMA grown so much that fans are ready for something new?

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