Fighting is entertainment. We all know it. If you’re the promoter, running a show, fighting comes down to a simple bottom line: Asses in seats.
Pay-per-view buys. Television ratings.
Promoters love to pretend they’re showcasing the best fighters in the world and fans pretend that’s what they want to see. The reality is something different.
If I’m a promoter, I want to showcase the most popular fighters in the world, that’s what I’m really interested in. Even 90% of real fight fans don’t want to see the best if it’s boring (look at what happened on HBO to Guillermo Rigondeaux).
They want what the general public wants—a bloody war and a narrative. They want to see a fight.
Fighters in the UFC don’t promise to win - they promise to put on a show. Humans are storytellers, it’s how we understand the world, and every fight needs a story, promoters have understood this since the days of Homer.
Give us Rocky. Give us the wily veteran versus the brash newcomer. Give us the striker versus the grappler. Give us…something.
When I met Chad “The Savage” George, he was fighting in the WEC at 135 pounds and poised to step up. He fought Scott Jorgenesen (in the top 10 at the time) and got caught right off the bat in Jorgensen’s bread-and-butter guillotine.
In his next fight, he lost a close decision to Antonio Banuelos, and that was it - out into the howling wilderness. Chad would not become part of the WEC/UFC merger.
Out in the cold.
Luckily for Chad, he’d been working with a talented German filmmaker, Andre Enzensberger, on a documentary called Occupation: Fighter. Now, there are a lot of MMA documentaries out there. Training looks good on camera and there are great stories everywhere.
However, enthusiasts who can’t bear to cut anything and who also have little grasp of editing and pacing are often the ones making MMA documentaries. Chad is funny, smart, educated and a charismatic guy.
He’s a good choice for a subject. He was doubly lucky in that he ran into a guy in Enzensberger with some real talent (also I should mention Chad is an accomplished visual artist and he got involved in the project’s nuts and bolts).
Occupation: Fighter isn’t the best documentary of all time, but it’s good, and far more importantly, it’s popular. It’s doing really, really, well.
Netflix alone has over 63,000 ratings and it’s estimated that only one of every hundred watchers gives a rating. The movie is also on TV in Brazil and Canada. The film makers are actually (gasp) making some money off of the documentary.
In MMA, notoriety is currency. This is a sport where guys can hype themselves into title fights, where the WWE is the business model, (which brings us back to narrative, which is what the WWE is all about - scripted fights and establishing narratives for the fans).
Chad describes it as finding a ‘loophole’ into MMA fame. But is it a purely positive thing? Or, is it a double-edged sword?
“There’s more pressure on me now,” Chad says.
“There’s more pressure on me now than I felt in the WEC. There’s more pressure for the comeback, from fans, from students… I get emails everyday from all over the world about that documentary.”
There’s more opportunity, as well, as promoters from all over the country reach out to him.
“A lot of guys, nobody cares about you, but somehow with this thing [the documentary] I’ve found a fan base without being in the UFC. I’ve lucked out into this fan base, and it’s worldwide. I have value to my name, I have a story, promoters can say ‘go watch his movie right now’ and I’m not just another veteran.”
I have to wonder, on some level, if the success of the movie is the thing keeping Chad in the fight game. Would he have retired without that film out there, existing, gaining fans, and creating this somewhat romanticized, courageous portrait? Does the film on some level own him, as he owns the film?
Chad recently had back surgery on a blown L5S1 disk, not atypical for a fighter who has wear-and-tear from a ten-year career. He’d hid the lingering injury from the film.
“I didn’t want the cortisol shots and epidurals I was taking to get through training camp to be in the movie,” he says.
Chad is a well-rounded fighter but as a former college wrestler, wrestling had always been a big part of his MMA game. I’m reminded of the iconic first lightweight UFC champion Jens Pulver who hurt his back, couldn’t shoot takedowns and had to try to knock everyone out standing, with mixed success, later in his career.
Chad’s feeling good now, even though he’s lost his last two fights (after winning three after being cut by Zuffa). The back surgery was a problem in the first, and ring rust was the issue in the second.
Can Chad make it? Is he good enough? He’s well aware of the dangers of being ‘good enough to get close.’
“If you get into the top ten, what does that even mean? Does that change your life?” he muses, shaking his head, no.
“My biggest thing is that I’m thirty-two and I’ll kill myself if I don’t give myself a real shot, now that I understand things. No one would fault me if I was to retire, I had a good career…but I would know.”
Chad’s un-awed by the best fighters at 135, “Don’t get me wrong, Faber, Barao, they’re total studs, but I know what I bring,” he says.
“I’ve trained with Faber and other great fighters and the difference is they refuse to lose. Their mindset was better than mine.”
Chad feels that with maturity and understanding, his skills have improved and kept pace with the best in the game—but most importantly, he’s got his mind right.
We’ll find out.
That’s the wonderful part about fighting—nobody cares how good the story is if you can’t win at the top. The other bottom line that everyone knows, the simple great truth, no matter how much a promoter promises ‘put on a good show and you’ll be back’ he’s lying and the fighters know it.
You gotta win, by hook or by crook. Winning is everything, in the end.
Rigondeaux, possibly the best boxer in the world, is grudgingly getting fights on HBO. Chad can talk the talk, and the movie can be #1 on Itunes, but in the end, he has to win.
He can take some easy fights, but when and if he gets back to the UFC, he’ll face a murderer’s row at 135, because the UFC’s model isn’t built around any fighter, it’s built around the brand. As such, they don’t have to protect anybody, or pad records.
All the filmmaking in the world won’t matter when the cage door shuts.
Sam Sheridan (http://worldismadeoffire.com/) is the author of the best-selling book, A Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of Fighting, as well as The Fighter's Mind: Inside the Mental Game. Sam's newest book is The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse is now available in both hard cover and paperback.