MMA in Massachusetts: Taking it to the Internet
Pop quiz on local asskicking culture: Massachusetts is a fighters’ state — but which kind of fighting? If you answered boxing, yes, okay, you’re right. But the answer I was really going for is mixed martial arts (MMA). If you’re unfamiliar with the sport, let me give you the 30-second rundown: it’s punching, kicking, kneeing, elbowing, and wrestling for submissions. It’s actually pretty safe, it’s not “anything goes,” and no, it’s not filled with thugs looking for blood. And as I touch on in my profile of Bridgewater’s computer-nerd-turned-pro-fighter Joe Lauzon, it’s also a pretty big deal around here.
Truth be told, Massachusetts has been rocking it with the sport since the day the first UFC kicked off in 1993 and started everything. Locally, MMA has way outpaced boxing in sheer number of events — heck, as I say in the piece, last year, there were six times as many MMA events in Massachusetts as there were boxing — and that doesn’t get into all the fights around the entire New England area. Nationally, we’ve been sending a steady stream of locals to the UFC since day one, and we’re a regular feeder for smaller national promotions like Bellators, not to mention the UFC’s reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter (where, as I type, Lauzon MMA protégée Joe Proctor is tearing it up).
But of all the angles that didn’t make it in, the one I most missed including was how this region has interacted with MMA digitally. Primo example: one of the most dominant, longest-lived, and definitely most notorious MMA websites in the world, mixedmartialarts.com (formerly mma.tv), was founded right in Amherst by a guy named Kirik Jenness (the same guy who co-authored the sport’s first technique book). It’s been an online news and discussion home for the sport since back in the days when it was yanked from Pay-Per-View and damn near driven into the ground. Even now, though the pool of rival websites has grown exponentially, it’s the still place where everyone from the president of the UFC on down to individual fans across the globe will post, debate, and announce news and glory in their sport of choice.
“The hardcore Internet fandom has been fostered a lot by Massachusetts, and that’s something that still exists to this day,” Jack Encarnacao, a local writer for another large MMA site, Sherdog.com, told me during an interview for the piece. “It’s the fact that the key platform for the sharing ideas — which has always been so important to the sport — and the debate, and shit fights started there. That’s huge. If the Underground [the site’s primary forum] didn’t exist, it’s tough to say where people would’ve even gotten the blueprint to create an online coverage model for MMA.”
Curiously, Lauzon of all people did something very similar at the hyperlocal level when he, with fighter friends throughout the region, redesigned early MMA news site massmma.net, added a forums of sorts (the commenting system) and transformed it into northeastmma.net. That, too, became a centralized stomping ground for the locals, giving the circuit right here a solid regional identity, above and beyond what it could have had otherwise. And when in 2005, the boxing commission backed away from its role in regulating local MMA and left the entire Mass. MMA field to police itself for the next four years (yeah, that happened. It realized it had never had any actual legal authority to do its regulating and it took it four years to add something to the lawbooks) — that website became ground zero for news, coordination, and discussion for the entire crew.
Fighters always get the attention as, well, they probably should. They are the ones out there putting it on the line. But there’s something seriously cool about seeing how guys from this area not only seized upon the sport as something to train in, but to stick online. “We have people that are capable of seeing this interest online and leveraging it into forums, just knowing how to build a forum.” Encarnacao told me. “People who could match their passion for the sport with technical know-how and providing a platform the world shares. It’s not just about the athletes we’ve put out.” In other words: It’s also about our MMA memes.