“ARE you not entertained?”
This was what actor-turned-momentary cagefighter Baron Geisler yelled to the crowd after his two-round URCC exhibition bout with Kiko Matos, which ended in a draw. That Geisler chose to quote a likewise fictional badass, Maximus from Gladiator, served as an ironic final note to a fight that reeked controversy from the very start.
That statement, however, perfectly sums up what the night was meant to achieve: to entertain the fans. But the question is: Did that entertainment come at the expense of the sport?
Going into URCC Fight Night, fans had mixed emotions about the celebrity match.
“This is definitely, absolutely great. Keep the fights off the street and in the cage,” MMA fan Duke Villanueva posted on social media - a view that obviously wasn't shared by another diehard fan.
“It's as if URCC supported the bar fight and even used it to their advantage,” another fan named Gabriel added his counter argument online.
These sentiments have valid points and represent opposing ends of fight fans’ reception toward the match.
On one end, URCC was preaching its age-old message to settle feuds through sport before they boil over into the public, where innocent bystanders could get hurt.
On the flipside, however, you couldn’t help but worry if people would see street fighting as a means of viral fame. Or perhaps see MMA as a mere breeding ground for angsty war freaks, looking for a legal means to hurt each other.
The Bigwasan Effect
Whatever side fans took toward the anticipated URCC Fight Night, there was no denying one thing: People were talking about Geisler vs. Matos - and consequently about MMA.
Clothing brands, social media pages, and showbiz and sports websites alike enjoyed a boost this past month through the sheer interest the fight generated. Everyone wanted to hop on board the #Bigwasan hype train, which soon became somewhat of a pop culture sensation.
Come fight night, the magnetism of Geisler vs. Matos was apparent. The Valkyrie Night Club that played host to the event was packed from wall to wall. Fans were literally cageside. And at that rate, URCC president Alvin Aguilar told us the event could’ve had even more attendees if not for the limited capacity of the venue.
“We had 2,000 plus people inside, then we had to turn away another 2,000,” Aguilar told SPIN.ph. “The hype that the ‘exhibition fight’ created was something else.“
Ultimately, the highly anticipated celebrity showdown underwhelmed. The skills and best efforts of both actors paled in comparison to those of the professional fighters, whom they had the honor of sharing the card with — which is, of course, only natural. And after two rounds, both Geisler and Matos were done, exhausted, and unable to continue into the final tiebreaking round. The fight ended in a draw.
Both men made amends after the bout, showcasing that healthy competition can, indeed, bring about respect and humility between two rivals who just spent a full month shaming each other in public.
But at what cost? What price did the growing MMA scene in the Philippines have to pay for all the antics, trash talk, the pre-fight hype the match fell short of matching?
Capturing a new audience
The perspective of one newbie MMA fan, who was so intrigued by the Geisler-Matos showdown that she decided to watch it live, could help give clarity to the effects of the hyped-up URCC event had on the sport.
Let’s get things straight, the Geisler-Matos match was not meant to win over hardcore fans (who are, by definition, already won over). Whether or not they supported the battle of the celebrities, they’ll likely still tune in for the next URCC event.
Instead, this card was meant to get mainstream attention and to draw new pairs of eyes onto the sport. If that was the goal, then the URCC succeeded with flying colors.
Take Katrina Guevarra, for example, a 20-something professional who headed into Valkyrie on Saturday night with her boyfriend, Alec, mainly because of the lure of the Geisler-Matos fight. It was her first time to ever attend an MMA event.
“It was great! I didn't know that watching people skillfully beat each other up could be so much fun,” she said with a laugh.
What made the event even more enjoyable for her and Alec were the hardcore fans sitting (or standing) next to them, who she said “couldn’t care less” about the Baron-Kiko fight. These fans explained to the couple who the other fighters on the card were and what was happening inside the cage.
But here’s the catch. Guevarra also noted that while she came mainly for the Geisler-Matos fight, it was the other bouts that really caught her fancy.
“Geisler vs. Matos was entertaining, but not as action-filled as the other matches that night,” she shared. “I liked the other matches better, especially the one between [John] Adajar and [Jericho] Tomagan.”
“I had a good time and I want to see more MMA action. I think the event effectively introduced MMA to non-MMA fans like me,” added Guevarra, who said she’d watch another URCC card in the future, even if there weren’t any celebrity matches on it.
We don’t know if Guevarra's view represented the thoughts of most of the MMA newbies at Valkyrie that night, or for just a small percentage. But if there are even just a handful who shared her sentiment, then Geisler vs. Matos would have played a pivotal role in getting non-MMA fans interested in the sport.
It was the entertainment value of the card that got non-MMA fans to tune in. And once they were inside the MMA circle, the sport took care of the rest.
When it’s all said and done, URCC Fight Night took a big risk in order to lure new fans into the sport. Time will tell if the gamble was worth it.
Gab Pangalangan is the founder and president of DojoDrifter.com, the Philippines' ultimate source of the latest MMA news, trends, training updates, and insights. He’s also a judo and jiu-jitsu champion.