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zuffa myth

Dana Doubleday

Zuffa Myth – Dana Doubleday

Americans have always been smitten with folklore; be it Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, or Davey Crockett, we just can’t help ourselves. The national pastime is no different, full of guilty pleasures that seem harmless, but still distort reality. You’d be hard pressed to find a baseball fan who hasn’t heard the tall tale of Abner Doubleday; you know that ole’ Civil War hero who “invented” baseball in a cow pasture.  After all, the Hall of Fame was established in his hometown, Cooperstown, New York right?  While the HOF does reside in upstate New York, even they don’t credit Doubleday as the father of baseball anymore.  Still, if you mention the iconic name at any ballpark across the country you’ll likely get that same reaction from older fans, a byproduct of special interests that played a good game of wagging the dog a century ago.

In the early 1900s baseball’s origin was murky and controversy struck a chord with certain patriotic bigwigs as rumors surfaced that that our “national game” might have English roots. While cricket and rounders may have been popular across the pond, sporting goods mogul Albert Spalding felt it advantageous to make sure baseball was an “American” sport invented by an “American.” Spalding organized a “fishing expedition” to solidify baseball’s roots once and for all—well, sort of.   Cue the dog and pony show; an exercise headed by The Mills Commission (essentially Spalding’s drinking buddies).  These crack investigators erroneously proclaimed Doubleday the brainchild of baseball after the flimsy testimony of one man who claimed to witness Doubleday’s notes.  The findings, lackluster to say the least, satisfied Spalding’s appetite, so he deemed no further investigation was necessary. For a good part of the 19th century the media bought the hype and sold it to a naïve public who still believe the story today.  It wasn’t until 1953 when Congress declared Alexander Cartwright as the inventor of baseball some 60 years after his death that set the record straight, but to be honest casual fans didn’t blink… Doubleday was their man.  Major League Baseball was committed to Cooperstown, and so were the masses.  Though thoroughly debunked, the hoax lives on today in modern lore.

Whether you want to believe the Doubleday facade was fabricated to boost morale, or created with ulterior motives, it was an agenda.  To this day good albeit gullible people believe that Doubleday invented baseball.  MMA is no less a casualty of the times; the victim of propaganda.  Of course Dana White didn’t invent MMA and doesn’t claim to, but how will the history books (blogs) remember his contributions 100 years from now?  Negative press haunted the UFC from its inception, so new ownership simply didn’t want painted by the same bad brush, hence the “Zuffa Myth.” Who could blame them really?  Like Spalding, The Fritetta brothers had a vested interest to protect their investment, secure a legacy and promote a mainstream “sport.”  Creating Dana “White Knight” was genius but it inadvertently distorted history. Art Davie and Rorion Gracie’s UFC is now the proverbial English cricket and SEG Entertainment relegated to rounders, both distant cousins that don’t resemble modern mixed martial arts—at all.  More importantly, your local tribune or gazette has been endorsing the idea for years.   It’s the power of “first” impressions.  If we’ve learned anything from baseball’s narrative, Abner Doubleday became the media darling, and so the “Zuffa Myth” is poised to be the version fans tell their grandchildren.

As time marches on, seemingly innocent embellishments a decade ago have created “Dana Doubleday,” the be-all and end-all of MMA.  This version of Dana White is media endorsed exaggeration that has permanently blurred historic lines. White was able to parlay a longshot into a multi-billion dollar industry, launching MMA to unparalleled heights. That of itself makes him a winner. He deserves a lot of credit, just not all the credit. As pre-Zuffa contributions continue to fade away into obscurity, so do the pioneers who fought in the trenches to establish a sport, much less the trailblazers who paved the way before the UFC.  Innovators like Frank Caliguri or Bill Viola (the first to test drive the sport) aren’t even in the conversation, but do deserve a voice.

A question emerges, is MMA following the dark path of “Doublethink” mentality?:

“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them….to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary.”     –George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Zuffa Myth

Conspiracy? Ignorance? Maybe a little of both?  No matter what you believe, it’s not too late to give the sport due diligence. The MMA community should embrace the past as it won’t tarnish the future.  The struggles CV faced (worthy of a movie) only validate the obstacles that UFC were able to overcome.  Bill Viola and Frank Caliguri have come to terms with UFC’s success; they aren’t a threat.  You won’t find them criticizing or challenging the UFC, if anything they respect Zuffa. No retaliation or embarrassing gimmicks are in the works a la Art Davie’s XARM. Hybrid kickboxing/arm wrestling—really?  No, MMA was CV’s ticket and they admit the UFC punched it well.  Zuffa doesn’t owe them “anything” but they should be thankful for “everything.”  Everyone from Art Davie to Dana White and all in between can thank the Pennsylvania state legislature for banning MMA in 1983, because without them the UFC as we know it would have never existed.  But Dana White isn’t losing any sleep over The Godfathers of MMA; he was able to cash in on a diamond in the rough.  He didn’t steal the gem; he just polished it and did a damn good job.  Just don’t forget that treasure passed through many hands:

CV Productions (1979) to WOW Promotions (1993) to SEG Entertainment (1995) to Zuffa (2001-present).

If MMA wants to be considered the crown jewel, then the UFC should treat MMA’s history as a priceless commodity; handle it with the same reverence as boxing, baseball, football and all the other great American institutions have. Major League Baseball has made mistakes, gaffes, and errors along the way, but they amend their books.  Will the UFC do the same?  They certainly aren’t obligated to, MMA is a free market, but they are the 800-pound gorilla and the world is watching. The UFC can’t be expected to honor competitors or rivals, but CV Productions pre-dates them.  That in and of its self gives them a pass, the opportunity to do the right thing and say yeah, those guys really were pioneers.  While Royce Gracie will always be remembered as the Babe Ruth of MMA, a group of men “existed” and played before those stars were born.  They also deserve a permanent place in the annals of history.

It’s never been a question of White’s acumen; he and the Fertitta brothers are the reason MMA is a cash cow. Like Thomas Edison’s claim to fame, they didn’t invent the light bulb; they just knew how to sell it—Capitalism at its finest.  But 100 years from now, will fans remember the history of “MMA” or just Dana Doubleday’s UFC?  It may be of little consequence now, but the Alexander Cartwrights of mixed martial arts should be given recognition before it’s too late.

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Bill Viola

Bill Viola Jr. is an award winning author who experienced the Golden Era of Mixed Martial Arts (1979-1983). As an historian of MMA, he's published the best selling books "Godfathers of MMA" and "Tough Guys," and produced the Showtime documentary film Tough Guys.

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