Renowned sports personality Stephen A. Smith came to the defense of mixed martial arts (MMA) during a recent heated discussion with Chris “Mad Dog” Russo.
Despite still being in its relative infancy, MMA has grown rapidly since the creation of the UFC in 1993. Now, the developing sport is the fastest growing financially, with a Parimatch study earlier this year having it top across the past five years.
Beyond money, though, the sport has captured new audiences across the world, both through the rise of regional promotions and the global venture of the UFC. MMA’s premier promotion has been across the planet in the past decade, selling out arenas in countries like Mexico, Poland, the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore, Brazil, Abu Dhabi, and Sweden.
That global expansion is set to continue at the next event, with the UFC visiting France for the first time with a card in the European nation’s famous capital.
Surely all that equals a sport, right? Not if your name is Chris Russo.
During Wednesday’s episode of First Take, “Mad Dog” made his feelings clear about MMA when the topic of Dana White‘s role in pushing sport through the COVID-19 pandemic came up — something that Stephen A praised.
“That man resurrected the world of sports, he kept going,” Smith said.
Dismissing one part of that statement, Russo laughed off the idea that mixed martial arts can be seen as a legitimate sport, at least in the minds of “serious” sports enthusiasts.
“What Sport? … Not for me,” Russo said. “Not for a serious sports fan. No way! A serious sports fan watching that? You are crazy! … Nobody cares about that! You watch that? You sit there on Saturday night and pluck your $50 down to watch that?! Three rounds of kicking? You gotta be kidding me! That’s not sports! The average serious sports fan doesn’t watch that!”
Who was on hand to defend the sport and the individuals who make their livelihoods from it? A man who’s perhaps found himself as MMA public enemy number one in the past: Stephen A. Smith.
Stephen A – An Unlikely Defender?
Stephen A. Smith’s involvement in MMA has been somewhat rocky. Through ESPN’s partnership with the UFC — which evidently didn’t pop into the head of Russo as he attempted to delegitimize the sport of MMA live on the network — Stephen A has had an increased presence on the broadcast of the biggest events.
While Smith has established himself as one of America’s most well-known sports television personalities, if there’s one sport that Smith has struggled to find a place in when it comes to the fanbase, it’s MMA.
That was evident at UFC 246 in January 2020. After Conor McGregor‘s decimation of Donald Cerrone, Smith suggested that the now-retired veteran quit inside the Octagon. That remark was disagreed with by color commentator Joe Rogan, leading to a short social media feud between the two prominent sports figures.
While some perhaps made their minds up about Stephen A. and his place on UFC broadcasts back then, that hasn’t diminished the 54-year-old’s respect and interest in the sport, as he showed by vehemently defending it against the “ignorant” views of Russo.
“What do you mean, ‘What sport?’ The multi-billion-dollar conglomerate that is the UFC (MMA)! That’s what it is, that packs stadiums throughout the nation, if not the world,” Smith said passionately. “You had a packed house in Salt Lake City, and it wasn’t for a (Utah) Jazz game! They pack the house in Vegas; I’ve gone to these events. They had Madison Square Garden!
“UFC ain’t for everybody… not for you. But let me tell you something right now… that is disrespectful. Listen, boxing, I love boxing, boxing is hijacked by promoters. We have to wait years for fights we should have now,” Smith pointed out. “Dana White doesn’t do that. Dana White puts the fights on. He gives the American people the fights they want to see.”
With Russo continuing to interrupt and dismiss MMA, Smith brought up the athletic ability of those who step into the cage and put their bodies on the line for fans’ entertainment.
“These are some of the greatest fighters in the world. You have lost your damn mind,” Smith insisted. “Listen. You got youngsters, more so than the older folks that love the sport, and they do matter. The UFC is a multi-billion-dollar establishment, and that is entirely because of the greatness of Dana White.”
What do you make of Stephen A Smith’s defense of MMA against Chris Russo?