It sounds like an oxymoron: “How to keep blood-sports interesting?” You’ve got blood and you’ve got sports, the term does its own advertising! And yet, fighting promotions rise and fall, where Pride and Strikeforce once reigned, now stand One and Bellator, but one promotion stands above all its competitors. The world of MMA knows one promotion which has clawed its way to the international top and established itself as the gold standard upon whose hallowed surface skulls are crushed and blood is poured. I’m talking about none other than the UFC.
Having established itself over the years as a beacon of both quality matches and consistent drama, the UFC attracts the lion’s share of international talent in the MMA world, and with it the eyes and ears of MMA fans everywhere. Having well and truly stroked the ego of the promotion, you might be wondering what on earth any of this has to do with writing or fantasy?
Well, does your world happen to feature prizefighting, ritual combat, or the eternally popular fantasy fixture called the gladiatorial arena? If so, there are a lot of writing and worldbuilding lessons you can learn from observing the biggest promotion in the biggest modern blood-sport of the world. What makes MMA in the UFC so interesting to so many of us? And how can you use this knowledge to your advantage? To quote the Elder Scrolls IV Oblivion: “Let’s find out… LOWER, the GATES!”
Hype Up Your Characters
From “the Iceman” Chuck Liddell to my horse-meat-eating countryman Alistair Overeem, and from the (in)famous Irishman to his polar opposite in Dagestan, the UFC possesses a bottomless buffet of interesting characters, who have each carved their way into the psyches of their fans in their own unique way. It would be the thirteenth labour of Hercules to try and list all of these legends, but what is clear is two-fold: The UFC attracts characters and the promotion know how to utilise them.
Through plentiful interviews and press conferences pre- and post-fight, with translators at the ready to present plentiful non-Anglo fighters to the Anglophone world, the UFC provides as many opportunities as it can get away with to endear and/or repulse the audience with their large roster of fighters. Flag-waving national ties are played up, trash talk muscles its way onto the podium and nothing shakes an audience of media correspondents up more than a witty remark from a fighter on stage. As much as press conferences serve to enlighten the experts and the public on a fighter’s mentality and training going into a fight, it also serves as a launching board for strong personalities to leap into the public consciousness.
As a writer, your characters are not restricted to media appearances. Regarding hyping up your characters, the ball is entirely in your court and it is up to you to give them their moments to shine. Set a scene up in such a way that it highlights the tenacity, will, dangerousness, or as we have learned from the UFC, humour, of your character. For a fight to have meaning, the fighters need to be meaningful. So even with a small engagement, try and work out a way of showcasing the characters at play before or during the fight, so that your audience has a reason to engage with the fight to follow. A single good interview can turn the tides on a previously-unknown fighter, and so can a single good scene.
Create the Environment
Have you ever wondered what the purpose of scantily-clad ring girls in the UFC is? Don’t worry, I don’t blame you if you simply appreciate the view, but the question remains. With modern technology, the UFC could easily put up any and all information on screens, yet despite being able to cut multiple salaries that way, the organisation chooses not to do so. I don’t think I will shock the reader if I suggest that the UFC keeps ring girls employed, not for the signs they carry, but for the aesthetic they provide.
The UFC has mastered the art of creating an environment fit for the hypermasculinity they sell. You can see it in their ads, which range from US military sponsorships to various forms of booze, and you can see it just as well in the their choice of locations, filled with dark halls and dim lights. And how about their choice of main location: Las Vegas? This location was chosen in large part due to the ease of business there, but the pop-cultural image of Vegas as a place where the laws that bind American society are loosened, further adds to the UFC’s mystique.
The lesson for a writer should be obvious. If you’re building a setting such as an arena, pay attention to detail. How is the place decorated? How open or closed, light or dark, clean or filthy is the venue? What personnel walks around? And how? Smiling, frowning, head high, head low? Wearing what? Think about all of the little details, for it is through these minor things that you can build a world that comes alive. Someone who has never seen MMA will understand the vibe the UFC wants them to feel the moment they catch an event on TV. As fantasy writers, this should be the heights we reach for in all of our worldbuilding.
The face-offs, the trash-talk, the weigh-ins, the interviews. All of these serve to build a narrative for the audience to believe in. Whether this narrative is your straightforward rivalry between two fighters who hate each other’s guts and are aching to rip their opponent apart, or of a once-dominant and beloved fighter returning to the octagon to show a younger and fresher fighter that the old lion still has his roar. With each step added along the way, the UFC is able to build the story they want their audience to hear. And lo and behold the dividends that careful work can pay in the case of a rematch or even a trilogy. The energy of one fight crosses over to another as the story is able to unfold over multiple iterations.
In a sense we are talking about rituals here. Sure, a weigh-in serves a purpose in ensuring that fighters are at least close to being in their supposed weight class (let’s not kid ourselves about how much weight is cut before a fight though), but why does something as simple as standing on scales have to be filmed? Simple, because of the ritual nature of the affair. Stepping on those scales and passing weight shows the audience that the fighter has crossed a threshold. For all the trash talk beforehand, the fight is now truly on.
Same for post-fight interviews. What purpose does Joe Rogan rushing to a downed opponent serve? Do we really need to hear the sluggish words of someone who just had their brain bashed in? The logical answer seems to be no, but the heart says yes, for that post-fight interview cements the victory of one fighter and the loss of another, providing a bombastic release to the weeks or months of build-up to this crescendo. And of course, it allows the fighter to add to the narrative as well. What better time to show grace to your opponent, or to call out a new one, than right after a victory, while the sweat still drips off your skin?
So, what lessons can be learned here for fantasy writers? First of all, the power of slowly building up to your bombastic scenes. Spin a tale for your readers before you commence a fight, tell them why the fighters care as well as why the reader should care. Secondly, we can take a cue from the power of ritual. Let’s say for example that you have a scene involving a minotaur son challenging their father to a duel to rule their tribe. You’ve got the grounds for a narrative here, but how do you cultivate it? By building up the world around it. When a minotaur declares a duel, what events must take place between the challenge and the duel for it to be in line with tradition? And furthermore, how do you use those steps along the way to build up the meaningfulness of the main event?
Showcase the Awesome
There’s a reason highlight reels exist and it’s not modesty. After each fight the UFC will show you the hardest kicks, the most technical flurry of punches and the most devastating take-downs of the match. The principal goal here is to reiterate to the audience how bloody cool the sport is. They want you to remember that lightning quick spinning elbow courtesy of Jiri, by showing it to you thrice-over in slow-motion. The UFC is not afraid to dwell on its own glory and neither should you.
Have you written the most slick succession of throat punches in all of literary history? Well don’t be so shy about it and show your audience how cool it was. You can do so by focusing on the fall-out, by entering the thoughts of your protagonist or any manner of things that suit your writing style, but don’t be so quick with passing up the opportunity to dig your awesome into the memory of your reader. Show your reader how bad that throat-punched throat was hurt and let them know what went through the mind of throat-punch-thrower. Don’t wait until the blood dries to talk about its colour, for the vibrant red will have turned brown by then.
The best lessons on life are found through living, and the best lessons on worldbuilding are found by observing the world. By taking a quick look at how the UFC builds it cast, setting, tales and the memories of their audience, we can find meaningful lessons on how to build our own works of violence. So go forth and smack your keyboard in the ritually-sanctioned format of fantasy writing.
If you’re partial to 180 degrees turns and would like a change of pace after an article on blood-sports, I invite you to read my newly revised poetry collection “Of Mind” available on Amazon. I highly value your engagement and hope you will enjoy the poetry “Of Mind” has to offer. You can click this sentence to read more.