It's finally happened, after all these years. That future that MMA fans always secretly dreaded and MMA detractors always outwardly assumed has come at last. Not a rash of in-cage deaths, no, nor an explosion of UFC-inspired elementary schoolyard BJJ chokes, nor the final collapse of western civilization at the hands of angry white guys in tribal Affliction T-shirts (though, maybe …). No, I'm talking about a marriage of mixed martial arts and NASCAR—that most predictable and unholy of unions—which has finally come to pass. Remember this day.
Yesterday NASCAR announced that they will be teaming up with the brand-new Professional Fighters League to present four MMA fights following a race on Friday June 30 in Daytona Beach, Florida. The PFL, you may recall, is the new season-based MMA promotion born out of the ashes of the World Series of Fighting that will feature a single-elimination playoff structure and $1 million prizes awarded to the winners of each of seven weight classes. When the PFL was first announced back in mid-April league officials said the inaugural 10-month season would begin in January 2018. But, sensing an opportunity for some profitable preseason cross-promotion, the league decided to present their first four fights this summer, rationalizing the decision by saying each fight will factor into future tournament rankings. The winner of the main event, for example, between WSOF champion Jon Fitch and Brian Foster, will win the No. 1 seed in the welterweight tournament.
The PFL event will take place as part of NASCAR's Coke Zero 400 Weekend Powered by Coca-Cola at the "World Center of Racing," otherwise known as the Daytona International Speedway. Following the running of the Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 NASCAR XFINITY Series race, MMA fans in the crowd and other curiosity seekers can head over to the UNOH Fanzone to see the fights. Those who can't make it to Florida that weekend will be able to watch the fights live on NBA Sports Network, on a broadcast presumably sponsored by Coke.
I guess we shouldn't be surprised by PFL's decision to sign on with NASCAR. In addition to the league structure and the promise of monthly salaries for all fighters, the PFL also announced in April that it would be experimenting with new ways to "experience" MMA, connecting "fans to our fighters and the sport they love in unique and innovative ways." When I read that I just assumed they meant some kind of new interactive Web site or raffles to win meals with favorite fighters. I never would have guessed they'd pull the trigger and join up with NASCAR.
But as cynical as I may be of this marriage, and as much as it sounds like a parody from some 1990s sketch comedy show, there is an obvious and natural affinity between the two sports. As PFL President of Event Production and Business Operations Carlos Silva said in a press release sent out yesterday, both mixed martial arts and stock car racing "thrive on intensity and high-stakes competition." In addition, both NASCAR drivers and (non-UFC) fighters wear enough advertisements on their uniforms to pass for bulletin boards or Sunday newspaper coupon inserts. Also, both sports are loathed by hand-wringers and worrywarts and moralists and other pious defenders of a too-delicate vision of American civilization, which, now that I think about it, makes me think I should put away my prejudices and give NASCAR a shot.
Love this union or not, though, there's no doubting it's another shot across the UFC's bow. First the upstart promotion announced their tournament structure by pointing out that it would give any and all fighters an honest chance at making a million dollars (implying in the process how nearly impossible that is for all but a few superstars in the UFC). Then they announced their guaranteed salaries, shining a light on the precariousness of your average UFC's fighter's financial position in the world. And now, just as the UFC is settling into life under the rule of its news owners—Hollywood talent agency WME—pushing a new $4-billion age of product-integration and cleaned-up corporate cross-pollination aimed at turning MMA fighters into multicultural spokesmen/actors/musicians/brands—true ambassadors of the new age of globalized cosmopolitan sophistication and synergy—along comes the Professional Fighters League taking MMA back to its humble roots and reveling in that most stubbornly American of partnerships, one where a Pennzoil cap is as powerful a signifier as a cameo in a Hollywood blockbuster.
Don't look now but MMA may find itself back at the center of the culture wars soon enough.