The business of sports has grown at such a fast pace financially over the past few decades, that the essence of what really constitutes a sport has been lost – fatally blurred somewhere between physical activity, entertainment, and business.

What constitutes a sport is certainly debatable, but most would agree that factors impacting a sports ‘legitimacy’ include a) the degree of physical skill and activity required to succeed b) the extent to which the sport’s objectives are relatable and understandable and c) the simple matter of how fun/exciting the sport ultimately is to watch. Given the three criteria above, mixed martial arts should easily rank among the top sports in the world, but despite UFC’s valiant attempts at getting its brand and the sport of MMA accepted into the mainstream – it still remains largely ignored or misunderstood outside of the Americas.

Perhaps my journey from complete ignorance on the matter to one of its biggest fans can shed some light to others still standing on the fence about a sport that just until a couple of years ago, was still referred to as ‘human cockfighting’.

My first foray into the world of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and mixed martial arts came unexpectedly – following a late-night conversation with a friend about reality TV. Frustrated with irritating reality-TV drama queens running their mouths unchecked, I suggested it would be rather satisfying to see the participants just fight it out as the petty and over-the-top arguments felt neither genuine nor provided any sort of satisfying closure.

My buddy told me about a reality TV show called “The Ultimate Fighter”, in which the drama didn’t need to be artificially fabricated and the ‘beef’ was settled in the most gratifying way possible, a ‘no holds barred’ fight inside a steel cage. Several episodes into TUF Season 1, in between Chris ‘The Crippler’ Leben urinating on some poor fellow competitor’s bed, and UFC President Dana White giving the infamous ‘do you wanna be a fighter’ speech off the top of his dome better that Denzel Washington or Al Pacino could ever act out – I was completely hooked.

It didn’t take long for my appreciation of the raw grit and humbling nature of the action to translate into full appreciation for the sport of MMA. It turned out it wasn’t just trashy reality-TV that was phony, but most of the popular sports that western civilization and I had grown to love. Baseball’s number-heavy approach all of a sudden seemed tedious to the point that it felt more like a sports simulation rather than a sport everyday people can relate to. The NBA meanwhile lacked a sense of urgency, with its lengthy and inconsequential regular season resulting in teams and players too often not giving it their all to win. Soccer was plagued with players trying to trick referees, the NFL lacked fluid and lengthy action, while tennis and boxing were impaired by insufficient competition and a general lack of creativity.

To top it all off, all of the sports mentioned above including boxing were built around a specific system that was rooted in tradition and logistical simplicity – rather than giving fans what they really wanted to see. The UFC, I found, always managed to find a way to repeatedly spoil its fans with dream salivating match-ups while in comparison the only time Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have ever really squared off in a meaningful way was in a Nike commercial involving puppets.

Sports of all types feature similar cliché phrases like ‘do or die’, ‘chance of a lifetime’, ‘giving a 100%’, ‘backs against the wall’ but its only until you watch a main event of a UFC event that you understand that in MMA, it’s not just hype or hyperbole.

I made a rather bold claim a while back, that in no sport did athletes ever come close to giving it their all, that it was always possible to make someone give it just a little more if the right motivation/punishment was instilled into the back of their mind. MMA just so happens to naturally pack that highest level of adrenaline into its competitors, where a simple mistake or lack of preparation can be the difference between delivering a knockout blow or being on the wrong side of a broken limb. In other sports, the difference is often as inconsequential as shooting a Bogey instead of a Par 3. In which case do you suppose athletes more often give the fans ‘their money’s worth’ ?

If there is one thing I have learned about being a sports fan, it’s that your perceived gravity of the consequences of a particular sporting event have more of an impact on your level of engagement/excitement than almost anything else. That’s why over 30 million Americans on average watched the 2012 Olympics and probably chanted ‘USA! USA!’ at their TV screen despite not being overly familiar with the sports in question. That’s why a couple hundred bucks wagered on a college hockey match can turn it from unwatchable to unmissable. And that is also why the UFC and MMA is so exciting. The UFC’s built-in high stakes factors include a) possible bodily harm b) a loss often setting back a contender’s championship hopes by years, sometimes forever c) anyone having a ‘puncher’s chance’ and d) the fact that MMA fights are so infrequent not only for the organization, but over the course of an athlete’s career that it automatically inherits a sense of rarity and therefore importance.

Putting aside the layers upon layers of intricate mastery present in the sport of MMA and the self-sacrifice necessary to even try to compete, the sport of fighting seems to have a clear a leg up over all the other sports in the world from a objective spectators’ point of view. How long will it be until the general population wakes up, and starts demanding a less ‘phony’ sport?