Fuck the Octagon!

(Matthew Polly is the author of American Shaolin and the freshly-released-in-paperback Tapped Out, his journey through the world of mixed martial arts. He’s also written for Slate and Playboy, but I think his work here at Fightlinker will be what he’s remembered for. Now he returns to the warm jackal’s bosom as our guest blogger for October.)

I don’t want to get off on a Dennis Miller-esque rant here, but I hate the Octagon. I fucking hate it. I’ve fought in an Octagonal cage, in a boxing ring, and even on top of a platform in China (a leitai). Of all three the Octagon is by far the worst. As a journalist I’ve covered fights in all three, and the Octagon sucks balls. Let me tell you why.

More Boring Fights: A boxing ring and a Chinese sanshou platform are squares. An Octagon is about as close as you can get to a circle, unless you build a decagon. Squares have 90-degree corners; circles don’t have any. You can’t hit & run against an aggressive fighter for an entire match in a square ring. Your opponent will push you towards a corner and cut off your escape. You can’t cut off an Octagon, because, to repeat, it’s basically a fucking circle. In a ring, Kalib Stearns (UFC 83) and Clay Guida (UFC on Fox 4) would have been trapped in a corner and pummeled. On a platform, their timid asses would have been sent flying into the front row seats.

It’s Too Big: The flyweights have taken a lot of undeserved crap lately for putting on some boring fights. The problem isn’t that they are too small; it’s that the Octagon is too big. The UFC has been aware of the problem for a long time but hasn’t done anything about it. Their Octagon is 30 feet from side to side; boxing rings are usually 20 feet. You don’t really notice with the heavyweights, but the flyweights look like they are running a 10k in Central Park.

Can’t See Shit: The Octagon was the brainchild of John Milius, the screenwriter of Apocalypse Now and the director of Conan the Barbarian. Because he was a Hollywood not a Broadway director, he knew how to create something that would look badass for the cameras and thus the viewing audience at home, but not something that would be enjoyable for those attending the live event. The Octagon is a black chain link fence broken up by eight padded posts—it’s hard to imagine a better way to obstruct the view, short of a black box. I’ve covered cage events from ringside and turned to see that every journalist and most of the audience in the $1,000 front rows seats were leaning back and craning their necks to stare up at the fucking Jumbotron for a clearer view of the action.

On a Positive Note: The grappling component of MMA makes a platform too dangerous, although it would be fun for one injury-filled event. As fans of Pride can attest, there are few more awkward moments than four Japanese referees wearing white latex gloves trying to pull a couple of heavyweights who have gotten tangled up under the ring ropes back into the center of the ring. A cage does contain the action and limit the number of restarts. And John Milius was a crazy genius: the Octagon looks badass. (I just regret they never used his idea for a crocodile-infested moat.) More importantly, the Octagon defines the UFC and a cage distinguishes the MMA brand from boxing and kickboxing. Zuffa is more likely to fire Dana White than to fire the Octagon. And frankly, there are worse ideas, like Bob Meyrowitz’s YAMMA Pit—a circular bowl that caused every fighter to trip and fall. So…

My solutions after the jump…

A) Make the cage smaller. The UFC can do it incrementally—kind of like raising the Social Security retirement age—so that fighters don’t notice and complain until it is too late. They can experiment. I say go down to 24 feet and see how it feels. Or have an Octagon that expands and contracts. Heavyweights step into the cage—it grows to 30 feet. Flyweights hop in—it shrinks to twenty.

B) Some desperate promotion should try a square cage. The UFC is married to the Octagon. Strikeforce rolls with a hexagon. Bellator’s cage is an actual fucking circle. Fewer supporting posts would mean more sagging, but it’d make for less running and better fights.

C) Until Zuffa hires a team of crack scientists to invent a clear chain link fence, make the cage white. That would make it slightly easier to see the action. Also, it would soften MMA’s image. A black cage looks like something out of a torture chamber. The UFC has already captured its hardcore base. As it continues to move towards mainstream acceptance, it should, like Mitt Romney at the first debate, try to appeal to suburban women.

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