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Patrick Hruby

Dana White is trolling, and also wrong about athletes and soccer players

So: I really have nothing against UFC kingpin Dana White. Or against mixed martial arts. The sport doesn't really float my boat -- the older I get, the less I enjoy violent displays, and the more I think about someone like Chuck Liddell in an early-onset dementia ward -- but I don't fault others for digging it.

That said, White's recent comments about soccer deserve a bit of scorn.
Quoth the shiny-headed human cockfighting purveyor:

"Can’t stand soccer. It’s the least-talented sport on Earth. There’s a reason three-year-olds can play soccer. When you’re playing a game when the net is that big and the score is 3-1 (and that’s a blowout) are you kidding me? You know how untalented you have to be to score three times when the net is that big?"

I think White knows he's wrong. I think he knows he sounds ridiculous. I think he's trolling, and I think he wants people to argue about his deliberately provocative statement, the better to give MMA more attention.

Still, I can't resist taking the bait.

Soccer players are athletes. Great and talented athletes. Great and talented athletes the way MMA fighters and pole vaulters and synchronized swimmers are great and talented athletes. One thing I've learned from covering sports up close-and-personal for a decade: world-class athletes in any sport are, in fact, world-class. The 500th-ranked tennis player in the world is indescribably better at what he does than you or I will ever be at anything. That's just the way it is.

But back to soccer. On a basic level, White's reasoning makes no sense. The Three-Year-Old Test is a canard. Three-year-olds can play soccer. True. They also can grapple and punch each other in the head. (Trust me: I'm the youngest of three brothers. I know whereof I speak). That doesn't mean MMA is full of no-talent assclowns, does it?

On another level, however, I think White is merely articulating something that many, many American sports fans believe: that soccer is a game for people who aren't athletic enough to thrive in football, basketball, hockey and -- ahem -- baseball. At the little kid-to-high school levels, maybe there's an ounce of truth to that: a tall, strong teenager is more likely to play left tackle or power forward than goalie; a cannon-armed boy will probably choose pitching over practicing headers.

But at the pro level? White is full of shit. As I wrote for during the 2010 World Cup, soccer is not teeming with mediocre physical specimens who excel on the pitch because they couldn't hack it in an NFL huddle; the U.S. National Team's failings would not be rectified by installing LeBron James at striker. Soccer is full of amazing athletes whose specific physical gifts and hard-earned skillsets best fit the unique demands of their sport:

... start with muscle. Size and strength. Natural resources our non-soccer jocks have in abundance. From Adrian Peterson's piston legs to Ron Artest's granite pecs, we are buff without peer, getting more ripped all the time. (Even our punters are jacked!) Problem is, added brawn is of little use on the pitch. On one hand, a guy built like Terrell Owens might have an easier time breaking out of a Slovenian set-piece bear hug; on the other hand, anyone that bulky would be too gassed to take advantage.

Soccer favors stamina over brute force. Consistent effort over sporadic outbursts. Do the biomechanical math. According to the Times of London, the average Premier League midfielder runs more than seven miles per match, a 10th of that sprinting speed or close to it. Average recovery time between sprints? All of 40 seconds, with few substitutions and no timeouts. (Modern soccer is also getting faster: According to EPL video analysis, the amount of sprinting doubled during the last decade.) Extra bulk means extra weight to drag around the pitch, with extra energy expended to do so.

Now consider physiology. The ideal sprinter is tall and muscled, with a high percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers that quickly burn energy and produce short, explosive runs. By contrast, the perfect distance runner is of short to medium height, with a high percentage of slow-twitch fibers that burn energy slowly and facilitate endurance. Ask yourself: Which of the above sounds more like an NFL receiver? Which sounds more like a central midfielder?

To put things another way (I): There's a reason you don't see Landon Donovan chugging protein shakes and hanging out with Victor Conte. And it's not because soccer players aren't vain.

To put things another way (II): If Brian Urlacher ever excelled in a World Cup, it would have to involve rugby.

As for height? Similar story. Argentina's Lionel Messi is arguably the best soccer player on the planet. At 5-foot-7, he would struggle to see over the top of a Gramatica brother. Same deal for the legendary player Messi is most often compared to, Diego Maradona. And so what? In an adidas ad featuring Kevin Garnett and David Beckham, the otherwise-agile basketball player looks clumsy -- in part because soccer isn't his professional calling, in part because he's simply too tall to excel at a sport played low to the ground. James might be a terrific natural athlete, and a potentially great football tight end, but he'd make a mediocre striker for the same reason he'd get smoked playing cornerback: His center of gravity isn't low enough ...

Of course, the same argument can be made regarding MMA. And the aforementioned synchronized swimming. And pro bowling. And everything else. That's the great thing about having different kinds of sports - they favor individuals with different kinds of physical gifts.

By the way: if I ran MLS, I would bite on White's trolling and challenge a side of his best fighters to a soccer match ... versus a squad of MLS bench players ... with the MMA team using a lacrosse-sized net, just to make things a little less unfair. I'm pretty sure the final score would be a bigger blowout than 3-1.