April 6, 2007

Sports for shorties?

Tonight saw the debut of the 5th season of The Ultimate Fighter, a reality show in which mixed martial arts fighters compete to win UFC contracts. This season the fighters are from the 155-lb lightweight class, and so all appear 5'9 or shorter. Even though this is the one sport I actually enjoy watching, I never get into it as though I could imagine myself as one of them -- most of the guys are over 6' and 180 lbs, whereas I'm 5'8 and 135 lbs. Now, even the shorties have 20 extra pounds of muscle that I don't, but if I went on a weight-gaining / muscle-pumping regimen, I could probably get near 150 lbs. So, shorties like me who watch get the sense that "that could be me if I dedicated myself to it."

As I have no interest in sports, can some of the readers explain why there aren't weight / height classes in non-combat sports? That way, almost all teenage guys would get involved in the sports culture. I and people like me never did because, for one thing, we would get mowed down by taller, bigger guys. But pit the average height / weight guys against each other only, and you'd get an interesting match. It wouldn't be hard to just lower the net a bit when the average or short guys played, and I don't think height affects your ability to kick a field goal, so the goalposts could be the same. Ditto lacrosse, and pretty much anything else. You'd feel silly at first, but assuming you were good at the sport against those in your same class, the other kids at school would give you respect.

As things are, the only sports that non-beasts can join are pretty brutal: wrestling, boxing, martial arts, and so on. The trouble is that these are closer to the "barely civilized form of beating the shit out of each other" end of the sports spectrum, which many guys aren't interested in (except for the more Natural Born Killer types like my 5'7 younger brother, who did wrestling in HS and is now enlisted in the Army). Notice that they are all individualistic sports -- however, most guys want to play or watch sports in order to join a larger team, and to contribute to making it a winning team. That leaves a huge pool of demand unmet by the supply of high school sports, and given what a psychotic sports culture we have, that looks pretty odd. So what's the deal?


  1. Some limited-contact team sports are hospitable to a smaller guy. In some ways it is an advantage to be short in soccer. In my amateur league experience it seems that the quick, short-legged guys are particularly good with ball control. Baseball seems like the kind of sport where a small guy can do ok.

    In other sports, even football, smallish guys can do well if they have compensating talents. Cornerbacks are often wiry, average-height men. But then again, world-class speed combined with a superhuman ability to keep an eye both on the receiver and the quarterback is probably quite rare.

    All in all, on non-elite levels speed, agility, talent, and confidence take you way farther in most sports than mere size. If anything, I think speed (another innate trait) is more important than size.

  2. "for one thing, we would get mowed down by taller, bigger guys"

    That's in large part psychological; it's just your normal fear of a bigger body. One of the first things a football player is taught is to not be agraid of getting hit. One mental trick it to think of it as you hitting the other guy, rather than him hitting you.

    Besides, there are pads, helmets and such.

  3. Years ago some mostly smaller colleges had lightweight football teams. I don't know if any still exist. Height-limited basketball seems like another useful idea but I've never heard of any such teams.

    While it's not a team sport, men's gymnastics is dominated by mostly smaller men. Most elite-level competitors are no more than about 150 pounds. Incidentially, male gymnasts have possibly the best strength-size ratios of all athletes.

  4. I forgot to mention this in my earlier comment, but ice hockey - despite being a tough contact sport - is by no means a "big men only" sport. Even in the NHL there are some players weighing as low as about 175 pounds and the average is probably only a little over 200. Players of course would be even smaller on most high school and college teams.

  5. This might interest you, as you like UFC. My sister's boyfriend is a MMA fighter on the local circuit who I've had many an occaision to talk to about the subject. He's done other sports before, but he's broken down the sport for me on certain levels. Apparently "smarts", which he explained as being able to watch an opponents previous matches and closely analyze the subtlety of his body movements to find possible openings and patterns as well as figuring out how to ameliorate your own unconscious movement patterns.

    Due to the minimal nature of the rules of MMA fighting, it widens the complexity of the task quite bit. All in all, given two equally well trained and sized fighters, the smarter one will always own the dumber one, and "smarts" is pretty much one of the three key factors a smaller opponant can use to triumph over a larger one (the other two being pain threshold and agility/flexibility).

    In the end run, very few of the best MMA guys are stereotypical muscleheaded lugs using pure brute force coupled with minimal technical skills, with certain key exceptions like Tank Abbott (who wins because he's apparently a borderline sociopath with an amazing pain threshold).

    All in all, the picture I got was that in a lot of ways the sport had a pretty big g factor!

  6. Spike etc. -
    Tank Abbott did well when the UFC was still in its fairly early states and MMA fighting wasn't as developed as it is today. Most of the fighters today are so technically skilled and cross-trained that a pure strength and mass fighter like him probably would do poorly.

  7. To wit: Tank Abbott was quickly destroyed (submitted by knee-bar, iirc) by Frank Mir when the UFC transitioned to MMA from bar-room brawl stuff.

    Re: g demands, former champ Rich Franklin was a math teacher. And yeah, that's part of the appeal to me -- it's like chess made physical. You have various ways of attacking, and so does your opponent, so calculating a strategy & coping w/ your enemy's is much more g-loaded than swinging for the fences.

  8. Size and weight classifications make sense in solo sports, but simply put they'd make most team sports less dynamic. Wouldn't bringing the premier league gradations down into the recreational levels as well be preferable?

    Football only for guys 6'8 or taller and at least 300 pounds. Talk about barely civilized.


You MUST enter a nickname with the "Name/URL" option if you're not signed in. We can't follow who is saying what if everyone is "Anonymous."