On Saturday, November 13th, Dennis Siver will be fighting for more than prominence in a crowded and highly competitive UFC lightweight division when he faces “The Ultimate Fighter” season nine finalist Andre Winner. He’ll also be fighting for acceptance in his adopted home country.
“UFC 122: Marquardt vs. Okami” will be the UFC’s second trip to Germany. The first event, UFC 99 in June of 2009, saw legislation passed to prevent minors from attending the live event, and in April of 2010, the sport was pulled from live television.
That hasn't dissuaded the UFC, which is no stranger to battling public misconceptions and ignorance, nor has it discouraged Siver, a native of Omsk, Russia, who has since become the poster boy for German MMA since relocating to Mannheim at the age of 17 in 1996.
Despite the criticism lobbed against MMA by local politicians and the media, Siver is looking forward to competing in front of a passionate fan base and he hopes to further the education and exposure of the sport to the German mainstream.
"I'm excited to be fighting in front of a crowd where so many people know me," Siver told UFC.com. "When I fight outside Germany, there's not as much pressure on me. But fighting here gives me that added bit of extra motivation to do well."
After an initial Octagon stint that resulted in a 1-3 record, Siver regrouped and returned to the promotion with a Knockout of the Night performance against Nate Mohr at UFC 93. Since his return, Siver has gone 4-1 and cemented himself as a threat in the division with recent wins over UFC veteran Spencer Fisher and British prospect Paul Kelly. A victory over Winner will go a long way to positioning him as a top tier fighter in his weight class and bring him closer to title contention.
However, it is equally important to Siver that he helps improve the perception of the sport at home.
"I do whatever I can to promote the sport of MMA and help introduce people to it," said Siver. "It's a sport like any other and should be treated as such."
The work put in by Siver and the UFC is already apparent. While there has not been a complete turnaround in the mainstream’s attitude towards MMA, exposure from the first event seems to have silenced its more vocal critics and helped change the way many view the sport.
"[Media reaction] hasn't been as pronounced or as negative as the one to the first event last year," said Siver. "The number of negative articles on UFC and MMA have decreased steeply over the last year."
Unlike in the United States, where the UFC had to battle image problems stemming from the early days of the promotion (before the Unified Rules of MMA were established), much of the criticism towards MMA in Germany concerns the ground game. Critics of the sport view the ability to fight and grapple on the ground as dishonorable and inhumane due to the assumption that a fighter on the bottom is defenseless and has no hope of recovering.
Anyone who has viewed a UFC event can tell you that isn’t the case, which is why Siver believes that the key to changing the minds and hearts of the German public is a simple matter of exposing more people to the sport.
"UFC needs to keep coming over here and putting on events," Siver says. "They will also need to continue their education process of the politicians and the media."
Siver doesn't just embrace the role of ambassador for MMA, he carries a very real and earnest sense of duty and obligation towards it. In an age where so many professional athletes shy away from being seen as an example or a role model, Siver feels a responsibility not only to represent the sport as a fighter, but also as a human being.
"What I do is carry myself properly so I can represent the sport in the best possible way," said Siver. "I would never do anything to reflect badly on the sport."
Siver will be joined on the November 13th card by fellow German fighters Peter Sobotta and highly touted welterweight prospect Pascal Krauss, who makes his UFC debut on the card. Krauss, who is undefeated in his professional MMA career, has all the tools necessary to become a breakout star. It’s an opportunity that fighters like Krauss may not have without the effort and example provided by Siver, who through his accomplishments and demeanor has become a proud lag-bearer for MMA in Germany.
"I want to lead by example to get people interested in the sport," Siver said, "and help plant the seeds for the next generation of German fighters."
As Siver prepares for his greatest test yet in the UFC, he is also aware of the importance of the event. He knows that what he is doing will - just by virtue of its existence – shatter misconceptions and create greater tolerance for a sport that fans and fighters know isn’t the spectacle that its critics portray it as.
"Those in the know are really excited," said Siver. "The German MMA media have written a lot about it and also have taken great interest in my preparations for this fight."
And as the battle continues – inside and outside the Octagon - it is only through the dedication of fighters like Siver and the example they put forth that MMA will continue to grow internationally.
Siver Embraces Role for German MMA
"I'm excited to be fighting in front of a crowd where so many people know me. When I fight outside Germany, there's not as much pressure on me. But fighting here gives me that added bit of extra motivation to do well."