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Fight Club

Mixed martial arts is surging in popularity and could be the salvation of sports.
Joel Drucker
From the Print Edition:
Tiger Woods, May/June 2008

The bell rings. Chris Lytle and Kyle Bradley bounce to the center of the octagon, sizing each other up. The tale of the tape suggests a competitive fight between evenly matched welterweights, but Lytle, a veteran mixed martial artist, is chomping at the bit. He's eager to teach Bradley, a boxer and wrestler—and an on-leave English literature major at LSU—with the words "Live and Know" tattooed across his chest, a lesson. • Fifteen seconds into the bout, Lytle delivers a swift kick to Bradley's left leg. Seconds later, a right-handed haymaker from Lytle forces Bradley to stumble. In a flash, Lytle moves in for the kill, pouncing on Bradley with the urgency and speed of a predator after helpless prey. • Lytle unleashes one rapid right-hand after another, his gloved fist pounding away at the left side of Bradley's head. Bradley tumbles to the canvas, but Lytle isn't finished. A fusillade of a dozen punches rains down on Bradley until his face matches his red shorts and referee Yves Lavigne stops the fight. In a mere 33 seconds, Lytle is victorious by TKO and his nickname, "Lights Out," has been vindicated once again.

Welcome to Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the largest organizer and promoter of mixed martial arts (MMA). It's a sport that combines elements of boxing, kickboxing, wrestling and Eastern disciplines such as karate, kung fu and jujitsu; a sport that boasts fighters with sobriquets like "The Baby Faced Assassin," "The New York Bad Ass," "Fists of Fury," "The Mauler," "The British Brawler" and "The West Side Strangler;" a sport with a fan base that is growing by leaps and bounds.

"As human beings, we're born with an instinct to fight," says Dana White, the president of UFC. "Take four corners. On one corner, say, you've got basketball; on another, baseball; on another, street hockey. On the fourth, a fight breaks out. And where does everybody go?"

On this Saturday night at the Events Center at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, less than 24 hours before Super Bowl XLII, some 11,000 fight fans have turned out for "UFC 81: Breaking Point," a night of ultimate fighting action between 18 of the toughest men in the sport.

Decades ago, Chief Justice Earl Warren said, "I always turn to the sports page first. The sports page records people's accomplishments; the front page nothing but man's failures." Warren, who died in 1974, would today likely recant.

Increasingly, today's sports section, it seems, is less and less about statistics and what happens on the field or court and more to do with the crime blotter, performance enhancing drugs and cryptic actuarial tables. In the National Football League, quarterback Michael Vick sits in prison for dog fighting and New England's Bill Belichick has been accused of cheating by wrongfully videotaping other teams. Baseball has been tainted by steroid and HGH use. And across most sports, salaries have grown so large that sports organizations are distancing fans from the athletes and the action by constantly raising ticket prices and building suite-laden facilities.

And while some, including Arizona senator and presidential hopeful John McCain, view mixed martial arts as little more than human cockfighting—not just bloody and painful, but barbaric—to its followers, MMA is nothing less than the salvation of sports.

"People got turned off by boxing," says White, who spent almost three decades in boxing and believes that the greed of promoters and a host of other problems have turned people off to the sport. "You pay $3,500 for a ticket, $55 for a pay-per-view, and hardly anything happens. In building this business, I used boxing as a model for what not to do."

While the MMA model is quite similar to boxing's, the combination of other fighting styles and its rules has been instrumental to its success. There are five weight classes, ranging from lightweight (145 to 155 pounds) to heavyweight (205 to 265 pounds). Regular bouts consist of three rounds, each lasting five minutes, while championship bouts are five rounds. Judges score each round, awarding 10 points to the winner of a round and nine or fewer to the loser. Fights not won on points are concluded by knockout or submission—an opponent conceding defeat by "tapping out"—or the referee declaring the fight over.

White believes that the success of UFC, and other organizations such as Elite XC, International Fight League and World Extreme Cagefighting, is due to how MMA compares with other sports. "The NFL can't make a go in Europe because no one there grows up playing [American] football," White says. "We transcend all cultural and language barriers." The numbers verify White's statement. In 2005, nearly 70,000 people attended the six UFC events, which grossed more than $10 million. In 2006, 10 UFC events attracted more than 125,000 spectators and $27 million. Last year, there were 13 UFC events. The attendance was more than 175,000, with nearly $27.5 million grossed. "Our sport right now is pure," he adds. "It's accessible. In other sports, guys are turning down $75 million contracts. You'll never get Kobe Bryant's autograph, but there's a good chance with us you can meet your hero."

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