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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

(continued from page 2)

White's own life in combat sports began with boxing, starting as a fighter before working his way up the chain as a trainer, manager and promoter. But he became more intrigued by what took place on the ground—that is, the world of jujitsu. "I was at Hard Rock Cafe [in 2000] and saw this guy John Lewis [a former fighter, coach and MMA trainer that has 'worked the corner' for Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture]," says White. "I wanted him to teach me the ground game; to show me and the guys I worked with how to fight on the ground. After I saw it, I was staggered that I'd been around 30 years and not known this."

White wasn't the only one who knew that boxing and martial arts could make a good fit. His belief is that the original MMA fighter was Bruce Lee. More recently, UFC's start is often credited to TV producer Bob Meyerowitz. According to White, "these guys were sitting around in New York and wondered which fighting style is the best? Would karate beat kung fu? Would boxing beat wrestling?"

Though UFC began in 1993, it wasn't until White and Zuffa LLC took over in 2001—buying the company's trademarks for $2 million—that its current structure was created. Working smoothly with media is a big part of UFC's approach to marketing, not just through obvious channels such as TV, but also through creating an accessible environment for journalists and fans seeking to connect with fighters or anyone else affiliated with UFC. A major turning point in UFC's quest for exposure and credibility came in 2003, when a story in The Washington Post was posted on the UFC Web site. "Newspapers began to see that covering us could drive traffic to their sites," says White. "That's huge for them and, of course, great for us too."

An even bigger boost came in 2005 when Forrest Griffin won a 29-28 decision over Stephan Bonnar in one of the most explosive fights in the history of MMA. Soon after the broadcast concluded, White, as he loves to tell it, was taken into an alley—once a fighter, always a fighter—by a group of Spike TV executives to sign a broadcast deal. The first UFC fight that aired on Spike in April 2005 drew 2.6 million viewers. Two years later, at UFC 75, the number had almost doubled.

The 11,000 spectators inside the Events Center have paid anywhere from $50 to $800 for their seats, an evening's gate exceeding $2.4 million. Men are clad in garb ranging from Ralph Lauren polo shirts to Unabomber-style hoodies. But don't think those in the expensive seats are only wearing preppy clothes. The prevailing color in all rows is black, a somber but oddly playful and derivative reminder of UFC's ancestral affinity with such rough-and-tumble renegades as the Oakland Raiders and Hell's Angels. Add to that a smattering of shirts with gothic letters, an ungodly amount of tattoos and women with gravity-defying body parts and there is definitely a sense of displaced—or, better yet, placed—machismo.

But the violence is strictly the province of the fighters. If the communal feel of UFC 81 is too combative to be considered Woodstock, fans have paid too much and are too smitten with the fighters to turn it into Altamont. At heart, these are fans who've come here to savor organized violence. One man in a blue T-shirt with a baseball cap turned backwards turns to his friend: "You know what the hardest part of fighting is, pal? It's inside, where the punches wear you down." He feigns a few punches at his buddy's ribs.

Cameraman Scott McClain points to the eight-sided, plastic-mesh, 30-foot enclosure where each UFC fight takes place. "Every man here is wondering what he would do if he was up there, stepping into the octagon," says McClain. In a few minutes, McClain will be as close as you can get to "up there" without throwing a punch or applying a towel. His camera will be six inches from a UFC fighter's face just prior to the fight and then back off several feet to showcase in raw detail the evening's punches, kicks and falls.

The Events Center is approximately a quarter full for the four preliminary fights. The intensity builds slowly. The first fight, between lightweights Keita Nakamura of Japan and American Robert Emerson, starts off with each moving gingerly, punctuated by a few attempted punches and mild kicks to the thigh. Emerson nearly falls, but off-balance defense can often be a useful counterpunching position, and he makes a run at Nakamura but is stymied. Nakamura lands on top of him, but it's a sluggish aggression, to the point where a fan yells out through the hollow hall, "Missionary!" Emerson recovers. Later, Emerson is again on his back, but thrusts his elbows into Nakamura. Emerson wins a split decision. Interviewed afterward in the octagon, Emerson says that most of all he wants to see his newborn baby girl.

Lytle's swift annihilation of Bradley, the fourth bout on the fight card, excites the crowd and earns him a $60,000 bonus for achieving the knockout of the night. Soon enough the preliminaries draw to a close. Up on the big screens, a text message poll for Lesnar-Mir shows that 51 percent favor Lesnar.

Celebrities in attendance are also shown on the screens. There are big cheers for wrestler "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, who, according to one fan, "wants to see a real fight," mild applause for Ken Griffey, a future baseball Hall of Famer with 593 career home runs, and a thorough round of boos for Barry Bonds. That's right, the man who has hit more home runs than anyone in the history of our national pastime is loudly booed. Is it the drug scandal? Or is it years of surly behavior? In the Golden Age of sports, Babe Ruth would have been loudly cheered had he shown up, say, at a Jack Dempsey fight. But Bonds is a pariah, the avatar of what could well be sports' Yellow Age—yellow the color a man's eyes turn from taking steroids or, metaphorically, his lack of courage in copping to these charges. Nothing more than the booing of Bonds validates White's point about contemporary sports—and the void UFC has stepped into.

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