Mixed martial arts is surging in popularity and could be the salvation of sports.
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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."
White's point is brought to life on the Friday night prior to Saturday's UFC 81. Hundreds of members of UFC's Fight Club—a community of fight fans, hailed as the nucleus of UFC, who pay $74.99 for everything from fighter chats and blogs to discounted tickets and merchandise—have gathered for an exclusive question-and-answer session preceding the public weigh-in.
Among the fighters getting attention from fans are Frank Mir, the 2004 UFC heavyweight champion who grew up in a martial arts family and learned to fight as a child after he was bullied for being overweight; Tim "The Maine-iac" Sylvia, another past champion who stands 6 feet 8 inches tall; and Brazilian Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, who is slated to fight Sylvia for the interim heavyweight title in UFC 81's main attraction.
Also on hand is welterweight champion Georges "Rush" St-Pierre. Although he isn't fighting in UFC 81, Fight Club members rise to their feet and applaud when he is introduced. In gratitude, St-Pierre, who is leaner than a doorpost and particularly proud of his abs, reveals them to the adoring crowd with the pride of a fashion model revealing her gams.
Of all the fighters at the session, White wants fans to really pay attention to Brock Lesnar, a former NCAA wrestling champion at the University of Minnesota, who is making his UFC fight debut against Mir. After stints in the world of professional wrestling—at 25 he was the youngest heavyweight champion in the history of World Wrestling Entertainment—and the NFL, Lesnar joined the UFC in 2007, and the 6-foot 3-inch, 265-pounder with massive biceps and multiple tattoos is the personification of a cartoon-like hulk brought to life. If White could, he would anoint Lesnar for bringing with him the crossover credibility—and the crossover fame—that comes from his prior affiliation with Vince McMahon's WWE. But, as Lesnar points out, professional wrestling "was all fake. This, this is real."
Meanwhile, in the concourse just outside the Events Center, Fight Club members and other attendees awaiting the weigh-in snap up UFC merchandise—$25 for a red or black hat, $70 for a hooded sweatshirt. Others play demonstration versions of video games such as "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare." This, after all, is a time of war for America, a blunt reality quite visible as the games showcase mock imagery of scenes from what looks like the Middle East and bad guys who faintly resemble that definitively detestable rogue, Saddam Hussein. "The threat level," screams an ad for official UFC motorcycle Harley-Davidson that airs on the large screens inside the Events Center, "has been raised to black." There is also a commensurate degree of female flesh being flashed, especially when the girls from Mickey's Fine Malt Liquor, the official beer of UFC, enter. (In March 2008, Anheuser-Busch replaced Mickey's as the official beer, a deal that White believes will draw more sponsors and enhance UFC's TV ratings.) Dozens parade around the concourse in four-inch high heels, short skirts and midriff-revealing tops. The star is green-eyed brunette Anne Rivera, a 2005 graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Asked in the magazine Fight if she dates any fighters, Rivera says, "I don't shit where I eat, ya' know?" Speaking more seriously about UFC, Rivera notes that she herself is not a fan of violence, but "whether you like UFC or not you'll appreciate the discipline."
When the weigh-in begins, the crowd cheers for each fighter. They are less a rowdy rabble than a happy bunch, clapping during the videos that air on the large screens, duly complying with host Joe Rogan's requests for applause, silence and awe.
Monitoring the weigh-in is Marc Ratner, former executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, who was hired by UFC in 2006 as vice president of government and regulatory affairs. A slim man who resembles a kindly pediatrician, Ratner helped create the rules that govern UFC and is quick to back the legitimacy of UFC, noting that, like boxing, it's regulated by the government and has strict drug-testing policies. He also states that UFC fighters suffer fewer long-term injuries than boxers, the reason being that in boxing, to surrender is seen as a sign of weakness, while in UFC "you can tap out with honor."
The weigh-in rolls along in its customary manner. You'd have to have been raised in an igloo not to know the rituals. Fighters bounce up to the podium, peel off their sweats, step on the scale and gaze into one another's eyes. When it's time for Lesnar and Mir to weigh in, extensive videos appear on the screens, including one highlighting Lesnar's loss in the '99 NCAA wrestling finals while enrolled at Minnesota, his commitment to "get back on the horse" and his championship the next year. There's attitude and intimidation, and the standard pre-fight comments reminiscent of such famous pugilists as Ali and Tyson. "I'll pull his head off," says Lesnar. "I can cut the blood off to your brain permanently," replies Mir. Staring down Lesnar, Rogan says, "You're dealing with a very dangerous guy, a ripped heavyweight with a fire hydrant head." It's a stirring image, arousing cheers from the crowd and a chorus of boos from the two dozen friends of Mir seated to the right of the stage. "Show's over," cries Lesnar. "It's time to go. Let's get in the octagon and get it on."
After the weigh-in, White troops through the Events Center, striding in a slightly crouched, battle-ready manner that's the sign of a life spent in boxing. Yet love, not combat, is the prevailing sentiment. White is an entrepreneur-promoter in full bloom. With his bald head, soft facial features, inquisitive eyes and compact build, the 38-year-old White bears a striking resemblance to another Las Vegas sports icon, tennis star Andre Agassi.
"My man," says White as he hugs one fighter. Handshakes and meaningful taps of the knuckles with more fighters follow, then a series of soul shakes, shorthand comments, sly asides and semi-intimate nods to UFC roadies, TV production folks, photographers, journalists, UFC staff—on and on and on. "Dana," yells someone who could be a UFC roadie or just a long-standing fan, "what is up?" White smiles, but isn't sure where this familiar, but unidentifiable face comes from. As UFC continues to grow, perhaps these will be the days White will most cherish: when he had his hands wrapped around his child, a youth big enough to walk but far from ready to escape a paternal embrace.
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.
By the time the main events arrive, the stands are filled. Booming out of the speakers is The Who's signature song, "Baba O'Riley," the raging sound of the electrified, rapid-paced synthesizer jacking up the audience. As Roger Daltrey sings, "I don't need to fight/To prove I'm right," the six big screens show quite the opposite—highlights of head kicks, punches and knockdowns deftly choreographed to match such lyrics as "Don't cry" and "It's only teenage wasteland."
"Teeth will get swallowed" is a phrase used prior to one UFC 81 fight. There's also been a reference to "rolling eyeballs" and the desire to "take his head off." While Lytle has bludgeoned Bradley so swiftly that no molars were digested, the likelihood of more spilt blood is in the air. As the music ends, up walks tuxedo-clad announcer Bruce Buffer. "Ladies and gentlemen," he says in the voice that is so recognizable to fight fans. "We are live!"
Everyone knows what Buffer means: UFC 81 is being televised. For White, this not only means that UFC is financially viable, but that it is credible. At the end of the evening, a big smile will come on White's face when he announces that he's hoping for an even bigger TV deal for UFC. An agreement with HBO was progressing but fell apart last year when UFC's biggest advocate within HBO, CEO Chris Albrecht, was arrested on assault charges after attending a boxing event and left his position. (Elite XC signed a deal with CBS this past February, a major credibility-enhancing step for all MMA organizations.)
Fighters emerge for each of the televised fights cocooned by their entourages, but close enough to be touched by fans lining the aisles. Each fighter enters to thumping music, ranging from the harsh but urban sounds of rap to such pop standards as "Staying Alive" and, invariably, "Eye of the Tiger." One fight ends nearly as quickly as Lytle's—it takes just 68 seconds for middleweight Ricardo Almeida to dust off Rob Yundt—while another middleweight, Nate Marquardt, needs six minutes and 37 seconds to close out Jeremy Horn.
Almeida and Marquardt owe their victories to the guillotine choke. Using the arms to encircle the opponent's neck in a fashion similar to a guillotine, pressure is applied to the trachea and airflow to the lungs is dramatically curtailed. Skillfully executed, the guillotine choke can cause unconsciousness.
At last it's time for Lesnar-Mir. There's more music and a sound bite from Lesnar: "The first thing that will go through Frank's mind is 'Holy bleep.'" Draped on the ropes behind Mir is a towel that says "Hostility." On Lesnar's shirt are the words "Death Club." Barry Bonds is on his feet.