Mixed martial arts goes mainstream

BY DAN ALBAN

For the past two Saturday nights, millions of sports fans have been glued to their TV sets as highly trained fighters slug it out for championship belts, future fight contracts, and athletic glory. But rather than fighting in a boxing ring and following the rules established in 1867 by the Marquis of Queensbury, these athletes compete in an octagonal “cage” made of padded posts and a rubberized chain-link fence and follow a minimal set of rules (essentially: no biting, eye-gouging, or potentially dangerous strikes to vulnerable areas such as the groin, throat or spine) established in 2001 by the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC). Ultimate fighting – better known to its fans as mixed martial arts or MMA – has finally hit the big-time!

For two weekends in a row, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has capitalized on the success of its hit Spike TV reality show The Ultimate Fighter (think WWE’s Tough Enough, but with real fighting) with live events designed to attract a mainstream sports audience. On Saturday, April 9, Spike aired the live finals of The Ultimate Fighter from Las Vegas, as four previously “minor league” MMA fighters competed for a six-figure UFC contract in two weight divisions. Over 2.6 million viewers tuned in for the 2-hour program and viewership peaked at an incredible 10 million viewers during the captivating back-and-forth battle between light heavyweight contestants Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar. Then, on Saturday, April 16, the UFC broadcast its live pay-per-view event, UFC 52, featuring a re-match between Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, the coaches of the two teams on The Ultimate Fighter, for the light heavyweight belt. In addition to selling out MGM’s Grand Garden Arena with nearly 15,000 fans, the event is expected to produce as many as 200,000 pay-per-view buys.

Among many other major media outlets, USA Today covered The Ultimate Fighter finals with a piece on the pending business success of the UFC. An online poll accompanied the article, asking, “Should Spike show Ultimate Fighting Championship fights live on prime time television?” Of the more than 7500 respondents at press time, 76% answered, “Yes, it is no worse than boxing and more exciting,” 19% answered “Yes, turn the channel if you don’t want to watch” while only 4% answered in the negative. Among other signs of MMA going mainstream, Yahoo’s Buzz Log of Internet search spikes and trends profiled the UFC on Monday, April 18 as a rising new sport that may replace the faltering sport of boxing, noting that UFC-related searches were among the top 30 overall Internet searches on the Sunday following the UFC 52 event.

Poised on the verge of mainstream acceptance, MMA has come a long way in its 12-year modern history. While the concept of mixed martial arts actually dates to the ancient Greek Olympics of 648 B.C. when it was called Pankration (“all powers”), it was essentially lost to time with the abolition of the ancient Olympics in 393 A.D. In the modern era, MMA was originally formulated as a way to test the capabilities of the various martial arts (and martial artists) against each other in a neutral forum with minimal rules.

However, as promoters began to foolishly hype the follow-up events as a “blood sport” where “There are no rules!” Critics decried the sport as barbaric and called it “human cock-fighting.” In 1996, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) wrote a letter to the governors of all 50 states calling for a ban on the UFC. (This despite the fact that McCain was a long-time fan of boxing who had been ringside at the 1995 ring death of boxer Jimmy Garcia.) Political pressure mounted; some states banned the sport, and larger venues often refused to host UFC events, exiling it to small Indian casinos in the Midwest and Deep South. In 1997, McCain exerted pressure on the cable industry as chairman of the commerce committee, and major cable companies stopped airing UFC pay-per-view events. This nearly brought the fledgling sport to an end; the UFC struggled to find an audience, and failed in attempts to become a sanctioned sport due to political isolation.

But in 2001, the owners of the Station Casinos in Las Vegas bought out the UFC. Freed of political baggage, and with connections to the boxing commissions, the UFC and other MMA promotions were able to modify the rules and secure sanctioning first in New Jersey, then in Nevada. The UFC triumphantly returned to widespread cable pay-per-view with UFC 33: Victory in Vegas in the fall of 2001.

Today, MMA has moved beyond the early “blood sport” image and is a legitimate, and very exciting, sport with highly conditioned & well-trained athletes who are amazingly skilled martial artists. Despite frequent confusion in the media, MMA is not a “Toughman” competition, where amateur, often untrained, fighters don oversized boxing gloves and wail away at each other for one-minute rounds under modified boxing rules. Instead, MMA is like a combination of the four modern Olympic sports of wrestling, judo, boxing, and taekwondo. In fact, many Olympic medalists in wrestling and judo have also successfully competed in MMA, including popular U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling gold medalist Rulon Gardner.

Realizing that no single martial art is well-rounded enough to deal with all potential areas of fighting, MMA competitors cross-train in a variety of striking and grappling arts, usually incorporating boxing, kickboxing or muay thai, wrestling, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu or submission wrestling into their training regimen. MMA has become its own time-tested martial art – evolved from a combination of other martial arts and refined over thousands of real full-contact competitions between top martial artists.

MMA is exciting in part because there are so many ways to win – takedowns, throws, punching, kicking, knees, elbow strikes, and submission holds (arm locks, leg locks, chokes). This makes the fights as much of a mental chess match as a physical contest, attracting many competitors (and fans) who like the strategy almost as much as the fighting itself. Fighters may honorably end a fight at any time by “tapping out” to signal their surrender, while the ref may also stop a fight for a cut or if he feels a fighter is too injured to continue. Fights that go the distance (often 3 rounds of 5 minutes each) are scored by a panel of judges on a “10-point must” system, just like in pro boxing.

While it is also very popular overseas, MMA is fully sanctioned in the U.S. by several state athletic commissions and there are actually quite a few rules to protect the safety of the fighters and prohibit potentially dangerous strikes such as head-butts and kicks to the head of a downed opponent. Competitors weigh-in before the events and must compete in their own weight class. They wear protective equipment such as mouthpieces, groin cups, and lightweight grappling gloves that protect their hands from injury while still enabling them to grab onto their opponent for grappling techniques. Many MMA events are held in a rubberized chain-link-fence cage because grappling in a ring can be dangerous – the fighters can easily slip through the ropes and fall onto the hard surface below.

Because of these safety precautions and because the close quarters grappling aspect of the sport reduces the frequency of high impact collisions, there are many fewer serious injuries in MMA than in other contact sports such as boxing, football, rugby, and hockey. There has only been one death in the sport of MMA, in an event in Kiev, Ukraine in 1998, where American Douglas Dedge fought against doctor’s orders and despite a pre-existing medical condition that was frequently causing him to black out in training (US promoters were unwilling to let him compete with his condition). His death is unmistakably tragic, and may have been preventable, but this single death in MMA compares favorably to the death toll of boxing (1,197 total deaths as of January 2004) and even high school football, which averages about 4 deaths per year.

Given the somewhat hazardous nature of the sport, you might
wonder what sort of extreme competitors it attracts. While MMA certainly does have its fringe element, many fighters defy these stereotypes; these athletes are often smart, articulate, and friendly. Four-time UFC champion Randy “The Natural” Couture is an amazingly fit 41-year-old former Greco Roman wrestling champion and father of three; he is also nicknamed “Captain America” because he’s been such a friendly and humble ambassador for the sport. Few would guess that his UFC 52 opponent earned a B.A. in business/accounting from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, but Mohawk-sporting, tattoo-covered Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell is more than meets the eye. Despite his intense appearance, Chuck derives his nickname from his cool-as-ice demeanor; the tattoo on the side of his shaved head is actually the Kanji character representing peace & prosperity.

Many of the contestants in The Ultimate Fighter Finale are similarly well educated and down-to-earth. Mild-mannered Stephan Bonnar, a light heavyweight finalist, double-majored with a 3.8 GPA at Purdue University and is currently enrolled in grad school. His opponent, jokester Forrest Griffin, graduated from UGA, but quit his job as a police officer and gave up law school aspirations to participate in the show. Middleweight finalist Kenny Florian, a Boston native, graduated from Boston College and works as a translator for financial services.

The Ultimate Fighter Finale on April 9 matched Bonnar (6-2) against Griffin (10-2), and Florian (4-2) against submission wrestler Diego Sanchez (15-0), with the winner of each bout receiving a $350,000, three-year contract with the UFC. In the middleweight (185 lb) fight, the younger but more experienced Sanchez dominated the smaller Florian, taking him down, passing his ground defense, and battering him with punches until the referee halted the contest at 2:49 of the first round, awarding Sanchez the TKO and the six-figure UFC contract.

The light heavyweight (205 lb) bout, in contrast, was a war of wills between two evenly matched opponents who just wouldn’t give up – it showcased MMA at its finest and many feel that it was one of the best fights in UFC history. Griffin and Bonnar fought at a breathtaking pace – trading punching combos & kicks from the outside, and uppercuts & knees from the clinch, with both landing solid shots in a fight that included several takedowns, an armbar attempt, a bloody cut on the bridge of Griffin’s nose, and, in the later rounds, severely fatigued fighters who just refused to quit. After the fight ended, Griffin and Bonnar hugged and congratulated each other, unsure who had won the fight. While there was no clear winner in the fight, and many observers felt it was a draw, the NSAC judges unanimously scored the fight 29-28 for Forrest Griffin. After awarding Griffin the contract and other prizes, UFC president Dana White announced that in that fight there was no loser, and that the UFC would be offering Stephan Bonnar a six-figure contract as well, bringing the crowd to its feet and warm fuzzies into the hearts of TV viewers who had just witnessed an incredible contest of athleticism and wills.

The following Saturday was UFC 52. The main event pitted reigning light heavyweight champion Randy Couture (13-7) against #1 contender Chuck Liddell (16-3), in a re-match of their June 2003 fight which Couture had won by TKO in the third round after slamming Liddell with a takedown and hammering him with punches while on top of him. However, Liddell avenged his loss in this contest with a short punch that caught the defending champ across the jaw, resulting in a flash knockout at 2:06 of Round 1. After the fight, neither fighter had anything but positive things to say about his opponent. “I’ve been waiting for this [winning the title] my whole career. Randy is a great champion and a great guy,” said Liddell, adding “That was the first time in my career that I haven’t wanted to hit somebody when they went down.” Couture was gracious, as always, in defeat, commenting “I’m happy for Chuck, he deserves it.” He took his loss of the belt in stride, explaining, “You stay in here long enough, sooner or later that’s bound to happen. I’ll be back, I guarantee it.” As the sport continues to grow in popularity, it seems likely that a Couture-Liddell rubber match will attract the attention of even more sports fans, taking MMA further into the mainstream.

Dan Alban is a long-time MMA fan and invites any interested readers to join him on Saturday, April 23 to watch the highly anticipated opening round of Pride Fighting Championship’s Middleweight Grand Prix 16-man tournament from Japan. Email dalban@law.harvard.edu for details.

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