Sports Illustrated: The rising interest in mixed martial arts is tied to Ultimate Fighting, which changed its ways to gain acceptance. Now its success is changing the sports landscape
By L. Jon Wertheim
Saturday night was all right for fighting. But the pageantry for the 69th card in the Ultimate Fighting Championship's tough-and-rumble existence began much earlier that week. Long before the fighters unhinged the latch of the steel Octagon on April 7 and fought on a card titled UFC 69: Shootout, thousands of fans had converged on Houston, tribalists on a pilgrimage. The prefight weigh-ins drew massive crowds. The line for the fighters' autograph show wreathed the girth of the Toyota Center, the venue for UFC 69. The downtown bars and restaurants were overrun by fight fans.
Some were your typical badasses, lacking a full complement of teeth, wearing shirts adorned with messages the likes of fight me, i'm irish. But most were like Romeo Nava, 26, an aircraft mechanic from Edinburg, Texas. Nava and two buddies had gotten up at an ungodly hour the morning of the fights and made the five-hour drive through dust-choked towns to get to Houston early. They'd each paid $250 for the seats and considered neither the early wake-up nor the ticket price a sacrifice. In another era three amigos from the guts of Texas would have made such a road trip for an Aerosmith concert or an NFL game. But now ... "pretty much everyone I know is into UFC," says Nava. "You get an adrenaline rush even watching it."
The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), of which Ultimate Fighting Championship is the most popular enterprise, has penetrated the defense of the mainstream and applied a choke hold to that golden 18-to-34 male demographic. The UFC's weekly reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, on Spike TV, often eclipses the television ratings of the NBA and baseball playoffs in that target audience. The names of UFC fighters are some of the most popular entries in Internet search engines come fight time. UFC events do bigger pay-per-view numbers than any pro wrestling event or boxing card this side of Mayweather-De La Hoya. (UFC's 2006 PPV revenues were almost $223 million, compared with $177 million for boxing on HBO and $200 million for WWE.)
All that marketing info was embodied in the UFC 69 prefight tableau. The fighters, managers and other plenipotentiaries stayed at the Hilton, lodging arrangements that were publicized on the UFC's message boards; and so it was that the lobby was thronged with dudes old enough to vote but too young to be president, armed with camera phones and Sharpies, hoping for a memento from the weekend. The St. Louis Cardinals were playing the Astros a few blocks away, but no one cared -- Pujols, schmujols -- at least so long as, say, Josh Koscheck was in the house. And Koscheck is only a borderline star. From the moment the crowd spotted Randy Couture, the current heavyweight champ, the membrane of admirers around him became so thick that it spilled into the hotel's Easter display. Thereafter he needed to use secret routes to get to his room, at one point cutting through a kitchen.
Early on Saturday evening, UFC Nation left the Hilton en masse, crossed the street and entered the Toyota Center, where it was greeted by a predictable rotation of loud, aggressive "psych-up" music -- White Stripes, Slipknot, Linkin Park -- and an elaborate light show. The first fight pitted welterweights Luke (the Silent Assassin) Cummo against Josh (Bring the Pain) Haynes, both of whom were alums of The Ultimate Fighter show and, thus, were known quantities to the crowd. Cummo, 27, is a vegetarian from New Hyde Park, N.Y.; Haynes, a 29-year-old father of three from Oregon, weighed more than 300 pounds before discovering MMA and whittling himself to his present fighting weight of 170.
The fight (there are three five-minute rounds in UFC; five in title bouts) was competitive and fairly typical of any MMA competition, a marriage of the "striking" of boxing and kickboxing with the "ground game" of jujitsu and wrestling. Wearing the requisite trunks and four-ounce, open-fingered gloves, Cummo and Haynes spent part of the first round boxing toe-to-toe and the rest of it grappling on the ground. In Round 2 Cummo began dialing in his punches and finally clocked Haynes with a right hand. Kneeling on the canvas, Haynes lunged for his opponent's legs, the textbook MMA response of a downed fighter. Problem was, his neurological wiring having short-circuited, Haynes grabbed the legs not of Cummo but of the referee, who promptly waved off the fight.
So it went for the next four hours. The fights were awkward at worst, exhilarating at best. Two bouts were won by knockout, two others by submissions (one induced with a choke, the other with a pretzeling ankle lock), a few more by anticlimactic decision. Among the combatants were former NCAA wrestlers and professional boxers, plus black belts in martial arts, all of whom had picked up additional disciplines. But, unmistakably, each fighter was endowed with technical skills.
Admittedly, the Octagon -- with its medieval two-men-enter, one-man-leaves echoes -- can be a jarring sight. But the action in the ring was something beyond glorified street fighting. Violent? Unquestionably. There were whooomphs and craaaacks, as well as rivulets of blood running down fighters' faces. Two weeks later, at UFC 70: Nations Collide, Brazilian heavyweight Gabriel Gonzaga would bloody the face of his opponent, Mirko Cro Cop, with elbow shots and then deliver a roundhouse kick to the head. Cro Cop (real name: Mirko Filipovic), a former Croatian antiterrorism officer and member of parliament when he's not fighting, was instantly knocked out, and as he collapsed, his right knee and ankle bent at such hideous angles that even hard-core UFC fans recoiled. A little.
But as UFC officials say with almost evangelical conviction, the sport is safer and less violent than boxing -- and after watching both sports up close, it's hard to disagree. (Within a few minutes Cro Cop, for example, had regained his senses and walked out of the Octagon.) Boxing doesn't permit fighters to change tactics by clutching or wrestling. And one could even make a credible case that UFC and other MMA competitions are less brutal than -- dare we say it? -- the NFL. "It's a combat sport, and injuries can happen," says Couture. "But what a lot of people don't realize is that you're not there to hurt the other guy. Your adversary isn't your enemy. It's a kinetic chess kind of thing."
In the main event in Houston, welterweight champ Georges (Rush) St. Pierre, a quiet French Canadian, fought Matt (the Terror) Serra, a squat New Yorker known as a submission expert. An 8-to-1 underdog -- naturally, there are Vegas lines on UFC fights -- Serra cracked St. Pierre with a right cross midway through the first round. As St. Pierre fell to the canvas, Serra pounced on him and unleashed a flurry of haymakers. When, mercifully, the referee stopped the fight, Serra celebrated with a round-off. Hardly appearing like a man who'd just had his brainpan battered, St. Pierre showered, changed into a dapper suit and sought out the media to apologize to the fans "for my deeply disappointing performance."
The fans seemed to enjoy UFC 69 all the same; no one asked for a refund on seats that ran as high as $450. When the last of the ticket sales and Budweiser beer-concession receipts were tallied, UFC 69 was the highest grossing event in the history of the Toyota Center. The second-highest? A 2005 Rolling Stones concert.
In the winter of 1994 Bruce Beck sat in a television production meeting in Tulsa. Beck was a freelance sportscaster who had hosted Showtime's Championship Boxing and done play-by-play of Golden Gloves events, and his agent had just landed him a gig covering a fledgling sport called ultimate fighting. He was paired with former Olympic wrestler Jeff Blatnick. Beck had some initial misgivings, but listened eagerly as UFC officials explained the sport's rules. There would be no biting, no eye-gouging and no fish-hooking. Beck waited to hear the rest of the regulations ... and he waited. Groin kicks, head butts, hair-pulling? All legal. There would be no rounds, no judges, no weight classes, no weight limits. "At least," Beck thought to himself, "it must be hard to cheat."
Bob Meyrowitz, a New York City entrepreneur perhaps most famous for creating the King Biscuit Flower Hour radio show in the 1970s, is generally credited with bringing Ultimate Fighting Championship to the masses in '93. The premise was simple: Why should fans of combat sports belly up to a bar and argue hypothetically over who'd win a fight between Mike Tyson and Bruce Lee, or over who was tougher, a Brazilian jujitsu master or an Iowa wrestler, when you could put the two guys in a confined space and let 'em have at it?
In the beginning, UFC events were more spectacle than sport, a banquet of violence that lowered civilization's limbo bar. The fights were held in small amphitheaters and civic centers, invariably in states in which boxing commissions were either inept or nonexistent. But bloodthirsty crowds showed up, and, more important, the cards were available on pay-per-view. In 1994, in a fight that typified the UFC's early existence, 200-pound karate expert Keith Hackney beat a 600-pound sumo wrestler into submission, jackhammering his opponent with kicks to the groin and punches to the back of the head. "Before each fight I prayed no one would get killed," says Beck, now an Emmy-winning sportscaster at New York City's NBC affiliate. (For the record, no UFC fighter has died as a result of injuries suffered in a sanctioned event.)
The UFC was, justifiably, an easy target for politicians, including John McCain, who took the Senate floor in 1996 and famously dismissed it as "human cockfighting." Time and again, cards would be scheduled and then canceled or hastily relocated after civic leaders learned what exactly would be going on in that steel contraption being assembled inside their town's auditorium. Eventually the political outcry rose to a roar, and even the moral arbiters at pay-per-view carriers were growing queasy about showing Ultimate Fighting Championship events.
Meanwhile, in Las Vegas, Dana White, a scrappy Boston native and gym owner with an outsized personality, was training professional boxers; one of his fighters, Derrick Harmon, was once fodder for Roy Jones Jr., but mostly White was a fringe player. He supplemented his income by leading boxercise classes and giving lessons to Las Vegas's landed gentry for $45 an hour. On a lark he took a mixed-martial-arts class with a UFC fighter. "I never really [cared about] the ground game," he recalls, "but when I got on the mat, I was like, This is so cool. For every move, there's a countermove." White even began managing a few of the fighters.
He spread the gospel to two casino magnate friends, Frank Fertitta III and his brother, Lorenzo. (Lorenzo was also a respected member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission who distinguished himself as a voice of reason in the 1997 Mike Tyson ear-biting affair.) Hooked on the sport, White and the Fertittas took MMA classes together and sparred with each other, traveled to UFC events and befriended more fighters. When the UFC was gasping for air, White seized on an idea. "Let's buy the thing!" he suggested to his millionaire pals. The brothers would put up the money; White would be the front man. The three purchased the property from Meyrowitz in January 2001 for the larcenous price of $2 million.
White, now 37, has no college degree, no formal business training and an unshakable habit of dropping f-bombs in most sentences he utters. By his own admission he can be volatile and polarizing, but he has proved to be the ideal leader for UFC.
While his ultimate loyalty is to the Fertittas and their financial interests, White comes across not as a sports executive but as a fan. Much like his sport, White, who has a shaved head and wears skintight T-shirts and a silver belt buckle adorned with a skull, doesn't much traffic in nuance. To help persuade fighter Tito Ortiz to re-sign, White agreed to box him. (Ortiz was no-show.) When boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. recently slammed the UFC -- "UFC ain't s---. It ain't but a fad," he said. "Anyone can put a tattoo on his head and get in a street fight" -- White fired back, daring him to get into the Octagon.
Mostly because of stunts like this, White is as recognizable a character as any UFC fighter. Not unlike a jujitsu master, he has deployed all the right moves and countermoves while running UFC. He recognized that while the Octagon was essential to marketing, UFC had to lose the image of barbarity and trumpet the safety precautions it adopted in November 2000, when the league added weight classes and 28 rules first proposed by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board to the original three.
While regulations such as a prohibition on "putting a finger into any orifice or into any cut or laceration" may not exactly recall the Marquess of Queensberry, the rules improved not only safety but marketability as well. Pay-per-view returned, forgetting its queasiness now that there was the potential for big bucks. No-holds-barred extreme fighting, such as the original UFC, was banned in 36 states; the new Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts have either been approved or are under review in all states with a sanctioning athletic commission. "You're going to see worse cuts in MMA than in boxing, especially with longer rounds, and there are more knockouts," says Dr. Margaret Goodman, chairwoman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission's Medical Advisory Board. "But overall, is it safer than boxing? I think so. The guys [submit], and it's over. You don't have standing eight counts, you don't have 10 rounds of guys taking shots to the head."
Another slick move was creating The Ultimate Fighter, which matched aspiring UFC combatants, in 2005. Apart from capitalizing on the reality-television craze, the show demystified the sport of MMA, served as a sort of UFC farm system and made stars out of the fighters. After a dozen episodes viewers were intimately familiar with the personality and backstory of, say, Haynes, whose son Thor was born with a brain tumor and underwent seven surgeries and months of chemotherapy but has been cancer-free for four years. By the time he graduated from the show last June, Haynes already had traction with the fans. What's more, the show doubles as a de facto infomercial for the pay-per-view cards.
UFC is more likely to draw viewership away from WWE than boxing. "Athletes want to compete and [MMA] gives you a chance to do that in a way that pro wrestling doesn't," says former UFC middleweight champion Frank Shamrock.
Perhaps above all, White had seen firsthand how "f----- up" (his words) boxing was and did everything to avoid those missteps. "Blame Don King and Bob Arum. Those two sucked the life out of boxing, put it in their pockets and did nothing to secure the future of [the sport]," White says, his voice filling like a sail. "We just had a card that was like the biggest marketing spend in England's history! My CFO said, 'You know how long it will take to make this money back?' I said, 'I don't care if you're a f------ sheepherder in the middle of nowhere. You better have heard of the UFC!'"
The growing popularity of MMA and the creation of weight classes has upgraded the quality of UFC competition. Gone are the immobile 600-pound behemoths and the brawlers such as Tank Abbott -- an early UFC cult hero who was hyped as specializing "in the ancient martial art of kicking ass" -- replaced by world-class athletes. "If you're going to measure every parameter [endurance, flexibility, coordination, strength], without a doubt, MMA fighters are the most accomplished athletes out there," says Carlon Colker, a Connecticut physician who has trained or advised the likes of Andre Agassi and Shaquille O'Neal as well as UFC fighters. "It's not even close."
As the UFC improved the product, the pedigree of its participants changed too. One of the organization's talking points: Around 80% of the fighters have college degrees, including Chuck Liddell -- he of the recent Entourage cameo -- who may look like a bouncer at a biker bar but was an accounting major at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Rich Franklin, a former middleweight champ, was a high school math teacher in Cincinnati. Even Ortiz, the resident bad boy who's dating porn star Jenna Jameson, can come across as thoughtful and well-spoken.
Top fighters like Ortiz have contracts that pay them six figures per fight and can earn seven figures when bonuses and a percentage of the pay-per-view haul are factored in. Lower-profile fighters on the same card, however, might earn only $2,000 to $3,000 for a bout. The UFC's current Zeus, heavyweight champ Couture, is a 43-year-old father of three who was an All-America wrestler at Oklahoma State, twice finishing as the heavyweight runner-up in the NCAA tournament, and served in the military for six years. After failing to make the 1996 Olympic team -- the third time he was an alternate -- Couture figured his career in competitive sports was over. He was an assistant wrestling coach at Oregon when he saw a former Oklahoma State teammate, Don Frye, fighting on a televised MMA card.
Couture tried the sport, and it fed something in him. He had the wrestling component down. He picked up the boxing, the kicking and the ground game. He made his UFC debut in 1997; three fights later he was competing for a belt. "My goal was to be an Olympic wrestler, and I think if I would have achieved that, I would have been content," he says. "Instead, in my mid-30s I still had this hunger to compete -- and thankfully I had a place to transfer it." Strangely, the nerves that plagued him at the worst moments when he wrestled haven't surfaced when he's fighting in a steel cage.
Couture came out of a 13-month retirement in March to fight UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia, 31. In a brutal but strategic fight, Couture scored a shocking upset and was subsequently accorded rock-star status. He landed a role in an upcoming David Mamet martial arts movie, Redbelt. ("Randy has some acting chops," says Mamet, a jujitsu enthusiast and UFC fan.) Couture's agent (all the top fighters have them) has been in negotiations for endorsements with a variety of companies. His nonprofit (the top guns have these too), Operation Xtreme Sacrifice, will host what Couture bills as a nonpolitical event on May 27 to benefit American troops wounded in action. "I think a lot of us are still trying to grasp the magnitude of all of this," he says. "In a sport like wrestling, you assume that after the Olympics, that's it, time for a real job. All of a sudden there's an opportunity, and it just keeps growing. What can you do besides ride the wave?"
On a lonesome stretch of Iowa highway, the parking lot of the Lumberyard II is overflowing with cars. The Lumberyard II ("Where real men go for wood") is a strip club in Cedar Rapids, but on this unseasonably warm night in early spring, the crowd is there to see minimally clad men, not women. It's Tuesday, which means it's Amateur MMA Night, the creation of Monte Cox, a former boxer turned promoter. As the sports editor of the Quad-City Times, in Davenport, Cox covered an MMA fight in the mid-'90s and, as he puts it, "saw the light." He quit his newspaper job and started to manage UFC fighters and promote MMA cards on the side. Today he represents dozens of competitors and puts on an average of one MMA card a week. "It was obvious that this sport was going to take off," he says. "People are always going to want to watch two guys fight -- and boxing is a joke compared to this."
The fighters inside Lumberyard II aren't paid a dime and don't get a cut of the $10 cover. They sign a waiver before they even remove their shirts. The ringside EMT and the defibrillator kit suggest a potential for injury. Still, Cox has to cap the card at a dozen fights. "Otherwise," he says, "we'll be here till the morning." Unlike Toughman contests -- those box-offs that pit rank amateurs against each other and make news every couple of years when a contestant dies from injuries suffered in the ring -- amateur MMA night attracts experienced and skilled fighters. Muscles bulging and ears cauliflowered, the combatants are mostly former high school and college wrestlers who have learned taekwondo, jujitsu and kickboxing. A number of current UFC stars got their start at events like this, including middleweight "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler, an Iowa native who has fought on seven UFC cards. "These are the kind of kids who once wanted to be professional football or baseball players," says Cox, a burly former boxer in his mid-40s. "Now they all want to be MMA stars."
Iowa has become a fertile crescent of sorts for MMA, a distinction that owes largely to one man. Long before he became a UFC lightweight and welterweight champ, Pat Miletich was a minor legend in the MMA subculture. A former high school wrestler and football star, Miletich spent most of his 20s barnstorming the Midwest, fighting in underground no-holds-barred events. Miletich often spotted his opponents 100 pounds, but -- mostly on account of his Brazilian jujitsu training and singular intensity -- he invariably gave worse than he got.
In the late 1990s Miletich opened a training academy in his hometown of Bettendorf, and aspiring MMA competitors from all over the country converged on the gym. Former lightweight champ Jens (Lil Evil) Pulver, for instance, took a train to Iowa from Washington State in 2001 and slept on a karate mat in Miletich's gym until he could earn enough by fighting to afford his own efficiency apartment. "Best move I ever made," says Pulver, now UFC aristocracy. On any given morning Miletich's gym, a few blocks from the banks of the Mississippi, is home to a MMA all-star team -- Sylvia, former welterweight titleholder Matt Hughes, light heavyweight Jeremy Horn -- whaling away at punching mats and rolling each other around on sweat-saturated mats. Like a Buddha clad in a silk karate gi, Miletich sits cross-legged, speaking only when he feels he has something profound to say.
Now 39, Miletich is a bridge between MMA's past and future. He's heard the explanations for the sport's surging popularity. MMA has siphoned fans who are alienated by corrupt boxing promoters and the choreography of WWE, pay-per-view ripoffs and unsympathetic fighters.... MMA is of a piece with Red Bull and instant messaging and video games, a sport for an ever-coarsening culture that deplores subtlety and patience.... MMA has some international flavor, but at a time when other sports are globalizing, the stars are predominantly American males -- white ones, at that.... Violence sells.
Miletich thinks it all points to something more primal. "It seems like there are fewer and fewer opportunities to find out who you really are," he says. "With this combination of violence and discipline -- brains and brawn -- you have a hell of a way to find out. Same thing from the fans' perspective. There's no b.s. Two guys are stripped down. One wins, one loses. Where else do you get that anymore?"
It's as much a part of human nature as the impulse to watch two men fight: thriving enterprises breed competition. In addition to training fighters, Miletich coaches the Quad City Silverbacks of the International Fight League (IFL), a 12-team MMA circuit. A publicly traded company, the IFL has a weekly television show on Fox Sports Net and MyNetworks and plans to expand internationally. While the IFL fighters are mostly up-and-comers, the franchise coaches -- Frank and Ken Shamrock, Don Frye -- were top UFC fighters of the previous era. There are other MMA leagues too: EliteXC, England's Cage Rage, Strikeforce, Bodog Fight and SpiritXC. On June 2 in L.A., Johnnie Morton, a former Detroit Lions receiver, and Brock Lesnar, a former NCAA heavyweight wrestling champ turned professional wrestling star, are fighting on a K-1 Dynamite card. Even Meyrowitz, the UFC founder, is apparently looking to get back in the game, recently pitching networks on a new MMA league.
White, as one might expect, fights ruthlessly against the competition. In March, UFCpurchased its Asian rival, Pride, for a reported $70 million, with designs on creating Super Bowl-style megafights. UFC fighters under contract are strictly forbidden from fighting in other organizations. In the past, fighters at odds with White have seen their names and achievements removed from the UFC's official website. "Dana," says one UFC employee, "doesn't always play nice." (White is also smart enough to know that if there's one MMA fatality, even if it's on some unsanctioned card and not in an official UFC bout, the whole enterprise could be sunk.)
White cuts the figure of a stage parent, fiercely proud and protective of his offspring. As he sees it, the UFC is on the verge of becoming the next NASCAR, and he'll be damned if he's going to loosen his grip now. White picks the new fighters and negotiates their contracts on the UFC's behalf; he determines most purses; he helps make matches; he selects venues; he handpicked the broadcast team of college football play-by-play announcer Mike Goldberg and former Fear Factor host Joe Rogan. Inevitably, UFC cards will be broadcast on premium channels, but talks with HBO are said to be held up in part because White was unwilling to cede control of the production. Negotiations are still on-going but HBO does not see UFC as a replacement for boxing. "This is the s--- I'm passionate about," says White. "I'd say one of the best things about me is how aggressive I am, and it's also probably the worst."
And while analysts conservatively value the league at more than $100 million, don't even bother asking White if he'd ever consider taking the UFC public. "Never!" he says. "Have a bunch of pencil necks in New York telling me how to run my business? Guys who went to college, and Bear Stearns, who are like, The numbers don't make sense?" he says. "I'm going to f------ do it the way I want to do it."
When UFC 69 concluded, White held court at the postfight press conference. He offered a candid assessment of the bouts. With a pained expression, he declared the much-anticipated fight between Diego Sanchez and Josh Koscheck a disappointment. "They didn't let their hands go as much as they should have," he said. On the podium alongside White, Koscheck looked down ashamedly. White praised an electrifying fight between Roger Huerta and Leonard García. "Roger's a good-looking kid, the ladies love him, and more important, he speaks Spanish!" White said. When it came time to announce the gate, an impish smile stole across his face. "Two-point-eight million," he said. "Who's your daddy?"
By then, UFC Nation had gravitated back to the Hilton and was again clogging the lobby. Fans posed alongside Serra as he displayed his new belt. They repaired to the bar and bought shots for some of the fighters they'd just cheered in the Octagon. They stayed up all night arguing about fights, speculating on matchups and making arrangements to meet up at future cards. This went beyond voyeurism or bloodlust. In fact, there's a term for this breed of zealots. Sports fans, we call them.