Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a full-contact combat sport (vaguely reminiscent of scenes from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) which blends elements of more familiar disciplines such as karate, boxing, wrestling, and judo. Many of the top competitors are world class athletes, even former Olympians. The leading and oldest promoter of MMA matches (other than perhaps the ancient Greeks, whose pankration might have been more enduring had they insisted that the athletes wear clothes) is the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC. The UFC launched the sport on pay-per-view in the early ’90s and is now promoting a Saturday, November 12th match on Fox. This marks the league’s first foray into network television.
The UFC is a brand on the move. The company attracts sponsors like Harley Davidson, Burger King, Gatorade, and the United States Marine Corps. The stands of any given event play host to mainstream celebrities like comedian Kevin James, pop singer Mandy Moore, basketball player Shaquille O’Neal, and football player Reggie Bush. UFC events fill stadiums across the country and regularly outsell other pay-per-view programming such as boxing.
A few years ago, I attended the inaugural UFC FanFest at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas. It was like any other major convention. Pretty models beckoned attendees into booths to examine wares. Sponsors dispensed free samples — the Bud Light booth was quite popular. Titans of the industry held Q and A sessions and made personal appearances in product booths to sign autographs. The average attendee was perhaps a bit more musclebound than one you might find at a consumer electronics convention. I laughed out loud as a man spotted a favorite fighter and excitedly greeted him by his nickname: “Hey Ax Murderer!” But the event was professionally run, and the fighters were approachable, even family friendly. This was a mainstream convention for a brand with designs on becoming a household name.
It hasn’t always been that way. The earliest UFC matches were held as a series of tournaments to settle age old debates as to which fighting art was superior. Since there were no weight classes, the tournaments featured freak show matchups like the very first one: a kickboxer versus a sumo wrestler. There also weren’t many rules to speak of. The bout ended in short order when the sumo’s teeth got kicked out.
While this nascent version of MMA was probably pleasing to philosophically pure libertarians, it was unsustainable. Longtime boxing fan Senator John McCain referred to it as “human cockfighting” and it was effectively banned in most states and from most television outlets. So in a bid for survival, the promoters of MMA ushered in sweeping changes. The current incarnation is regulated by state athletic commissions just as boxing. There are trained referees in the ring, qualified judges, fight doctors present at all times, and inspectors on watch to ensure that the competition is legitimate. While the sport has only been around for 20 years in its current incarnation, all evidence indicates that it is much safer than boxing. Admittedly, the sport is still not for everyone — there will be blood — but walking around a shopping mall looking at shoes on the weekend isn’t for everyone either.
The November 12th match marks the debut of a new seven-year partnership between the UFC and Fox. While this is not the first MMA bout to air on network television (that honor belongs to a now defunct promotion whose fight card aired on CBS in 2008) it is a watershed moment for a sport seeking mainstream credibility. The Fox deal places MMA programming on a network that is a broadcast home for such household brands as NFL, MLB, and NASCAR.
Fox has thrown the full weight of its Fox Sports brand behind the UFC partnership. Anyone who watches Fox NFL coverage, or any male-oriented programming on cable for that matter, has been bombarded with commercials. Fox, occasionally the broadcast home of the Super Bowl, has promised that the November 12th event, to be held in Anaheim, will feature a star-studded red carpet replete with Hollywood celebrities and a Super Bowl-style tailgate party.
The UFC is on the move in foreign markets too. It recently held events in the United Kingdom, Brazil, and Dubai. In February, it is promoting an event at one of the most prestigious arenas in Japan. And UFC leadership has its sights aggressively set on China and the Middle East. The first fight for the Fox partnership was carefully selected: heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, a Mexican-American billed as the first Mexican heavyweight champion in any sport, is set to face number one contender Junior Dos Santos of Brazil.
MMA is a commercially viable sport that draws major sponsorships, sells out wherever events are held, is viewed by hundreds of thousands on paid television, and stands poised for even more growth with new network coverage. The sport is legal in 45 states, one of the few holdouts being my native New York. Thanks to the personal crusade of one assemblyman who has an outdated understanding of MMA, millions of fans are deprived of the possibility of an event at Madison Square Garden. And my fiscally imperiled state is missing out on boatloads of cash.
Still, MMA marches on with or without the Empire State. You can now bet on matches in the sportsbook of any casino, or watch at your corner bar. And promoters are doing their best to dispel any lingering comparisons to cockfighting. If you have never been exposed to MMA, I’ve got some homework for you. Take an hour to watch the November 12th event. You may or may not like what you see, but chances are you will be impressed with the sportsmanship of the fighters and the overall professionalism of the affair. You might even be converted into a lifetime fan like I was. Just don’t be disappointed when Tina Turner doesn’t show up to officiate.