Ultimate fighting, it seems, has finally come of age. UFC’s recently announced seven year, one hundred million dollar deal with Fox TV imparts a legitimacy to the bloodsport. And now we as a culture are going to have to have an adult conversation about whether or not ultimate fighting should or should not be a “mainstream” sport. Then again, the people may have already spoken on that, as the television deal and the hardcore following the sport has suggests.
UFC is not the anarchic gladiatorial fundament depicted in the movie “Fight Club.” I am somewhat of a divided mind about ultimate fighting. On the one hand, there is quite a bit of “art” that goes into these mixed martial arts — but a manly, very physical kind of art, to be sure. On the other hand, a strong though somewhat prudish argument could be made that it is indeed human cockfighting, as former prisoner of war and U.S. Senator John McCain has described the mixed martial arts. UFC’s earliest incarnation was indeed pretty gory. As David Plotz wrote in Slate in 1999:
UFC began in 1993 as a locker-room fantasy. What would happen if a kickboxer fought a wrestler? A karate champion fought a sumo champion? Promoters built an octagonal chain-link cage, invited eight top martial artists, and set them loose in no-holds-barred, bare-knuckles fights. “There are no rules!” bragged an early press release. Contestants would fight till “knockout, submission, doctor’s intervention, or death.” UFC allowed, even promoted, all notions of bad sportsmanship: kicking a man when he’s down, hitting him in the groin, choking. Four-hundred-pound men were sent into the Octagon to maul guys half their size. Only biting and eye-gouging were forbidden.
But that was then and this is now. The UFC, which has been grappling for a greater legitimacy — and a greater profitability — for several years now, is getting even more aggressive. Aggression is, quite frankly, hard-wired into this sport. But for the past few months their PR push has been on steriods. On November 12th, for example, UFC is going directly up against the Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez PPV fight. In other words, mixed martial arts is being offered on basic cable directly against a major pay-per-view boxing event. The results should be quite interesting.
Further, on August 27th the UFC will air live undercard mixed martial arts matches in Times Square above the Doubletree Hotel. That’s a pretty ballsy move, on the real. It should again be interesting to see how tourist-heavy Midtown Manhattan reacts on a Saturday to the spectacle of two beefy dudes trying, essentially, to choke each into unconsciousness with ancient and modern fighting techniques. These super-aggro pushes could definitely backfire, highlighting the “human cockfighting” charge attached to the sport by its critics. Or these bold moves could have the effect of proving just how undeniably popular the sport has become. And by Christmas we could have a new mainstream sport in our midst.
In the past the organization and its champions have stressed the “art” of the fight. In 2006, Scott Pelley of the venerable 60 minutes spoke to Renzo Gracie of the famous Brazillian Gracie family about the “art” of mixed martial arts. Gracie, whose family utilizes a jiu jitsu heavy form of fighting that has won them titles and acclaim as the first family of the mixed martial arts, defended the sport:
“It goes far beyond that. The first impression is, hit him, knock him out, hurt him, but believe it, it goes far beyond that,” Gracie explains. “There’s so much technique involved, that I, to be honest, I think when I see a good fight, I think it makes a Russian ballet look like a uncoordinated body movements.” He admits that it can sometimes be a bloody ballet. “But the blood is the source of the whole thing. Believe – it’s not blood that’s coming out, it’s a little bit of pride that you’re putting out.”
A very masculine aesthetic; a very “bloody ballet.” Is this an idea whose time has come?