Fight Clubbed

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Nov. 17 1999 3:30 AM

Fight Clubbed

Ultimate fighting ought to be a great American sport. Instead, cable companies, Sen. John McCain, and a squeamish public are killing it.

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Similarly, the chain-link fence surrounding the octagon looks grotesque. Critics have demanded that UFC install ropes instead. But ropes are a major cause of death and injury in boxing: Fighters hyperextend their necks when they are punched against the ropes, because nothing stops their heads from snapping back. The chain-link fence prevents hyperextension.

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When I tell people I'm an ultimate fighting fan, they invariably respond: "Don't people get killed all the time doing that?" But no one has ever been killed at the UFC--though boxers are killed every year. No one has even been seriously injured at the UFC. On the rare occasions when a bout has ended with a bloody knockout, the loser has always walked out of the ring.

But this does not impress boxing fans, who are the most vigorous opponents of extreme fighting. McCain sat ringside at a boxing match where a fighter was killed. When I asked him to explain the moral distinction between boxing and ultimate fighting, he exploded at me, "If you can't see the moral distinction, then we have nothing to talk about!" Then he cut our interview short and stormed out of his office.

Illustration by Keith Seidel

But logic has not served the UFC well. Where McCain led, a prudish nation followed. George Will opined against UFC. The American Medical Association recommended a ban. New York state outlawed ultimate fighting, as did other states. The Nevada Athletic Commission refused to sanction UFC bouts, barring the UFC from the lucrative casino market. (One public TV station refused a UFC sponsorship ad. The only other organization the station ever rejected was the Ku Klux Klan.) Lawsuits blocked or delayed UFC events all over the country, forcing the promoters to spend millions in legal fees. The UFC was exiled from mega-arenas to ever-smaller venues in ever more out-of-the-way states: Louisiana, Iowa, and Alabama. The match I attended in October 1997 was held in the parking lot of a small Mississippi casino.

The cable TV industry struck the fatal blow. In early 1997, McCain became chairman of the commerce committee, which oversees the cable industry. In April 1997, the president of the National Cable Television Association warned that UFC broadcasts could jeopardize the cable industry's influence in Washington. Time Warner, TCI, Request, Cablevision Systems, Viewer's Choice, and other major operators stopped airing UFC events, saying they were too violent for children. Never mind that 1) UFC only aired on pay-per-view, so children could not see it unless their parents paid for it; and 2) the same cable outfits carried boxing matches, R and NC-17 movies, and professional wrestling shows far more violent than UFC. The UFC's "addressable audience"--the potential number of PPV subscribers--shrank from 35 million at its peak to 7.5 million today.

"It was a very cheap way for the cable companies to portray themselves as anti-violence. It did not cost them much and it made them look good in Washington," says Carol Klenfner, spokeswoman for UFC's parent company, SEG.

The ultimate fighting industry did little to help its own cause. The UFC promoted itself less as a serious sport than as a circus of carnage. Its early ads emphasized extreme fighting's potential for death. UFC folks accused McCain, without any evidence, of opposing the sport as a favor to campaign contributors. Extreme fighting was tarnished when fighters from the other ultimate fighting operation, the now-defunct Battlecade, were arrested for violating Canadian prizefighting laws when they fought on an Indian reservation outside Montreal.

In the past two years, an increasingly desperate UFC has been trying to assuage its critics. The competition, which had been gradually adding safety rules since the first fight, imposed even more. It institued rounds and a "10-point must" scoring system. It banned head butts and groin strikes. You can no longer kick a downed man or elbow someone in the back of the head. Fighters are required to wear thin martial arts gloves (a purely cosmetic change). The UFC imposed weight classes, ending the David-and-Goliath mismatches that made early fights so compelling.

None of this soothed the cable operators, who have kept UFC off the air. The pay-per-view audience has plunged from 300,000 per show to 15,000. UFC can no longer afford its best fighters: Some are fighting overseas. Others, notably Ken Shamrock (Frank's brother), have become pro wrestlers. Fights have deteriorated. UFC is limping along, but it has been reduced to scheduling events in Japan and Brazil.

"Sports fans want to grow with the sport," says former UFC fighter David Beneteau. "They want to recognize the athletes. They want to see the same fighters come back. When you compare UFC now to what it was, the fighters are not the same, the rules are not the same. The fans have no story to follow."

Even as it disappears from public view, ultimate fighting is returning to its roots. Away from the scrutiny of the major media, state legislators, and McCain, kids are still learning mixed martial-arts techniques, and small-time promoters are quietly staging events. You can see Kage Kombat competitions at Dancing Waters nightclub in San Pedro, Calif. You can watch the Warrior's Challenge at a small Indian casino outside Sacramento. Texans compete in Houston's Dungal All Styles Fighting Championship. Tribal casinos in Northern Idaho are hosting small Pankration tournaments. The Extreme Fighting Challenge is popular in Iowa. The money is low; the crowds are small; and there's not a TV camera in sight. Ultimate fighting should have become boxing. Instead it has gone underground. It has become Fight Club.

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