Ultimate fighting ought to be a great American sport. Instead, cable companies, Sen. John McCain, and a squeamish public are killing it.
Fight Club, a movie about a fictional organization of men who strip down and beat each other to pulp, has provoked more than its share of media hand-wringing, particularly diatribes about Hollywood's infatuation with violence and Faludi-esque ruminations about the emasculated American male. Fight Club, however, has not sparked an iota of interest in a real organization of men who strip down and beat each other to pulp: the Ultimate Fighting Championship. UFC's flameout from national sensation to total irrelevance is a tragedy of American sports, a cautionary tale of prudishness, heavy-handed politics, and cultural myopia.
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.
The gimmick entranced thousands of people (well, men).
But a subtle sport was emerging from the gimmicks and carnage. My passion for ultimate fighting (which is also called "extreme" or "no-holds-barred" fighting) began when I saw the finals of UFC IV.
UFC's caged matches revolutionized the idea of fighting. Nursed on boxing and Hollywood, Americans imagine fights as choreography, a dance of elegant combinations, roundhouse kicks, clean knockouts. The UFC punctured this. Boxers floundered. Experts in striking martial arts such as karate and tae kwon do, who fancied themselves the world's greatest fighters, found themselves pretzeled by jujitsu masters, who pulled them to the ground and slowly choked or leg-locked them. "UFC immediately debunked a lot of myths of fighting, of boxing, karate, kung fu. It showed the reality of what works in an actual fight," says Dave Meltzer, editor of Wrestling Observer.
Instead of being carnivals of gore, UFC fights looked strangely like ... sex. Almost all fights ended on the ground, one man mounting the other in missionary position, the pair of them wiggling mysteriously along the canvas for five, 10, even 30 minutes. There were few spectacular knockouts. The referee--yes, there was always a referee--stopped many bouts, and in most others, fighters "tapped out," surrendering to mild-looking but agonizing chokes and joint locks. It was not barbarism. It was science.
The UFC spawned a new breed of "mixed martial artists." World-class wrestlers learned to kickbox. Champion kickboxers learned to grapple. (The karate experts learned to stay home.) They became, without doubt, the best fighters in the world. (Click
UFC's promoters predicted that it would supplant boxing as America's martial art. Instead, it fell apart. The collapse began in 1996, when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., saw a UFC tape. McCain, a lifelong boxing fan, was horrified at the ground fighting, kicks, and head butts. It was "barbaric," he said. It was "not a sport." He sent letters to all 50 governors asking them to ban ultimate fighting. The outcry against "human cockfighting" became a crusade, and like many crusades, it was founded on misunderstanding.
UFC fell victim to cultural determinism about what a fight is. In countries such as Brazil and Japan, where no-holds-barred fighting has a long history, it is popular and uncontroversial. But Americans adhere to the Marquis of Queensbury rules. A fight consists of an exchange of upper-body blows that halts when one fighter falls.
Any blood sport can be barbaric, whether it's boxing or wrestling or ultimate fighting. It is impossible to draw a bright line between ultimate fighting and boxing. If anything, ultimate fighting is safer and less cruel than America's blood sport. For example, critics pilloried ultimate fighting because competitors fought with bare knuckles: To a nation accustomed to boxing gloves, this seemed revolting, an invitation to brain damage. But it's just the reverse: The purpose of boxing gloves is not to cushion the head but to shield the knuckles. Without gloves, a boxer would break his hands after a couple of punches to the skull. That's why ultimate fighters won't throw multiple skull punches. As a result, they avoid the concussive head wounds that kill boxers--and the long-term neurological damage that cripples them.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.