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.
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.
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.
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.
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.