LAS VEGAS - No body armor or helmets, just tattooed skin and shaved heads, or maybe a Mohawk. The only weapons are muscles and fists of steel. The goal? To be the best Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter in the world. To win the title, these modern gladiators do battle night after night, not on a karate mat or in a boxing ring, but squared off inside a metal cage.
MMA or free-fighting is a worldwide phenomenon that mixes karate, Thai boxing, judo, wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. It has developed over the past 10 years through the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, which has its bulging fan base in a frenzy. Every UFC fight night is an event, especially if it takes place in Las Vegas.
On one Saturday night, about 12,000 fans are screaming at the top of their lungs in Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Hotel, where they eagerly await the main fight of the night between B.J. Penn and Nick Diaz. “It’s like going to a party,” says Gornetti Francisco, a nurse who came all the way from Toronto. Fans travel from New York, Washington D.C. or even Tokyo and Paris to see a UFC fight.
“It’s so exciting. There’s action, there’s blood, and you see their faces writhe in pain. It’s amazing!” says another fan, Veronica Sullivan. “I paid $1,000 for this and it’s totally worth it!” And Joey, a fan who brought his two sons, aged seven and 12, says the fights are a way to teach his boys that “in life, you have to be a fighter.”
Diaz and Penn finally enter the ring for three five-minute rounds. Fans scream at every blow, then go silent when Penn gets knocked out. A bloody-faced Diaz is declared the winner. Penn, a two-time welter champion, gets a standing ovation as he explains why he’s retiring for good. “I’m going to have a daughter.” Earlier in the evening, another MMA legend announced his retirement “to raise [his] children.”
Less violent than boxing?
For Cyrille Diabate, a Parisian fighter known as “The Snake,” each bout is like “a physical chess game.” One of his colleagues, British fighter Dan Hardy, says there are multiple ways to win a fight, knockout being just one of them. “There are many techniques, you never know how it’s going to end,” he says. “You can win without giving one punch. That’s what people like.”
In Epinay-sur-Seine, a Paris suburb, Diabate’s MMA classes – for men and women – are full, much to the dismay of federations for traditional martial arts like judo or karate, which condemn MMA for its violence. Although classes are allowed in France, official bouts are still banned, meaning French fighters must go abroad if they want to compete.
But MMA enthusiasts defend the sport, saying it’s actually less violent than it appears. “The visual perception isn’t the reality,” says Reed Harris, one of the UFC’s vice-presidents. “The cage is actually a way to protect the athletes, so they don’t fall over, like in a regular ring.”
France’s “The Snake” insists it’s less violent than traditional boxing. “You don’t get as many hits to the face.” And Georges Saint-Pierre, one of the sport’s living legends, says it’s more civilized than hockey. “It’s not gratuitous violence like in hockey, where guys fight with their sticks.”
Yet accidents do happen. MMA has led to a couple of deaths in recent years. A fighter named Michael Kirkham died in June 2010 following a match, as did Sam Vasquez in 2007.
Fighting for $500,000 a night
The UFC, whose slogan is “No holds barred,” took the United States by storm in 1993. The original idea was to have practitioners of different martial arts – karate, judo, etc. – compete against each other to determine which performed best in real unarmed combat situations. There were no rules, too much violence and too much blood. Not surprisingly, the UFC was quick to spark controversy, and in 1997, Sen. John McCain of Arizona led a campaign to ban it.
From there the UFC fell off the radar. But in 2001, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, together with Dana White, a boxing coach, bought the UFC for $1 million. Their goal was to bring in a much wider public. “People told us that it was the worst possible investment to make,” says White, who is now the UFC president.
The new owner began by endowing the fledgling sport with a list of 31 rules, including weight categories and time-limits. He also required fighters to wear gloves, imposed doping tests and made AIDS testing mandatory. All 300 fighters are bound by contracts and insured. For Lorenzo Fertitta, “It’s the safest sport in the world for athletes.”
The makeover was a success. One by one, states began allowing MMA competition. Today, only three still ban it: New York, Connecticut and Vermont. Throughout the years, the UFC has spread around the world. Championships, available through pay-per-view, bring in about a million viewers. Fans have to spend on average $400 to see the real thing in arenas that can hold as many as 55,000 spectators. Ten years after the Fertitta brothers and White bought it, the UFC is now worth $2.5 billion. There’s money in it as well for the fighters, who can make up to $500,000 per fight.
For a group of children in one of Las Vegas’ toughest neighborhoods, the UFC fighters are an inspiration. In late October the children are treated to a visit by a group of fighters. Joining them are several police officers who were only too happy to praise the UFC fighters as good role models.
“These fighters are polite, give nutritional advice to kids who only eat junk food. They are role models for our society,” says Lieutenant Jack Clements. “They don’t encourage violence at all.”
Britain’s Dan Hardy, one of the UFC fighters in attendance that day, takes this kind of community outreach seriously. “You have to show [the children] that if you work hard, if you go to school, you can do whatever you want,” he says.
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