20111111 mixedmartialarts mma ufc
Michael Bisping of Great Britain shapes up to Jorge Rivera of the USA after winning their middleweight bout part of at UFC 127 at Acer Arena on February 27, 2011 in Sydney, Australia. - 

Kai Ryssdal: This is a big weekend if you like to watch people beat each other up. There's a championship boxing match -- welterweights Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez meet Saturday night.

But boxing's not the be-all and end-all it used to be in ring-based physical combat. Mixed Martial Arts has been gaining audience share for a while now. It debuts in a primetime network slot on Fox, Saturday night.

Marketplace's Eve Troeh reports.

Eve Troeh: Sure, boxers punch each other, but with veritable pillows on their wrists compared to mixed martial arts, where fighters can kick and wrestle, and wear much thinner gloves.

Commentator clip: Unloading with the vicious rights, one after the other. Replay shows the punch that opened up a cut over Lieben's eye with the blood flowing immediately.

Dan Rasher: Yeah I think if you get past the first few rounds, it seems like there will be blood, it really does.

Dan Rasher is a sports economist at the University of San Francisco. He says mixed martial arts was all about the blood in the 1990s -- a raw, fringe sport that Sen. John McCain called "human cockfighting." Now it's been consolidated into a professional league: the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC. Rasher says his students, mostly guys in the their 20s, pushed him to study the business model.

Rasher: And that's when I realized the UFC is valued at over a billion dollars, approaching $2 billion, which really turned my head.

In a new book called "Tapped Out," fighter and author Matthew Polly says the sport grew by adding rules and weight classes. It's no longer just two guys going gonzo.

Matthew Polly: It's cleaned itself up. Real credit goes to the UFC for pushing this as hard as they have.

And the Fox network will make ultimate fighting look like a first-class sport, with high tech lighting, sound and camera work it's never had.
Polly says long-time fans may feel a bit sad.

Polly: It's like your indie band went mainstream.

The fan base is set to explode, he says, and mixed martial arts is poised to knock out boxing as the most popular sport in the ring.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

Follow Eve Troeh at @evetroeh