Mixed martial arts rises in popularity

L. Jon Wertheim


KAI RYSSDAL: There will be physical violence aplenty during the Super Bowl this coming weekend. But the NFL's got nothing on the UFC. Ultimate Fighting Championship 94 is this Saturday. For the uninitiated, yours truly included, UFC -- or as it prefers to be known, mixed martial arts -- is the most recent sport to capture the imagination and wallets of young men.

Bloody noses and black eyes are the least of it. Or perhaps they're part of why mma's taken off over the past few years. Jon Wertheim tracks the rise of UFC in his new book, "Blood in the Cage." Jon, welcome to the program.

L. JON WERTHEIM: Thanks, good to be here.

RYSSDAL: I'm going to guess, just based sheerly on demographics, that quite possibly a lot of public radio listeners aren't familiar with UFC and mixed martial arts. So, set the scene for us. What is this creature?

WERTHEIM: I think you're right. I mean, the creature is this phenomenally successful and phenomenally popular sport that was residing very much on the margins and in the underground and it's gradually becoming more mainstream. And it exists mostly in pay-per-view, this dominant league, the UFC -- the Ultimate Fighting Championship. And it's just, it's tapped into something. More males, in that magic 18-24 demographic will pay to watch these fights than will watch college football bowl games or NBA playoff games for free.

RYSSDAL: Give us the atmospherics. It is, in essence, two guys in a cage, in an octagon, right, beating the snot out of each other.

WERTHEIM: More or less. There are additional bodily fluids beyond snot. But it's not as barbaric as you think. The cage is a little off-putting. If this were in a ring, I think it would be more palatable. But it's trained martial artists. And it's, you know, stand up. It's punching and kick boxing. But it's also wrestling and jujitsu. And they fight each other, but they don't have the anger. I mean, it's not a street fight where you have this emotion. I mean this is just a sport. They fight. The fights ends, they shake hands, and they walk out.

RYSSDAL: How did it make that leap, though, from literally being banned in the United States practically -- I mean, it was not allowed on pay-per-view -- and now it's on network television.

WERTHEIM: Well, I think it was two things. It think it was sort of self-assessment to sort of survival instincts. They realized they had to clean it up. So they instituted weight classes and they embraced regulation and the caliber of fighters got a lot better. But they also, they had this reality show on the Spike Network. And what this did was it sort of served as a big infomercial for the sport. And people saw what this was and what it wasn't -- that it was a violent sport, but that it wasn't completely barbaric, there were rules. And I think it sort of helped de-mystify this a little bit.

RYSSDAL: You know, John McCain when he was running the Commerce committee in the Senate, leaned on the FCC to keep mixed martial arts off pay-per-view and off the airwaves. Do you think government has sort of backed away a little bit now and they're willing to just, to let it go and to let the states try figure it out.

WERTHEIM: You know it was John McCain who called this "human cockfighting," which is one of those labels that 10 years later has still stuck. And you don't hear that kind of language anymore. You know, McCain hasn't made that remark in several years. I think a few things are going on. I mean, I think this is getting more legitimate. People are realizing that states are sanctioning this, it's not the UFC that it was 10 years ago.

But also, I do think the economy is playing a role here. That if the UFC were to come to New York tomorrow, they'd sell out Madison Square Garden. And state budgets being what they are, I do think some of these legislatures are softening their stances in part because of economics.

RYSSDAL: So what's the future then, Jon, of mixed martial arts and of UFC and how acceptable it's going to be?

WERTHEIM: You know, I think it's interesting that not only are people buying this, but I walk by in Manhattan even, where it's not even sanctioned... You walk by these karate dojos and there are signs in the windows saying 'We do mixed martial arts,' 'We teach mixed martial arts,' and I think that ultimately bodes just as favorably as the pay-per-views. People are actually doing this. I think that one fatality and all bets are off. But, boy I don't see a lot of things slowing this down.

RYSSDAL: Jon Wertheim is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated. His book about mixed martial arts is called "Blood in the Cage." Jon, thanks a lot.

WERTHEIM: Pleasure, thanks.

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It cracks me up all the tubby arm chair critics who can’t name 5 top level fighters and wouldn’t know a liver kick from a kimura but are “experts” on “sports” because they golf twice a week.

Your sweeping generalizations are moronic at best but I can understand coming from your average emasculated PC “progressive” male.

I’ve trained for two years in both Brazilian Jujitsu and Muay Thai (Thai boxing).
I’m 45, an engineer in the biotech industry (20 years), bachelors degree in chemical engineering. Not your stereotypical “MMA” fan but if you dug down deeper you would find plenty of people like me (I train with doctors and investment bankers who would tap you out in seconds).

I don’t “fight” in a cage but I spend plenty of time on the mat grappling and sparing (boxing and Muay Thai). I’m stronger and in better shape than I was when I was in my 20s and I’ve been a competitive triathlete, cyclist (both road and MTB) and a member of the junior Olympic ski team (Squaw Valley, CA).

Some of you lazy slobs should grow a pair and try it………………….oh right it’s easier to criticize it………..from the safety of your couch.

You know, if the sport's detractors actually understood 1/10th of what was actually going on in an MMA fight, or actually watched the sport instead of just listening to Bill O'Reilly, I might be more inclined to pay attention to their arguments.

But it's clear these people aren't really arguing about the sport as much as they are taking a moralistic high ground on a perceived social ill. So you don't like watching 2 people engage in pure competition without artificial, arbitrary objectives like putting a ball through a hoop or running a ball down a field or kicking a ball into a net? Fine, don't watch it. But to compare it to "Rome" just bespeaks of your ignorance: there are less serious injuries in MMA than in any other professional sport.



Tell me again which sports are barbaric? More people die in Nascar (which is hardly a sport) and, shockingly golf (http://www.wsmv.com/news/17471567/detail.html#-) than in MMA. Give me a break.

OK, I get it: you train two monkeys with extreme fighting skills, put them in a cage, let them batter each other with finesse, charge onlookers as much as possible, then its called a clean, good, acceptable sport. OH, yeah, that really takes sports to a new high... low?

I think Wertheim's assertion that MMA is becoming legal in more states due to economics is a stretch. MMA is becoming more popular because it's a great sport. It combines the most effective techniques from many different martial arts disciplines. MMA is to martial arts what the decathalon is to track & field. MMA is not about drawing blood and focusing on that side effect does the sport a disservice. MMA fighters are great athletes and I'm looking forward to the day when MMA becomes an olympic sport and these athletes get the recognition they deserve.

It may shock you that many of your listeners, like myself, are actual mixed martial arts (MMA) fans. These fans are educated and socially well adjusted but appreciate the UFC and MMA for what it is, a sport not unlike any other. The UFC athletes are not thugs or street brawlers but are highly trained and dedicated athletes who, in general, are much more respectful to their sport and competitors than the NFL, NBA, NHL, or other highly compensated athletes. The misconsception is that this sport is about violence. If you watch a match with some understanding of the strategies and techniques implemented during a match, you might actually appreciate the sport. MMA is to Boxing what chess is to checkers. The sport is full of inspiring stories and legends including Royce Gracie, Dan Severn, Ken and Frank Shamrock, Matt Hughes, and Randy Couture (over 40 and still winning) as well as a new generation of young athletes including Anderson Silva, Brock Lesnar, George St. Pierre and BJ Penn. I would suggest you watch the match between St. Pierre and Penn this Saturday with someone who understands the sport and let them explain what is actually going on in the ring and witness the true respect these athletes show each other and their chosen sport. Also keep in mind that there have been fewer injuries in the UFC than in the NFL and no deaths to date. What is amazing about this sport is the world following which is evident in the global atheletic participation inside the UFC. This sport may not be your cup of tea but please don't discount it as a league of brutes fixated on violence.

Reminds me of the Romans. It can't be right to find it o.k. and even entertaining to watch 2 humans abuse their bodies and each other in that way.

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