L. Jon Wertheim

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

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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