Mixed martial arts, the sport once condemned for its brutality, is riding a wave of popularity while struggling for legitimacy.
By Scott Gold, Times Staff Writer
Knockout marketing Mixed martial arts, the sport once condemned for its brutality, is riding a wave of popularity while struggling for legitimacy. By Scott Gold, Times Staff Writer January 14, 2007
Las Vegas — The audience has paid to see blood and will not be disappointed.
When the arena plunges into darkness, they rise as one: an 8-year-old in a skull cap that says “Punishment,” a tourist in a T-shirt that says “Legalized Brutality,” a young woman who is being paid $2,000 to wear a bikini and blow kisses to the catcalls. The bass line of a heavy metal song, its lyrics indecipherable at this volume but clearly delineating some manner of rage, compresses 10,863 chests.
It is time.
Once confined to the underground and assailed as “human cockfighting,” the savage sport of mixed martial arts _ a spectacle melding ancient fighting tactics with those of a bar brawl _ is poised to go mainstream. Cage-side seats now sell for as much as $1,000. Fights periodically draw more men ages 18 to 34 than anything else on TV. Peddling raw, real violence to a zealous, cutthroat crowd, the sport has become an economic and cultural force through events like this one, held at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on a Saturday night.
Two men, barefoot and slathered with Vaseline, their hands covered in little more than leather wraps, enter a cage at the center of the arena. For five minutes, they kick and punch and lock limbs, trying to land a headlock known in their trade as a guillotine and designed to cut off the blood flow in the opponent’s carotid artery.
At the end of the first round, one fighter _ Kenny “KenFlo” Florian, a former college soccer player from Massachusetts _ rests on a stool.
“Be patient!” his trainer tells him. “God will tell you what to do!”
Less than a minute later, Florian crushes his elbow into the right temple of his opponent, Sean “The Muscle Shark” Sherk, a father of two from Minnesota with no discernible neck. Blood begins to spurt from Sherk’s head, pooling on the mat, hanging in coagulating strands from the cage fence.
Dana White, the central figure in the sport and the president of its dominant organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is sitting within spitting distance. Glancing repeatedly at a small monitor to ensure that his TV crew is getting the shot, he begins to chew his gum feverishly.
“Jesus!” he says. “It looks like he cut his arm off!”
The fighters battle for an additional 11 minutes. Sherk wins by decision, but that seems beside the point. Audience members bellow their approval and high-five each other. Later that night, at a news conference, Florian compliments Sherk on the taste of his blood. Outside the room, White runs into Frank Fertitta III, chairman and chief executive of Station Casinos Inc. and another UFC owner. They embrace.
“Great show,” Fertitta tells him. “Great show.”
BLOOD IS THE NEW BLACK
Do not bother asking whether all of this is OK _ for parents to bring toddlers to the fights, for crowds to scream obscenities at fighters who are unable to knock out their opponents, for thousands of teenagers to mimic the fights in their backyards, then post their videos on the Internet.
It’s too late for that. Blood, as the sport’s aficionados like to say, is the new black. Mixed martial arts _ also known to less refined fans as “extreme fighting,” “cage fighting” and “ultimate fighting” _ “is the sport for these times,” said Bas “El Guapo” Rutten.
Rutten is a renowned fighter; mostly retired, he is a trainer and an owner of a Los Angeles gym called the Legends Mixed-Martial Arts Training Center.
“There is so much aggression right now. So much anger,” he said on a recent afternoon outside the gym, banging his fist against a fence for emphasis. “These days, everybody wants to kick ass.”
Today, billboards featuring menacing photos of top fighters _ the most famous people you’ve never heard of, perhaps _ are fixtures along Sunset Boulevard. At live events, necks crane to see who is in the roped-off sections _ model Cindy Crawford, perhaps, or porn star Jenna Jameson.
The sport will soon become America’s newest export, as executives from Southern California and Las Vegas _ the twin epicenters of the sport domestically _ prepare to take more matches into Canada, Mexico and Europe. The perception, right or wrong, that a global market awaits has prompted dozens of fight clubs, gyms billing themselves as mixed martial arts “universities” and upstart fight promoters vying for a slice of the pie to launch operations across the nation.
The first UFC fight sanctioned by California regulators, at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim in April _ now known as the Honda Center _ drew 17,100 fans. The $2.6-million ticket gross made the event the most successful in the arena’s 13-year history.
The Las Vegas-based UFC, which was $44million in the hole just three years ago, is now averaging a half-million “buys” for its pay-per-view events, most at $39.95 a pop, according to company executives.
What executives call the UFC’s first profitable year culminated with the biggest event in the sport’s short history. On Dec. 30, two of the sport’s most recognized faces, Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell and Tito “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” Ortiz, fought in Las Vegas. Ticket prices reached $1,000, the live gate was $5.4million _ a record for the sport in the United States _ and UFC executives believe the event generated more than 1million pay-per-view orders.
If they’re right _ the numbers take a while to come in _ it would represent more pay-per-view buys than those generated in May by a premier boxing event starring that sport’s biggest draw: Oscar de la Hoya. Pay-per-view purchases of top events in boxing typically cost about $50.
On cable TV, the numbers are higher. During an October fight between Ortiz and Ken “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” Shamrock, more than 9 million people watched at least one minute of the telecast on Spike TV, according to the network.
New deals are in the works for video games and an Internet-driven “community” seeking to pair amateur fighters in the same fashion that recreation leagues pair amateur tennis players. The sport’s television exposure will soon rise: A show on Fox Sports en Espanol titled “Gladiadores del UFC” recently began airing; the UFC is in negotiations to air fights on HBO; and Showtime recently committed to airing 25 fights staged by a new Los Angeles-based fighting organization called Elite Xtreme Combat.
“It’s a speeding train,” said White, the UFC president. “And nobody’s driving.”
That’s heady talk, and not entirely true. The growth of the sport must be tracked not in a speeding vector but in spurts and stops. Wild success is often interrupted by money-losing matches, financial disputes and a free-for-all among competing organizations looking _ with mixed results _ to cash in on the craze.
To understand the current state of the sport it helps to look back at its humble roots. For that, it helps to take a trip to Victorville, in the high desert, to a seafood restaurant with a cloudy tank of crustaceans in the lobby and a forlorn view of Interstate 15 offramps.
In the early 1990s, a bear of a man named Ted Williams worked at the restaurant. At closing time, he would beat people up, sometimes crashing under the tables as a few dozen onlookers cheered him on.
“I fought my employees, mostly,” said Williams, who is now 37 and owns a mixed martial arts organization called the Gladiator Challenge. “We closed at 10 o’clock. And then we got it on. I beat the [heck] out of people.”
Those were the outlaw days.
On the surface, Williams and other enthusiasts scattered across the nation were looking to settle an old debate: Which style of combat was toughest? Would a wiry boxer beat a powerful but slower sumo wrestler? How would a kickboxer, using a stand-up attack, fare against a jujitsu wrestler who fights on the ground, looking to trap his opponent in a chokehold?
It was an intriguing question. But it degenerated into a brutal spectacle, fought with bare knuckles in seedy events called “smokers,” in bars, Indian casinos _ whose sovereign status allowed promoters to sidestep the lack of legal sanctioning _ and even a drug rehab center. Fighters were often lucky to sign a contract for a “three and three” _ $300 to show up and $300 more to win.
The sport began to catch on. But when promoters tried to bring it into the light, critics were aghast _ at the broken bones, the head-butting and, in one infamous fight in Tulsa, Okla., broadcast across the nation, a fighter who won after repeatedly and brazenly punching his opponent in the groin.
U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a lifelong boxing fan, wrote to the nation’s governors after watching a tape of a fight, demanding that they outlaw the sport, a move that left a lasting impression on promoters. (“John McCain is, like, anal,” Williams said.) State after state banned the sport, and by 1997 it was booted from cable TV _ even from some home video and pay-per-view distributors.
Promoters began distancing themselves from their “No rules!” marketing tactics, adopting provisions against such thuggery as eye-gouging and strikes to the spine. Executives began referring to the “cage” as a more palatable “octagon.” The campaign to nudge the sport toward the mainstream was a limited success; in 2000, New Jersey became the first state to sanction mixed martial arts, adopting a formal set of rules and adding insurance provisions and safeguards against corruption and injury.
In 2001, Dana White _ then the owner of several Las Vegas gyms and bankrolled by the casino-mogul brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta _ bought the UFC for $2 million. The UFC built on the reform efforts. Soon there were weight divisions and professional judges. But it seemed as if it had all come too late. The UFC was hemorrhaging money _ the White-Fertitta partnership had lost $44 million by 2003 _ and was surviving almost entirely through a rabid Internet-based fan base.
Everything changed in 2005 when the UFC made one final gamble: It paid Spike TV $10 million to air a reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter,” in which newly discovered fighters lived together, trained together and then fought over a UFC contract. The ploy worked. The show is scheduled to run through at least 2008, a Spanish-language version is in the works and the UFC _ while tripling its pay-per-view orders largely because of the buzz created by the cable show _ has found its calling. It is, effectively, a television production company.
“They are selling entertainment,” said Jeff Clark, president of the North County Fight Club, a Carlsbad gym where he manages and trains 20 mixed martial arts fighters. “American kids want to relate to something. They have a cushy lifestyle. They want something edgy. They are looking for an identity, something that makes them feel tough.”
At the other end of that pop culture tunnel, Dana White is waiting.
THE `BOSS’ TAKES CONTROL
On an afternoon before a fight in Las Vegas, the 37-year-old White threw a heavy arm over a visitor’s shoulder. “Let me show you something,” he said.
Around him, workers were scurrying about the floor of the Mandalay Bay Events Center, erecting the octagon and the mechanics of a dazzling light show. White was more interested in the workers hanging from the catwalks _ taking down half of the giant posters commemorating boxing bouts that had taken place there and replacing them with posters of ultimate fighting events.
Many observers believe that the success of ultimate fighting is helping to erode the popularity of boxing, and White _ who was himself a top-flight amateur boxer as a young man _ couldn’t have been happier about it.
“Today,” he said, “is a great day.”
He’s had a few of them lately.
White has been lampooned for being, at one time, a boxercise instructor. He has been accused of paying his fighters a pittance while he rakes in millions. His payroll for a recent fight in Anaheim, for example, was $332,000, while the gross gate was $1.8million and pay-per-view proceeds, though they are not released publicly, routinely top $15million. He has also made some decisions that suggest his sport has some growing up to do. He recently agreed, for instance, to step into the ring himself to box against one of the stars on his payroll, Tito Ortiz, in a made-for-television event.
Still, White, who owns 10% of the UFC, is amassing a financial empire that belies his rough-and-tumble upbringing on the streets of South Boston, where he was raised by a single mother, a nurse. He owns a fleet of cars and recently purchased a 7,200-square-foot house in a swanky Las Vegas suburb originally developed by Howard Hughes and a 5,400-square-foot house in Newport Beach. “It doesn’t suck,” said White, who is married and is the father of two young sons and an infant daughter.
Considering the growth of the UFC, he maintains a remarkably tight grip on every aspect of the production. He is puppeteer and kingmaker, playing a leading role in pairing fighters and determining who will be summoned from second-tier organizations to fight in the UFC. Many of his fighters call him “boss.”
Before a recent fight, White hopped into a trailer used as the editing bay for that night’s pay-per-view broadcast. At a computer, White reviewed fighter interviews that were being used as a pre-fight television segment _ a critical portion of the broadcast because it plays up the soap opera between fighters and keeps the audience hooked. White demanded to know why one fighter was not talking enough trash about his opponent.
“We’ve tried,” director Anthony Giordano told him. “He won’t.”
“It’s weak,” White told him. “Fix it.”
LEGITIMACY IS ELUSIVE
The control that White exercises over the UFC underscores the sport’s central mission: to claim an air of legitimacy. That, however _ whether it’s because of promoters who acknowledge staging mismatches to guarantee a bloodbath or crowds who regularly boo black and Asian fighters _ is no simple task.
Promoters insist, for example, that steroids are not a problem _ even that they can hinder a fighter’s performance because the sport demands as much quickness as strength. But the sport has no uniform drug-testing policy and, frequently, only fighters who are involved in championship bouts are tested.
Since 2002, at least nine fighters have tested positive for substances that are banned by fight-sanctioning organizations, including boldenone, an anabolic steroid typically used to treat horses, and stanozolol, derived from testosterone.
At an October fight in Las Vegas staged by a Japanese mixed martial arts organization called Pride, two of 16 fighters tested positive for banned substances and a third was alleged to have submitted a urine sample that did not contain human hormones _ meaning, officials said, that it was lifted either from an animal or a dead person.
A talking point among promoters is the safety of the sport _ the notion, in particular, that no one has died after a sanctioned mixed martial arts event, unlike boxing.
But fighters routinely suffer significant injury, including broken hands and noses. On the California Athletic Commission’s current list of suspended athletes, one fighter’s name is followed with: “Needs Full Neuro clearance.”
And the savagery that was a hallmark of the sport’s roots is hardly ancient history. On May 5, at a World Extreme Cagefighting event in Lemoore, Calif., dubbed “Cinco de Mayhem,” 245-pound fighter Mike “Mak” Kyle illegally kicked Brian Olsen in the face while Olsen was on his hands and knees. Kyle then continued to pound Olsen after he had become unconscious, as referees overseeing the event tried to drag Kyle away.
California Athletic Commission Executive Officer Armando Garcia called it “a disgrace” and announced that Kyle had been suspended indefinitely from sanctioned fighting. Olsen suffered a face fracture and a ruptured sinus cavity; his career is probably over after seven fights.
The perception that the UFC is sitting on a massive monopoly, meanwhile, has fostered a chaotic world of new competition.
The sport’s insiders agree that many of the world’s elite fighters hail from overseas markets, particularly Japan and Brazil, where mixed martial arts is an established sport. Foreign organizations are beginning to nip at the heels of the domestic market; in October, Pride Fighting Championship held its first U.S. event in Las Vegas.
New U.S. organizations seem to pop up every week, all with different business models. Many are losing money, their executives acknowledge. Promoters, meanwhile, are often left bickering over what remains a small talent pool in the United States; one reflection of the sport’s immaturity is that there are still just five or six fighters whose mere presence at an event will ensure ticket sales.
White insists the competition is healthy. But there are suggestions that the UFC’s unmatched supremacy in the sport is being eroded.
Fearing revolt from top fighters who suddenly recognize their value to promoters, for instance, White has quietly begun paying off-the-books bonuses to his biggest draws. On paper, for example, Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock were paid a combined $310,000 for a marquee fight this summer. After their fight, however, White wrote both a check for roughly $2million, he has since acknowledged. UFC has also purchased, in recent weeks, two smaller fighting organizations _ not the behavior, perhaps, of a company that welcomes competition.
“Everybody who can rub two nickels together is getting into this sport,” White said. “They’re all saying: How are they doing this? My feeling is: Go spend $44 million and figure it out.”
`THE ICEMAN’ IS CHILLIN’
Chuck Liddell’s rabid fans, who consider him the most menacing man on the planet, might be disappointed to learn that on a recent September morning, he was splayed in the back of a limousine, drinking an iced coffee sweetened with caramel.
The father of two and a graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he earned a degree in business and accounting, Liddell is the UFC’s light heavyweight champion. At 37, he is very good at what he does _ “beating people up,” as he puts it with a chuckle _ and has come to personify his sport. On this September morning he was headed up the Golden State Freeway to throw out the first pitch at a Dodgers game, an event that illustrates a sport in transition.
When he arrived, it became evident that one Dodgers executive had not gotten the memo. The executive, declaring the sport “barbaric,” protested Liddell’s presence in the team clubhouse _ especially if there were cameras around. Phone calls flew between the front office and a Dodgers public relations representative assigned to usher Liddell through the game.
“I understand you have issues,” the PR rep said into her cellphone, her voice hushed. “But it’s their clubhouse. They like him. They want him there.”
Liddell remembers the dark days of ultimate fighting with some fondness _ days when his shorts were emblazoned with the name of his sole sponsor, Meathead Movers of San Luis Obispo, when, he says, “I was happy just to be making a living.” Today, the UFC needs Liddell far more than he needs the UFC. Asked if there could come a day when he marches into White’s office and demands real money for a fight _ boxing money, say _ he said: “My management is looking at that.”
“I didn’t mind fighting for nothing when nobody was making any money,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know things are going to change.”
As if to illustrate his point, the Dodgers appeared to have vastly underestimated Liddell’s draw as a celebrity. They had made no provisions for escorting him through the stadium during his appearance, and he was chased by a mob of people looking for a photo or an autograph. “Whose bright idea was this?” one of his handlers shouted as they tried to wade through the crowd. A man muscled through to shake Liddell’s hand. He was the assistant manager of a local Charles Schwab branch.
“You’re a god in my office,” he told Liddell.
“This sport,” Liddell said later with a smile, “isn’t going anywhere.”
Its fighters, in the meantime, will come and go.
The night before Liddell’s first pitch, at the UFC’s Anaheim event, Jason “The Punisher” Lambert, a Carlsbad fighter, stared at the wall of a Honda Center dressing room. It was his 29th birthday.
Lambert had been working for five years instructing San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies in firearms tactics and defensive maneuvers. He had been fighting part time _ most fighters still have a “day job” _ and largely in second-tier events with cheesy names such as “Flaming Fury” and “Rumble on the Rock.” But in March, he had gotten the call to the UFC, to the big leagues, and he had won three straight fights.
In May, he quit his job, a decision he fretted over because he has custody of his 10-year-old son, Jacob. “I wasn’t going to leave my son high and dry because I wanted to chase a dream,” he said. “But there came a point when I knew I would be looking back saying, `Coulda, woulda, shoulda.’ So I’ve got to see what happens. Obviously, I need to win.”
It was his first event as a full-time fighter. It was also the first time his son was in the crowd.
Later that night, in front of more than 12,000 people, Lambert walked into the cage to face Rashad Evans, a former collegiate wrestler who had never lost in 13 fights. Two minutes into the second round, Evans pounced on him near the fence, straddled his chest and slammed his fist into Lambert’s face _ once, twice, 18 times before the referee jumped between them. Lambert’s eyes rolled back in his head. The crowd roared its approval.
Tomorrow: Amid the violence of mixed martial arts, love blossoms.