Thursday August 26th, 2010

They came from the cities and they came from the smaller towns. An odd collection of kickboxers, sumo wrestlers, grapplers, jiu-jitsu masters, karate kids and garden-variety badasses descended on Denver in 1993 for the first UFC card. It wasn't known as UFC 1. There was no series, no ambition that more cards would follow. It was supposed to be a one-time event, a made-for-TV charade, meant to determine which fighting style was superior. For all the times fight fans wondered whether Bruce Lee could beat up Mike Tyson, this was supposed to provide the answer.

The event was barbaric, a banquet of violence, less sport than voyeurism, so much so that even the most hardcore fan would have a hard time defending. "No rules, no weight classes, no judges," the promoters boasted. And they weren't kidding. Mutual of Omaha should have been a sponsor. The fights featured crotch strikes, hair pulling, soccer kicks to the heads of downed opponents. In one of the early fights, a kickboxer delivered a roundhouse kick to the face of his opponent, a sumo wrestler. While some teeth flew into the audience -- combat sports' answer to souvenir foul balls -- one of the chicklets became embedded in the kickboxer's foot. The kickboxer reportedly fought his next bout with his previous opponent's tooth still in his foot.

In a nice bit of irony, the winner was the smallest man in the field: Royce Gracie, a jiu-jitsu expert, who didn't make anyone bleed but simply contorted bodies until they submitted. It was like watching an anaconda devour a lion.

Seventeen years and 117 cards later, UFC resembles that no-holds-barred abomination the same way today's NBA resembles games played on peach baskets. In today's UFC, there are weight classes, judges and rules. The fighters are well-conditioned, physically fit and accustomed to absorbing punishment. They train year-round and dedicate themselves full time. Competitors may have specialties, but they all practice the same sport: mixed martial arts, a multi-disciplined approach that combines the stand-up of boxing and kickboxing and Muay Thai with the ground game of wrestling and jiu-jitsu.

Instead of fighting in sparsely filled amphitheaters in states where the athletic commissions, much like aforementioned sumo wrestler, are toothless, UFC is mainstream, the fights purchased by hundreds of thousands fans on pay-per-view, held in the same arenas that house NBA teams. Consider that Saturday night's card, UFC 118, is taking place in a) the TD Garden, home of the vaunted Boston Celtics and b) in Massachusetts, hardly a libertarian outpost, yet still another state with a legislature that saw fit to sanction MMA.

Against that backdrop, you'd be well within your rights to wonder what the UFC is doing, going back to its humble origins, pitting one sport against another. A boxer (James Toney) will fight a revered UFC figure (Randy Couture) in a three-round heavyweight bout Saturday. That both men are north of 40, years removed from their respective primes, adds to the vaudeville feel. Is this not precisely the type of sideshow the UFC has taken pains to avoid?

"James Toney is not a joke," Dana White, the UFC's inimitable president, told me earlier this week. "For the guys [claiming they could be UFC fighters], he's the first one to step up, willing to go through with it ... plus he chased me around saying bad things about this sport. He picked a fight and he got one."

As much as White, who got his start in boxing, tries to distance UFC from the sweet science, this is textbook boxing. You annoy and taunt potential opponents until they snap. You beg and wheedle promoters until they pay attention. What's more, Toney's pre-fight trash talk, entertaining as it's been, doesn't exactly lend dignity to the proceedings. He's brought a cross-dressing Couture doll around with him and had likened MMA to "nothing but two dudes hugging." The UFC needs this ... how exactly?

Then there's fight itself. Even in the most likely scenario that Couture wins the fight on the ground, Toney -- and by extension, boxing -- has an out. A boxer, even a decorated one, losing in an MMA fight is like Usain Bolt losing a marathon. Different skill set. True, if Couture happens to knock out Toney with a punch, it would make a strong statement of superiority about the UFC. But Couture, a world-class wrestler and uncommonly level-headed fighter, isn't likely to trade punches.

"I hope Randy spends zero time toe-to-toe," White said. "I'm not interested in seeing Randy do that at all."

If Toney wins? It could be a stiff blow for the integrity of MMA. An over-the-hill fighter -- clipped for performance-enhancement drugs, no less -- waltzes in and knocks out the mighty Randy Couture, the fighter dubbed "The Natural," one of the sport's Mount Rushmore figures? That's a stiff blow to MMA. It's unlikely, especially since Toney was known more as a skilled defensive cutie than an explosive puncher, even in his prime. Then again, you'd have said the same thing before Ray Mercer fought former UFC heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia and, well, look what happened when the boxer connected crisply.

But here's why White just might be a genius, here's how UFC and MMA win: Thousands of boxing fans will buy the pay-per-view, eager to the see how Toney fares. He may win. He may lose. But in watching the UFC card, boxing fans are likely to take note of several features. The undercards -- an afterthought in boxing, stocked with the promoter's prospects beating up hand-picked tomato cans -- are electric in UFC, often the best fights on the cards. The contrast in styles is gripping. The fighters are exceptional athletes, but the diversity of body types, ethnicities and skills is vast. The role of strategy and tactics is essential. They'll see the reception that lightweight Kenny Florian, a BC grad, gets. They'll sense the energy for the main event, a rematch of B.J. Penn and Frankie Edgar -- which, sadly, has been thoroughly overshadowed by the Toney-Couture hype. They may have a hard time watching boxing again, the same way people who tinker with an iPhone no longer think their Treo is all that great.

So maybe White is leading with the right, coming with the left. Shooting high and sweeping low. Luring the opponent into his guard and then executing the triangle. In other words, classic MMA tactics.

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