By Frank Deford
April 16, 2008

One of the questions I'm often asked is this: When today's kids, who love the so-called Extreme Sports -- that's the X Games, like skateboarding -- grow up, won't that mean that traditional sports will tumble in popularity?

My answer is that there are lots of things you cotton to as a teenager, but, mercifully, you grow out of them. Somehow, I just can't see many adults paying to see competitive skateboarding instead of, say, basketball or golf. But then, with apologies to Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the adolescence of the American public.

Case in point: boxing is the only major sport where the object is to hurt your opponent. Surely there can be no place for such an exercise in a more enlightened 21st century. But what has happened? Boxing has indeed lost favor, but not because it's too violent for the modern civilized world, because it's not violent enough.

Boxing is being superseded by what is called mixed martial arts (emphasis on martial), which, apparently, is especially attractive because it's like a video game, only featuring flesh-and-blood human beings (emphasis on blood).

If you are not a video-gamer and/or are not familiar with mixed martial arts, the first thing you need to know is that it is fought in a cage. The applied, uh, arts include wrestling, boxing, jiu-jitsu and kickboxing, although, after John McCain called it "human cockfighting" in 1995, various strategies, like headbutting, were outlawed in a bow to our national sensitivity. Even a nation that tortures has got to draw the line somewhere in its amusements.

The second thing you need to know is that MMA is hugely popular among young men and hugely profitable for those who own the cages and those who inhabit them. The most prestigious MMA outfit is called the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and it has run shows that have drawn gates of more than $3 million. The biggest stars themselves make millions of dollars a year with outside endorsements, book deals and the like included. MMA is hot on cable and pay-per-view. Now CBS is bringing it to broadcast. Hey, if Katie Couric doesn't fly ...

The third thing you should know about mixed martial arts is that, as befits a live video game, it rather appeals to those with a short attention span. Bouts average six or seven minutes. Mop up the blood in the cage and bring on two more gladiators.

Poor boxing. The idea in boxing, which has always styled itself as "the sweet science," is not to get hit. The best of the current heavyweight champions is Wladimir Klitschko, who wins with defense. This is the pugilistic equivalent of going green, and, I'm sorry, Wladimir, but from a marketing point of view, you're very 19th century.

But then, I guess we shouldn't be surprised that digital technology has spawned a sport. After all, as cars replaced horses, automobile races superseded horse races in popularity, and then as the American population shifted south, NASCAR, the Dixie derby, surpassed the open-wheel cars of rust-belt provenance. No reason to think a human video game shouldn't knock out poor old-fashioned boxing. Or, uh, kick it out.

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