SATURDAY NIGHT WASALL RIGHT FOR FIGHTING. But the pageantry for the 69th card in the UltimateFighting Championship's tough-and-rumble existence began much earlier thatweek. Long before the fighters unhinged the latch of the steel Octagon on April7 and fought on a card titled UFC 69: Shootout, thousands of fans had convergedon Houston, tribalists on a pilgrimage. The prefight weigh-ins drew massivecrowds. The line for the fighters' autograph show wreathed the girth of theToyota Center, the venue for UFC 69. The downtown bars and restaurants wereoverrun by fight fans.
This is an article from the May 28, 2007 issue
Some were yourtypical badasses, lacking a full complement of teeth, wearing shirts adornedwith messages the likes of FIGHT ME, I'M IRISH. But most were like Romeo Nava,26, an aircraft mechanic from Edinburg, Texas. Nava and two buddies had gottenup at an ungodly hour the morning of the fights and made the five-hour drivethrough dust-choked towns to get to Houston early. They'd each paid $250 forthe seats and considered neither the early wake-up nor the ticket price asacrifice. In another era three amigos from the guts of Texas would have madesuch a road trip for an Aerosmith concert or an NFL game. But now ..."pretty much everyone I know is into UFC," says Nava. "You get anadrenaline rush even watching it."
The sport of mixedmartial arts (MMA), of which Ultimate Fighting Championship is the most popularenterprise, has penetrated the defense of the mainstream and applied a chokehold to that golden 18-to-34 male demographic. The UFC's weekly reality show,The Ultimate Fighter, on Spike TV, often eclipses the television ratings of theNBA and baseball playoffs in that target audience. The names of UFC fightersare some of the most popular entries in Internet search engines come fighttime. UFC events do bigger pay-per-view numbers than any pro wrestling event orboxing card this side of Mayweather--De La Hoya. (UFC's 2006 PPV revenues werealmost $223 million, compared with $177 million for boxing on HBO and $200million for WWE.)
All that marketinginfo was embodied in the UFC 69 prefight tableau. The fighters, managers andother plenipotentiaries stayed at the Hilton, lodging arrangements that werepublicized on the UFC's message boards; and so it was that the lobby wasthronged with dudes old enough to vote but too young to be president, armedwith camera phones and Sharpies, hoping for a memento from the weekend. The St.Louis Cardinals were playing the Astros a few blocks away, but no onecared--Pujols, schmujols--at least so long as, say, Josh Koscheck was in thehouse. And Koscheck is only a borderline star. From the moment the crowdspotted Randy Couture, the current heavyweight champ, the membrane of admirersaround him became so thick that it spilled into the hotel's Easter display.Thereafter he needed to use secret routes to get to his room, at one pointcutting through a kitchen.
Early on Saturdayevening, UFC Nation left the Hilton en masse, crossed the street and enteredthe Toyota Center, where it was greeted by a predictable rotation of loud,aggressive "psych-up" music--White Stripes, Slipknot, Linkin Park--andan elaborate light show. The first fight pitted welterweights Luke (the SilentAssassin) Cummo against Josh (Bring the Pain) Haynes, both of whom were alumsof The Ultimate Fighter show and, thus, were known quantities to the crowd.Cummo, 27, is a vegetarian from New Hyde Park, N.Y.; Haynes, a 29-year-oldfather of three from Oregon, weighed more than 300 pounds before discoveringMMA and whittling himself to his present fighting weight of 170.
The fight (thereare three five-minute rounds in UFC; five in title bouts) was competitive andfairly typical of any MMA competition, a marriage of the "striking" ofboxing and kickboxing with the "ground game" of jujitsu and wrestling.Wearing the requisite trunks and four-ounce, open-fingered gloves, Cummo andHaynes spent part of the first round boxing toe-to-toe and the rest of itgrappling on the ground. In Round 2 Cummo began dialing in his punches andfinally clocked Haynes with a right hand. Kneeling on the canvas, Haynes lungedfor his opponent's legs, the textbook MMA response of a downed fighter. Problemwas, his neurological wiring having short-circuited, Haynes grabbed the legsnot of Cummo but of the referee, who promptly waved off the fight.
So it went for thenext four hours. The fights were awkward at worst, exhilarating at best. Twobouts were won by knockout, two others by submissions (one induced with achoke, the other with a pretzeling ankle lock), a few more by anticlimacticdecision. Among the combatants were former NCAA wrestlers and professionalboxers, plus black belts in martial arts, all of whom had picked up additionaldisciplines. But, unmistakably, each fighter was endowed with technicalskills.
Admittedly, theOctagon--with its medieval two-men-enter, one-man-leaves echoes--can be ajarring sight. But the action in the ring was something beyond glorified streetfighting. Violent? Unquestionably. There were whooomphs and craaaacks, as wellas rivulets of blood running down fighters' faces. Two weeks later, at UFC 70:Nations Collide, Brazilian heavyweight Gabriel Gonzaga would bloody the face ofhis opponent, Mirko Cro Cop, with elbow shots and then deliver a roundhousekick to the head. Cro Cop (real name: Mirko Filipovic), a former Croatianantiterrorism officer and member of parliament when he's not fighting, wasinstantly knocked out, and as he collapsed, his right knee and ankle bent atsuch hideous angles that even hard-core UFC fans recoiled. A little.
But as UFCofficials say with almost evangelical conviction, the sport is safer and lessviolent than boxing--and after watching both sports up close, it's hard todisagree. (Within a few minutes Cro Cop, for example, had regained his sensesand walked out of the Octagon.) Boxing doesn't permit fighters to changetactics by clutching or wrestling. And one could even make a credible case thatUFC and other MMA competitions are less brutal than--dare we say it?--the NFL."It's a combat sport, and injuries can happen," says Couture. "Butwhat a lot of people don't realize is that you're not there to hurt the otherguy. Your adversary isn't your enemy. It's a kinetic chess kind ofthing."
In the main eventin Houston, welterweight champ Georges (Rush) St. Pierre, a quiet FrenchCanadian, fought Matt (the Terror) Serra, a squat New Yorker known as asubmission expert. An 8-to-1 underdog--naturally, there are Vegas lines on UFCfights--Serra cracked St. Pierre with a right cross midway through the firstround. As St. Pierre fell to the canvas, Serra pounced on him and unleashed aflurry of haymakers. When, mercifully, the referee stopped the fight, Serracelebrated with a round-off. Hardly appearing like a man who'd just had hisbrainpan battered, St. Pierre showered, changed into a dapper suit and soughtout the media to apologize to the fans "for my deeply disappointingperformance."
The fans seemed toenjoy UFC 69 all the same; no one asked for a refund on seats that ran as highas $450. When the last of the ticket sales and Budweiser beer-concessionreceipts were tallied, UFC 69 was the highest grossing event in the history ofthe Toyota Center. The second-highest? A 2005 Rolling Stones concert.
In the winter of1994 Bruce Beck sat in a television production meeting in Tulsa. Beck was afreelance sportscaster who had hosted Showtime's Championship Boxing and doneplay-by-play of Golden Gloves events, and his agent had just landed him a gigcovering a fledgling sport called ultimate fighting. He was paired with formerOlympic wrestler Jeff Blatnick. Beck had some initial misgivings, but listenedeagerly as UFC officials explained the sport's rules. There would be no biting,no eye-gouging and no fish-hooking. Beck waited to hear the rest of theregulations ... and he waited. Groin kicks, head butts, hair-pulling? Alllegal. There would be no rounds, no judges, no weight classes, no weightlimits. "At least," Beck thought to himself, "it must be hard tocheat."
Bob Meyrowitz, aNew York City entrepreneur perhaps most famous for creating the King BiscuitFlower Hour radio show in the 1970s, is generally credited with bringingUltimate Fighting Championship to the masses in '93. The premise was simple:Why should fans of combat sports belly up to a bar and argue hypotheticallyover who'd win a fight between Mike Tyson and Bruce Lee, or over who wastougher, a Brazilian jujitsu master or an Iowa wrestler, when you could put thetwo guys in a confined space and let 'em have at it?
In the beginning,UFC events were more spectacle than sport, a banquet of violence that loweredcivilization's limbo bar. The fights were held in small amphitheaters and civiccenters, invariably in states in which boxing commissions were either inept ornonexistent. But bloodthirsty crowds showed up, and, more important, the cardswere available on pay-per-view. In 1994, in a fight that typified the UFC'searly existence, 200-pound karate expert Keith Hackney beat a 600-pound sumowrestler into submission, jackhammering his opponent with kicks to the groinand punches to the back of the head. "Before each fight I prayed no onewould get killed," says Beck, now an Emmy-winning sportscaster at New YorkCity's NBC affiliate. (For the record, no UFC fighter has died as a result ofinjuries suffered in a sanctioned event.)
The UFC was,justifiably, an easy target for politicians, including John McCain, who tookthe Senate floor in 1996 and famously dismissed it as "humancockfighting." Time and again, cards would be scheduled and then canceledor hastily relocated after civic leaders learned what exactly would be going onin that steel contraption being assembled inside their town's auditorium.Eventually the political outcry rose to a roar, and even the moral arbiters atpay-per-view carriers were growing queasy about showing Ultimate FightingChampionship events.
Meanwhile, in LasVegas, Dana White, a scrappy Boston native and gym owner with an outsizedpersonality, was training professional boxers; one of his fighters, DerrickHarmon, was once fodder for Roy Jones Jr., but mostly White was a fringeplayer. He supplemented his income by leading boxercise classes and givinglessons to Las Vegas's landed gentry for $45 an hour. On a lark he took amixed-martial-arts class with a UFC fighter. "I never really [cared about]the ground game," he recalls, "but when I got on the mat, I was like,This is so cool. For every move, there's a countermove." White even beganmanaging a few of the fighters.
He spread thegospel to two casino magnate friends, Frank Fertitta III and his brother,Lorenzo. (Lorenzo was also a respected member of the Nevada State AthleticCommission who distinguished himself as a voice of reason in the 1997 MikeTyson ear-biting affair.) Hooked on the sport, White and the Fertittas took MMAclasses together and sparred with each other, traveled to UFC events andbefriended more fighters. When the UFC was gasping for air, White seized on anidea. "Let's buy the thing!" he suggested to his millionaire pals. Thebrothers would put up the money; White would be the front man. The threepurchased the property from Meyrowitz in January 2001 for the larcenous priceof $2 million.
White, now 37, hasno college degree, no formal business training and an unshakable habit ofdropping f-bombs in most sentences he utters. By his own admission he can bevolatile and polarizing, but he has proved to be the ideal leader for UFC.
While his ultimateloyalty is to the Fertittas and their financial interests, White comes acrossnot as a sports executive but as a fan. Much like his sport, White, who has ashaved head and wears skintight T-shirts and a silver belt buckle adorned witha skull, doesn't much traffic in nuance. To help persuade fighter Tito Ortiz tore-sign, White agreed to box him. (Ortiz was no-show.) When boxer FloydMayweather Jr. recently slammed the UFC--"UFC ain't s---. It ain't but afad," he said. "Anyone can put a tattoo on his head and get in a streetfight"--White fired back, daring him to get into the Octagon.
Mostly because ofstunts like this, White is as recognizable a character as any UFC fighter. Notunlike a jujitsu master, he has deployed all the right moves and countermoveswhile running UFC. He recognized that while the Octagon was essential tomarketing, UFC had to lose the image of barbarity and trumpet the safetyprecautions it adopted in November 2000, when the league added weight classesand 28 rules first proposed by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board tothe original three.
While regulationssuch as a prohibition on "putting a finger into any orifice or into any cutor laceration" may not exactly recall the Marquess of Queensberry, therules improved not only safety but marketability as well. Pay-per-viewreturned, forgetting its queasiness now that there was the potential for bigbucks. No-holds-barred extreme fighting, such as the original UFC, was bannedin 36 states; the new Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts have either beenapproved or are under review in all states with a sanctioning athleticcommission. "You're going to see worse cuts in MMA than in boxing,especially with longer rounds, and there are more knockouts," says Dr.Margaret Goodman, chairwoman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission's MedicalAdvisory Board. "But overall, is it safer than boxing? I think so. The guys[submit], and it's over. You don't have standing eight counts, you don't have10 rounds of guys taking shots to the head."
Another slick movewas creating The Ultimate Fighter, which matched aspiring UFC combatants, in2005. Apart from capitalizing on the reality-television craze, the showdemystified the sport of MMA, served as a sort of UFC farm system and madestars out of the fighters. After a dozen episodes viewers were intimatelyfamiliar with the personality and backstory of, say, Haynes, whose son Thor wasborn with a brain tumor and underwent seven surgeries and months ofchemotherapy but has been cancer-free for four years. By the time he graduatedfrom the show last June, Haynes already had traction with the fans. What'smore, the show doubles as a de facto infomercial for the pay-per-viewcards.
UFC is more likelyto draw viewership away from WWE than boxing. "Athletes want to compete and[MMA] gives you a chance to do that in a way that pro wrestling doesn't,"says former UFC middleweight champion Frank Shamrock.
Perhaps above all,White had seen firsthand how "f----- up" (his words) boxing was and dideverything to avoid those missteps. "Blame Don King and Bob Arum. Those twosucked the life out of boxing, put it in their pockets and did nothing tosecure the future of [the sport]," White says, his voice filling like asail. "We just had a card that was like the biggest marketing spend inEngland's history! My CFO said, 'You know how long it will take to make thismoney back?' I said, 'I don't care if you're a f------ sheepherder in themiddle of nowhere. You better have heard of the UFC!'"
The growingpopularity of MMA and the creation of weight classes has upgraded the qualityof UFC competition. Gone are the immobile 600-pound behemoths and the brawlerssuch as Tank Abbott--an early UFC cult hero who was hyped as specializing"in the ancient martial art of kicking ass"--replaced by world-classathletes. "If you're going to measure every parameter [endurance,flexibility, coordination, strength], without a doubt, MMA fighters are themost accomplished athletes out there," says Carlon Colker, a Connecticutphysician who has trained or advised the likes of Andre Agassi and ShaquilleO'Neal as well as UFC fighters. "It's not even close."
As the UFC improvedthe product, the pedigree of its participants changed too. One of theorganization's talking points: Around 80% of the fighters have college degrees,including Chuck Liddell--he of the recent Entourage cameo--who may look like abouncer at a biker bar but was an accounting major at Cal Poly--San LuisObispo. Rich Franklin, a former middleweight champ, was a high school mathteacher in Cincinnati. Even Ortiz, the resident bad boy who's dating porn starJenna Jameson, can come across as thoughtful and well-spoken.
Top fighters likeOrtiz have contracts that pay them six figures per fight and can earn sevenfigures when bonuses and a percentage of the pay-per-view haul are factored in.Lower-profile fighters on the same card, however, might earn only $2,000 to$3,000 for a bout. The UFC's current Zeus, heavyweight champ Couture, is a43-year-old father of three who was an All-America wrestler at Oklahoma State,twice finishing as the heavyweight runner-up in the NCAA tournament, and servedin the military for six years. After failing to make the 1996 Olympic team--thethird time he was an alternate--Couture figured his career in competitivesports was over. He was an assistant wrestling coach at Oregon when he saw aformer Oklahoma State teammate, Don Frye, fighting on a televised MMA card.
Couture tried thesport, and it fed something in him. He had the wrestling component down. Hepicked up the boxing, the kicking and the ground game. He made his UFC debut in1997; three fights later he was competing for a belt. "My goal was to be anOlympic wrestler, and I think if I would have achieved that, I would have beencontent," he says. "Instead, in my mid-30s I still had this hunger tocompete--and thankfully I had a place to transfer it." Strangely, thenerves that plagued him at the worst moments when he wrestled haven't surfacedwhen he's fighting in a steel cage.
Couture came out ofa 13-month retirement in March to fight UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia,31. In a brutal but strategic fight, Couture scored a shocking upset and wassubsequently accorded rock-star status. He landed a role in an upcoming DavidMamet martial arts movie, Redbelt. ("Randy has some acting chops," saysMamet, a jujitsu enthusiast and UFC fan.) Couture's agent (all the top fightershave them) has been in negotiations for endorsements with a variety ofcompanies. His nonprofit (the top guns have these too), Operation XtremeSacrifice, will host what Couture bills as a nonpolitical event on May 27 tobenefit American troops wounded in action. "I think a lot of us are stilltrying to grasp the magnitude of all of this," he says. "In a sportlike wrestling, you assume that after the Olympics, that's it, time for a realjob. All of a sudden there's an opportunity, and it just keeps growing. Whatcan you do besides ride the wave?"
On a lonesomestretch of Iowa highway, the parking lot of the Lumberyard II is overflowingwith cars. The Lumberyard II ("Where real men go for wood") is a stripclub in Cedar Rapids, but on this unseasonably warm night in early spring, thecrowd is there to see minimally clad men, not women. It's Tuesday, which meansit's Amateur MMA Night, the creation of Monte Cox, a former boxer turnedpromoter. As the sports editor of the Quad-City Times, in Davenport, Coxcovered an MMA fight in the mid-'90s and, as he puts it, "saw thelight." He quit his newspaper job and started to manage UFC fighters andpromote MMA cards on the side. Today he represents dozens of competitors andputs on an average of one MMA card a week. "It was obvious that this sportwas going to take off," he says. "People are always going to want towatch two guys fight--and boxing is a joke compared to this."
The fighters insideLumberyard II aren't paid a dime and don't get a cut of the $10 cover. Theysign a waiver before they even remove their shirts. The ringside EMT and thedefibrillator kit suggest a potential for injury. Still, Cox has to cap thecard at a dozen fights. "Otherwise," he says, "we'll be here tillthe morning." Unlike Toughman contests--those box-offs that pit rankamateurs against each other and make news every couple of years when acontestant dies from injuries suffered in the ring--amateur MMA night attractsexperienced and skilled fighters. Muscles bulging and ears cauliflowered, thecombatants are mostly former high school and college wrestlers who have learnedtaekwondo, jujitsu and kickboxing. A number of current UFC stars got theirstart at events like this, including middleweight "Ruthless" RobbieLawler, an Iowa native who has fought on seven UFC cards. "These are thekind of kids who once wanted to be professional football or baseballplayers," says Cox, a burly former boxer in his mid-40s. "Now they allwant to be MMA stars."
Iowa has become afertile crescent of sorts for MMA, a distinction that owes largely to one man.Long before he became a UFC lightweight and welterweight champ, Pat Miletichwas a minor legend in the MMA subculture. A former high school wrestler andfootball star, Miletich spent most of his 20s barnstorming the Midwest,fighting in underground no-holds-barred events. Miletich often spotted hisopponents 100 pounds, but--mostly on account of his Brazilian jujitsu trainingand singular intensity--he invariably gave worse than he got.
In the late 1990sMiletich opened a training academy in his hometown of Bettendorf, and aspiringMMA competitors from all over the country converged on the gym. Formerlightweight champ Jens (Lil Evil) Pulver, for instance, took a train to Iowafrom Washington State in 2001 and slept on a karate mat in Miletich's gym untilhe could earn enough by fighting to afford his own efficiency apartment."Best move I ever made," says Pulver, now UFC aristocracy. On any givenmorning Miletich's gym, a few blocks from the banks of the Mississippi, is hometo a MMA all-star team--Sylvia, former welterweight titleholder Matt Hughes,light heavyweight Jeremy Horn--whaling away at punching mats and rolling eachother around on sweat-saturated mats. Like a Buddha clad in a silk karate gi,Miletich sits cross-legged, speaking only when he feels he has somethingprofound to say.
Now 39, Miletich isa bridge between MMA's past and future. He's heard the explanations for thesport's surging popularity. MMA has siphoned fans who are alienated by corruptboxing promoters and the choreography of WWE, pay-per-view ripoffs andunsympathetic fighters.... MMA is of a piece with Red Bull and instantmessaging and video games, a sport for an ever-coarsening culture that deploressubtlety and patience.... MMA has some international flavor, but at a time whenother sports are globalizing, the stars are predominantly American males--whiteones, at that.... Violence sells.
Miletich thinks itall points to something more primal. "It seems like there are fewer andfewer opportunities to find out who you really are," he says. "Withthis combination of violence and discipline--brains and brawn--you have a hellof a way to find out. Same thing from the fans' perspective. There's no b.s.Two guys are stripped down. One wins, one loses. Where else do you get thatanymore?"
It's as much a partof human nature as the impulse to watch two men fight: thriving enterprisesbreed competition. In addition to training fighters, Miletich coaches the QuadCity Silverbacks of the International Fight League (IFL), a 12-team MMAcircuit. A publicly traded company, the IFL has a weekly television show on FoxSports Net and plans to expand internationally. While the IFL fighters aremostly up-and-comers, the franchise coaches--Frank and Ken Shamrock, DonFrye--were top UFC fighters of the previous era. There are other MMA leaguestoo: EliteXC, England's Cage Rage, Strikeforce, Bodog Fight and SpiritXC. OnJune 2 in L.A., Johnnie Morton, a former Detroit Lions receiver, and BrockLesnar, a former NCAA heavyweight wrestling champ turned professional wrestlingstar, are fighting on a K-1 Dynamite card. Even Meyrowitz, the UFC founder, isapparently looking to get back in the game, recently pitching networks on a newMMA league.
White, as onemight expect, fights ruthlessly against the competition. In March, UFCpurchased its Asian rival, Pride, for a reported $70 million, with designs oncreating Super Bowl--style megafights. UFC fighters under contract are strictlyforbidden from fighting in other organizations. In the past, fighters at oddswith White have seen their names and achievements removed from the UFC'sofficial website. "Dana," says one UFC employee, "doesn't alwaysplay nice." (White is also smart enough to know that if there's one MMAfatality, even if it's on some unsanctioned card and not in an official UFCbout, the whole enterprise could be sunk.)
White cuts thefigure of a stage parent, fiercely proud and protective of his offspring. As hesees it, the UFC is on the verge of becoming the next NASCAR, and he'll bedamned if he's going to loosen his grip now. White picks the new fighters andnegotiates their contracts on the UFC's behalf; he determines most purses; hehelps make matches; he selects venues; he handpicked the broadcast team ofcollege football play-by-play announcer Mike Goldberg and former Fear Factorhost Joe Rogan. Inevitably, UFC cards will be broadcast on premium channels,but talks with HBO are said to be held up in part because White was unwillingto cede control of the production. Negotiations are still on-going but HBO doesnot see UFC as a replacement for boxing. "This is the s--- I'm passionateabout," says White. "I'd say one of the best things about me is howaggressive I am, and it's also probably the worst."
And while analystsconservatively value the league at more than $100 million, don't even botherasking White if he'd ever consider taking the UFC public. "Never!" hesays. "Have a bunch of pencil necks in New York telling me how to run mybusiness? Guys who went to college, and Bear Stearns, who are like, The numbersdon't make sense?" he says. "I'm going to f------ do it the way I wantto do it."
When UFC 69concluded, White held court at the postfight press conference. He offered acandid assessment of the bouts. With a pained expression, he declared themuch-anticipated fight between Diego Sanchez and Josh Koscheck adisappointment. "They didn't let their hands go as much as they shouldhave," he said. On the podium alongside White, Koscheck looked downashamedly. White praised an electrifying fight between Roger Huerta and LeonardGarcía. "Roger's a good-looking kid, the ladies love him, and moreimportant, he speaks Spanish!" White said. When it came time to announcethe gate, an impish smile stole across his face. "Two-point-eightmillion," he said. "Who's your daddy?"
By then, UFCNation had gravitated back to the Hilton and was again clogging the lobby. Fansposed alongside Serra as he displayed his new belt. They repaired to the barand bought shots for some of the fighters they'd just cheered in the Octagon.They stayed up all night arguing about fights, speculating on matchups andmaking arrangements to meet up at future cards. This went beyond voyeurism orbloodlust. In fact, there's a term for this breed of zealots. Sports fans, wecall them.
More than 15,000 watched Thales Leites take down Pete Sell in one of thefeatured bouts at UFC 69: Shootout, the highest-grossing event ever staged inHouston's Toyota Center.
Kendall Grove went from obscurity to one of UFC's bigger draws after winningthe third reality-show competition.
In Ultimate Fighting Championship, combatants within the Octagon combine thestriking techniques of boxing and kickboxing with the ground game of jujitsuand wrestling.
Couture's upset of Sylvia (left) in March earned him the heavyweight title,plus a rock-star-like following.
Before joining UFC, Yushin Okami (top), who beat Mike Swick at UFC 69, got hisstart in rival MMA leagues.
Resident bad boy Ortiz, a former light heavyweight champ, is known as much forhis antics outside the Octagon.
White (with Cindy Crawford at UFC 60 in L.A. in 2006) is as recognizable acharacter as any of his UFC fighters.