The fight game reloaded: how MMA conquered the world | Andy Bull

The fight game reloaded: how MMA conquered the world | Andy Bull

On the eve of UFC 196, Andy Bull goes inside the world of mixed martial arts to report on how a journey from vilified human cockfighting to mainstream acceptance has transformed it into a hugely profitable industry, and whether concerns over safety and the legitimacy of its visceral violence are justified

Late last Saturday night, two fights. The first a boxing match in Manchester, between Carl Frampton and Scott Quigg. Frampton won, then said that it had all been pretty boring. Online, there was so much talking here how dull the fight had been that the next days newspapers operated stories about fans demanding rebates. The second fighting was in London, at the O 2 Arena. You wont have read about it in the printed press, but you might have watched it online. Because it was the single most talked about sports event on Twitter that day, beating the Premier League, the Six Nations, and Frampton v Quigg. It was a middleweight mixed martial art contest between Anderson Silva and Michael Bisping, five five-minute rounds in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Among the UFCs many millions of fans what happened at the O 2 is already famous. For everybody else, heres a short sketch.

Silva is 40 and from So Paulo. He has more Twitter followers than some countries have citizens, 7.47 m. Those who know say Silva might be the greatest martial artist in the world. Another of the UFCs fighters, Dan The Outlaw Hardy, describes Silva as a modern-day Bruce Lee. Hardy has a 10 in tattoo of Lee along his left shin. Between 2006 and 2012, Silva won 16 fightings in a row, the longest streak in the UFCs short history. He lost the title at the end of 2012. Since then hes suffered a transgressed leg and been banned for a year because he failed a drugs test. Before the fight against Bisping the retired UFC fighter Forrest Griffin explained that Silva had already transgressed one of the main rules of mixed martial arts dont comes to an end 40.

Bisping is 36, born in Cyprus, brought up in Manchester. If Silva is trying to make it back to the summit, Bisping is still trying find it. He has been in the UFC for a decade, a perennial top-1 0 competitor who has never been given a title shoot. In 2013, the retina of Bispings right eye became detached after he was kicked by another Brazilian fighter, Vitor Belfort, who had been banned in 2006 for failing a drugs test. Bispings had five rounds of surgery, but its still not fixed. After that, Bisping swore that he would never again battle anybody who had employed performance-enhancing drugs, but he broke the rule for Silva, a fighter he once idolised. This man is a defraud. This man is a fraud, said Bisping at the weigh-in, when he and Silva were face-to-face. All the needles in your ass, all the steroids will not help you, you pussy.

Britains Michael Bisping punches Anderson Silva during their fight at the UFC fight night at the O2 Arena in London on 27 February 2016. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

There are a lot of misconceptions about MMA. The main one is that it is, in any way, a simple athletic. It is endlessly technical and complex. An athlete could expend a lifetime trying to master just one of the key disciplines it combines, wrestling, striking, and grappling. For instance, to succeed on the mat a fighter needs a sound understanding of Brazilian jiu jitsu, which, one teacher tells me, contains more than 2,500 techniques, each designed to counter against another. They say MMA is human chess. It is sometimes so intricate that it can seem altogether unfathomable. Silva, though, is so extravagantly talented that even a newcomer can appreciate his ability. He has an virtually supernatural they are able to sense punches coming and sway away from them, like a sapling in a strong breeze. Some opponents simply cant hit him. There are times when you watch him oppose, Hardy told me, and you think: This is like watching The Matrix.

Silva also has all the arrogance of a great champion. He spent much of the first two rounds taunting Bisping, leaning back and beckoning him on. Bisping, unimpressed, stood off and demanded Silva step up and start fighting. Bisping is not a hugely skilful fighter , nor a very powerful striker, but he has great staman and enormous sums of that intangible quality heart. MMA, like boxing, is scored on a 10 -point must system and Bisping won the first two rounds simply because he landed so many blows.

Silva seemed virtually too busy looking good to bother with the business of scoring points. He wanted to win with a flourish, in a big finish. It was brilliant athletic and it brought each and every one of the 17,000 people inside the O 2 to their feet. Me included.

Then it happened. At the end of the third round, Bispings mouthguard flew loose during a flurry of punches. The referee, Herb Dean, picked it up. The rules of MMA state that to reinsert the mouthpiece, Dean had to wait for the first opportune moment without interfering with the action. Seconds later, Bisping reached what he thought was an opportune moment. Silva disagreed. As Bisping turned his head to ask Dean for the guard, Silva, quick as a serpent, flew his knee into Bispings jaw. Bisping crumpled. As he fell, the buzzer rang for the end of the round. Silva started to celebrate, medical and coaching staff started to swarm around Bisping and the O 2 erupted. Merely the fight wasnt over.

One point MMA fans and fighters make over and again is that its athletic is, in one key regard, safer than boxing because in MMA a knockout objective the fight. There is no standing count. After being knocked unconscious , no one gets a second chance to get hit in the head all over again. Dean would say later: I ensure that where reference is fell he was not unconscious.

Silva had made a mistake, Dean suggested, by standing off Bisping, where reference is should have followed up with another jolt and so forced Dean to stop the fight. The UFC had a medical consultant and five local doctors at the fight. In rugby union medics take 10 minutes to stimulate head trauma evaluations. In the NFL they have between eight and 12. At the O 2 , the UFCs doctors had 60 seconds.

Bisping, hemorrhaging profusely from his nose, eyebrow, and cheeks, fought on. My pleasure drained away and in its place grew a queasy uneasiness. Instinct stimulated me think someone should have stopped this fight, but if they had, Bisping would have been robbed of the greatest victory of his career. He won on points, because he had landed many more scoring shootings in 3 of the five rounds. Immediately after the decision was announced, Silva said in Portuguese: Sometimes its just like Brazil, total corruption.

Oddly, the phrase got lost in translation over the PA. Soon after, the 17,000 fans filed out into night, some furious, some exhilarated, some overjoyed, some dismayed. But heres the thing: there wasnt one among them who wanted their fund back.

UFC wouldnt exist without John McCain

Excited fans at the O2 Arena. Photo: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

Boxing has been sanctified by all the fine intellects who have fallen for it through the years. From William Hazlitt through Norman Mailer to Joyce Carol Oates. Some say MMA has a long history too. They stretch it back to pankration, a combat athletic staged at the ancient Olympics. The UFC, though, is a modern phenomenon. The inaugural event was in November 1993 and so far as great novelists run, it has one major proponent: David Mamet. In 2007 Mamet wrote an article for the Guardian describing MMA as the future of American sport.

The day before Bisping v Silva I satisfied Lorenzo Fertitta in the boardroom on the top floor of Claridges. As I shake Fertittas hand, its another of Mamets lines that comes to mind. From Glengarry Glen Ross: You see this watch? This watch cost more than your car.

The front man of the UFC is Dana White, but Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta are the brothers who own it. They are also the principal shareholders in Station Casinos. Forbes is forecast that Lorenzo is worth $1.56 bn. In 2001, he and Frank bought the UFC for what Lorenzo describes as the very, very reasonable price of$ 2m. Last year, the company behind the UFC, Zuffa, made around $600 m. There is a feeling within the organisation that 2015 was a tipping phase. James Elliott, the UFCs general manager in Europe, the Countries of the middle east, and Asia, describes the last six months as a breakthrough moment. By the end of the year, UFC was being watched, they say, in 1.2 billion households in 158 countries. UFC London sold out in 27 minutes. UFC Dublin sold out in 60 seconds. In July, they signed a six-year, $70 m kit sponsorship deal with Reebok.

James Elliott, UFC general manager for Europe, and UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta on its growth .
James Elliott, UFC general manager for Europe, and UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta on its growth.

To understand the success of the UFC today, you have to go back before what Lorenzo Fertitta calls the modern epoch. In the US, MMA grew out of the Brazilian tradition of Vale Tudo, anything goes competitions between rival martial art gyms, each with its own struggle style. The theory was exported to the US by Rorion Gracie, grandmaster of jiu jitsu, scion of one of the most famous opposing families in the world, and, as a 1989 article in Playboy set it, the toughest human in the United States. The UFC was concocted by Gracie and three partners. One was John Milius, who wrote and directed Conan the Barbarian. Another, an advertising executive named Art Davie and the last the promoter Bob Meyrowitz, a innovator of pay-per-view Tv. Milius supposed the fights should take place in a pit. Davie indicated a ring surrounded by a moat filled with either sharks or alligators. In the end they settled on an eight-sided cage.

The British martial arts teacher Windy Miller says the worst thing that ever happened to MMA was that people started calling it a cage. The fencing serves a practical intent in a ring, fighters would slip through the ropes while the latter are grappling but the phrase cagefighting came to carry all the wrong connotations, largely because the UFC wanted it that way. Hardy describes these as the wild west days of the athletic , no gloves , no weight categories , no regulations. At the first UFC, victory could be won merely by knockout, resignation, physicians intervention, or demise. The card included a fight between a Dutch karate fighter and a 500 lb sumo wrestler. The doctors aimed up picking the wrestlers teeth out of the karate fighters feet. By the late 90 s, the UFC was in danger of extinction, despite the efforts Meyrowitz had made to improve its image. Political pressure had driven it off cable Tv. John McCain resulted the campaign. He called it human cockfighting.

A packed crowd at the O2 Arena. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

Fertitta says the UFC wouldnt exist as it does today without John McCain, because thats what allowed us to step in and gave us the opportunity to buy the business. As a kid, Fertitta used to go to the fights in Vegas. After his MBA, Fertitta started working for the Nevada Athletic Commission, which governs boxing and combat athletics. He wanted to get into the fight business, but not the boxing business.

Boxing was, in a sense, broken. There was no other business or industry I could think of that had been around for so long, had generated billions of dollars in revenue, yet had no value. There was no brand associated with it at all. In the UFC, he saw an opportunity. It was a very tarnished brand and a broken business. The one thing we did insure was there was a brand and there was structure, something we could at the least start with.

The Fertittas knew a little about MMA as they were doing some jiu jitsu train. When their lawyers insisted that their UFC ownership contract include a dispute resolution clause, the brothers agreed that in cases where there a boardroom deadlock they would stage a sport jiu jitsu fight against one another, over three five-minute rounds, refereed by their friend White. As White often says when speaking about the UFCs success opposing is in our DNA, but Fertittas understanding of sport was far less important than his understanding of sports administration. Zuffa attained one crucial change to the business strategy. Instead of shying away from independent regulation, they would encourage it. He approached a few key athletic committees Nevada, Texas, Florida and, Fertitta says, asked them: How can we create a set of rules that will address whatever issues you have? Zuffa decided to use what Fertitta calls the gold criterion for sport in the world the Olympics.

They borrowed rules from the Olympic athletics of Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling, boxing, taekwondo and judo. We basically combined those four martial arts and made the unified rules of MMA. Some people still imagine that MMA has no regulations. Its part of what Fertitta calls the massive hangover from the early days, but the rulebook runs to eight pages. There are 31 contaminate for which a fighter can be docked points or disqualified. They include butting, eye-gouging and striking the throat, groin, spine or back of the head.

At the same time, the list of ways an MMA fighter is allowed to inflict injury is a lot longer and some techniques, such as the ground and pound( where one fighter straddles the chest of another on the mat and pummels his head with his fists) are particularly brutal. For the fans and fighters, these are essential parts of the sport. Hardy says that while Zuffa needed to bring in regulations, they also needed to make sure that it remained rooted in current realities of combat. Hardy started out in taekwondo, but when it was admitted to the Olympics the rules changed and he lost interest. I felt it took it much more towards athletic, and too far away from fighting. Hardy, who studied fine art at Nottingham Trent, would like the rules of MMA to be little looser. As a purist I would love the fighters to be able to kick the head of a downed opponent, he says. But with the sport where it is right now, I can see how that would set us back.

Russias Rustam Khabilov throws Norman Parke of Northern Ireland at the O2 Arena event.

Outside the Octagon, Zuffa dont just regulate, they overregulate. It was their road to being sanctioned and, ultimately, to being back on cable Tv. These days theyre even on BBC3. Its as if, having come so close to being banned, they have resolved to be one better than it was necessary to ever since. As Elliott explains: The route we set up the medical provision for instance is that we go above and beyond that which we are required to do, and certainly that which the boxing authorities would have in place. Their health and safety record is excellent, especially when set next to other combat and collision sports. There have been several demises in the wider sport of MMA, but the worst injury anyone has suffered in the UFC is a broken bone.

The UFC was quick to understand the growing concerns about the long-term effects of concussion and the way the questions had been mishandled by other athletics. In 2012, it entered a partnership with the Cleveland Clinic to understand better what the athletic was doing to their fighters brains. They send dozens of their fighters for brain scans and cognitive testing. We want, Elliott says, to understand and get in front of any issues before they arise.

Most UFC fighters and fans argue that the risk of long-term brain damage is considerably smaller in their sport than it is in boxing, even though the gloves they use are so slight that some call them sleeping pills. I want to be able chew my food when Im older, Hardy says, and the MMA rule set is the safest place for me to exam myself in a controlled environment.

UFC vice-president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky on setting up the sport’s anti-doping programme .
UFC vice-president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky on setting up the athletics anti-doping programme.

The best instance of Zuffas approach, though, is their anti-doping policy. Theres no doubt that the sport of MMA has a doping problem. Jack The Stone Mason, who has fought 47 professional MMA fights, tells me that he dreads to guess how many of them were against fighters who had taken steroids. In the UFC, Silvas was only one of the more high-profile cases.

The UFCs solution was to hire the best anti-doping expert it could find, Jeff Novitzky. He has joined the UFC from a 22 -year career in federal law enforcement, the last 12 of them spent in anti-doping. Novitzky worked on the Balco laboratories instance that brought down Marion Jones and Barry Bonds. Then, in the words of the cyclist Tyler Hamilton, he drove a bulldozer into the bike-racing world and busted Lance Armstrong. The UFC asked Novitzky to draw up its anti-doping program. It wasnt lip service, Novitzky says. They were looking to clean up their sport, they were dead serious about it. Novitzky has designed what he describes as the best anti-doping program in professional sports. And frankly, he says, there is not really a close second. All UFC athletes are now subject to random testing, every day of the year.

UFC on social media
UFC on social media

The programme is being eased in. Right now, Novitzky says, its operate at about 60 -7 0% of what it will be. In the meantime, fans have fun spotting the fighters who once had rent bodies but whose physiques seem to have mysteriously softened in recent months.

Novitzky says that what depicted him to the UFC was the opportunity to build a programme from the foundation up, as if hed been given a blank piece of paper to work on. That touches on another key reason for the UFCs success. It was in such a mess when the Fertittas took it over they were able to rebuild it as it liked, applying lessons they had learned from other sports. Lorenzo Fertitta says: Boxing a tremendous roadmap, from a case study standpoint, as far as what to do and what not to do. It felt boxing had become too fragmented, included too many titles at too many weights. When we bought the company we sat down and I said, Somebody buy me a Ring magazine from the 1950 s. I want to go back to when boxing was simple and I want to see what the weight class were. The UFC has eight weight class. Boxing has 17, multiplied by the many different governing bodies.

On top of that, he says, boxing came to the point where it was really merely about the main event, it wasnt about the show. At a UFC event the card is stacked and at UFC London the O 2 was packed from the first oppose, at 5.45 pm, to the finish five hours later. But the single most important phase is this, according to Fertitta. Boxing had failed the fans because they had was not in a position to put one across the fights the fans wanted to see. We waited, what, six or seven years to ensure Mayweather v Pacquiao? There is, he says , no operate, there is no hiding in the UFC. Hes right because the UFC has something close to a monopoly on the athletic. For the top fighters, the UFC is pretty much the only option in MMA. At the end of 2015, it had 573 fighters under contract and its the UFCs matchmakers who decide who fights who, where and when.

UFC total revenue

That control extends into all areas. The UFC is a exhaustively modern model of a sports business and where it once borrowed from other sports, other sports would now love to be able to copy it. It controls promotion and production, some aspects of regulation and, increasingly, distribution. It realised early on, as Fertitta says, that the best route to reposition the brand and reposition the sport, really comes through our athletes. The athletes are its best advocates. At first, people suppose: Gosh, these guys are just a bunch of bar room brawlers, Fertitta says. But when they get to meet them they see that they are martial artists. They are intelligent. It is about the competition. It is about the sport. It is not about, in any way, the violence.

So in 2005, it launched its own reality TV show, Ultimate Fighter, so that spectators could get to know the athletes and their backstories. It assembled a group of fighters, had them live and train together and then compete for a UFC contract. In the next two years, UFC had a 1,258% increased number of revenue, including a 1,700% increase in PPV sales.

Since then, the UFC has turned down broadcast deals with HBO and ESPN because it didnt want to give up control of production. Off the record conversations with some of its broadcast partners reveal that the UFC has a reputation for being notoriously demanding to work with. Its move into distribution entailed UFC London was available only on Fight Pass, its online streaming service.

Add it all up and UFC has become so prominent that its name has almost synonymous with the wider athletic of MMA. That, says Fertitta, is one of the biggest misunderstandings. MMA, he says, is a vibrant industry, that happens every weekend, all around the world. He estimates that there are 3,000 -4, 000 fights every year. The UFC stages 42 of them. Its in those smaller promotions that the megastars such as Conor McGregor cut their teeth. Thats how he got his experience, how he got his name and his following, and eventually our talent scouts find someone like that and bring them into the UFC. At these lower levels, MMA feels very different indeed.

We are applied to put got a couple of mats down on my friends garage floor

Englands Joe Harding waits to restart his fight with Geir Kare Nyland of Norway in their BCMMA fight at the Charter Hall in Colchester on 20 February 2016. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

A week before Silva opposed Bisping at UFC London, one of those smaller events was taking place in a leisure centre just outside Colchester. It was called BCMMA and it was run by Jack Mason, a fighter, promoter and trainer who, like Hardy and Bisping, is an old hand in that hes been on the scene for a decade or so. Hardy says his second professional fight was on the end of the pier in Portsmouth. He was paid 100 for it. I didnt know anything about my opponent. I didnt do any kind of medical testing and everybody was smoking. MMA is evolving so quickly that Hardy, 33, says he is part of the last generation that will remember the sport before it was a sport.

It is the same with Mason. When he started, there werent any gyms to train in. We are applied to put got a couple of mats down on my friends garage floor, he says. When Mason wanted to study new techniques, he would either seem them up on YouTube or buy or borrow a VHS tape. Now there are MMA gyms across the country. Mason runs two, BKK Fighters, one in Colchester, the other in Chelmsford. One of BKKs fighters, Arnold Allen, has just made it to the UFC. He opposed, and won, on the undercard at UFC London. Allen is 22 and baby-faced. He wears a moustache that somehow makes him look even younger.

Last year Allen was called up as a late replacement for his first fight in the UFC. He had a weeks notification, but won so well that he earned a $50,000 bonus. He utilized the money to move to Montreal so he could develop at the famous Tristar gym. Mason sees Allen as a member of the new generation. They have been training since they were children, and their level is just crazy compared to mine when I started, he says.

When he was 16, Allen decided to leave school and become a professional MMA fighter. He even wrote the goal down in his notebook. His ambition was more specific still: he wanted to become a UFC world champion. Whereas Mason and Hardy fell into MMA, Allen grew up with it.

Belgian welterweight Brian Bouland hittings Jamie Pritchard, a featherweight from Newquay, England, in their professional catchweight BCMMA fight. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

Every fighter at Masons event in Colchester wants the very same thing Allen does. A couple of fighters on the upper part of the bill, Luke Barnatt and John Maguire, have been to the UFC and are trying to find their way back. Others are pros on the lower levels hoping to be picked up by the UFCs talent spotters. Still more are amateurs, hoping to induce the switch to the professional athletic. Allen is living their dreaming, but it isnt easy. After his victory at the O 2 , Allen pleads: Somebody sponsor me, please. Hes shocked by how expensive life is in Montreal. While the UFCs top fighters are constructing plenty, money is tight lower down the ranks and while the UFC helps arrange medical insurance for its fighters, Allen is struggling to pay for his meals.

The best estimate is that between 2005 and 2011, 13.6% of the UFCs revenue went on the fighters wages. In many American sports, the split is nearer 50 -5 0. In 2015, when its revenue was around $600 m, Zuffa expended over $100 m on athlete expenses including compensation, insurance, medical, and traveling. The former UFC champion Griffin says that the UFCs formula is simple: If you sell tickets, you make money. Theres pressure on the fighters to entertain, as well to win, and Allen is annoyed that he let his last battle go to a decision and missed out on a finishing bonus.

At BCMMA in Colchester , no one is getting rich. Not even Mason, the promoter, who objective up with a profit of around 100. But then, like so many of the MMA community at this level, Mason isnt in it for the money. BCMMA was a sell-out, but a lot was expended bringing in fighters from overseas, from Portugal, Poland, and, in particular, Norway and France.

Competitive MMA is banned in the latter two countries. In France, MMA is struggling to be recognised by the Ministry of Sport, largely, it says, because of opposition from the judo federation. Our only option in France at the moment to hold an event is to apply as an amusement, says Elliott. And we refuse to do that. Because this is a sport. MMA is a sport.

It sometimes seems a fine line. While the 17,000 at the O 2 were well-educated in the intricacies of MMA and so knew where that line lay, many of the hundreds in Colchester didnt. At one point, the referee had to ask two dames to stop screaming elbow him in the face. It was, he explained, an amateur bout and so that move wasnt allowed.

Most of the audience were there to see a Polish heavyweight named Rafal Cejrowski. Plenty had flown over especially to watch him. He was fighting Joo Mimoso, who is , no joke, a Portuguese university professor.

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