“I think it’s barbaric and I don’t think it’s appropriate to have it in New York,” Governor George Pataki said in 1997. “A disgraceful, animalistic and disgusting contest which can result in severe injuries to contestants and sets an abominable example for our youth,” state senator Roy Goodman called it the same year. New York mayor Rudy Giuliani opposed it, and U.S. senator John McCain memorably described it as “human cockfighting.”
They were talking about a new sport called “mixed martial arts,” which combines elements of boxing, kickboxing, jujitsu, wrestling, and all-out brawling. Ten years later, mixed martial arts has become the hottest new sport around, especially among that most coveted and politically incorrect demographic: 18-to-34-year-old men. Pay-per-view events staged by its leading organization, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), boast grosses that usually eclipse those of boxing, and one UFC event last fall attracted a greater viewership than the first game of the World Series. The sport has been the subject of cover stories in Sports Illustrated and of features in the New York Times, and it will soon be at the heart of a new David Mamet screenplay.
More than 20 states now sanction the UFC, but not New York—yet. UFC representatives plan to lobby state legislators in an effort to reverse a ban that Pataki signed in February 1997. In retrospect, the ban may have been the best thing to happen to the UFC, since it forced the sport to clean up its image and to adopt a sweeping new set of rules that made bouts safer and dispensed with the earlier, edgier, “no holds barred” style that had shocked many observers.
So far, the UFC’s brief history has parallels to the sport that many feel it is replacing: boxing. In the early twentieth century, boxing was illegal in a number of states, and New York lurched between confused regulation and outright prohibition. Some of the objections to boxing then sound familiar today: the sport was too dangerous; it glorified violence and attracted unsavory elements like gamblers; it was immoral and set a bad example. But after World War I, the emergence of Jack Dempsey made clear how much money boxing could make, and New York passed the Walker Law legalizing it in 1920. Gotham soon became boxing’s capital, which it remained for half a century. Now it has a chance to get in on the action again—UFC promoters have practically salivated at the chance to stage shows at Madison Square Garden—but only if legislators can overcome the doubts of a decade ago.
The first thing that they should recognize is that McCain’s old cockfighting description isn’t fair. Roosters, like the unfortunate dogs that the NFL’s Michael Vick pressed into combat, don’t have any choice in the matter. By contrast, the UFC’s fighters are adults participating of their own volition; a good number have college degrees, as the promoters frequently remind skeptics.
And though the sport is off-putting, to this observer anyway—not just the bouts themselves, but the marketing and the atmosphere, too—its organizers’ claims that it is safer than boxing may have merit. UFC fights are much shorter than most boxing matches, and combatants can even “tap out,” or submit, an option not available to boxers. Further, mixed martial arts allows a broad range of maneuvers, such as wrestling holds, that would seem less likely to cause the permanent physical trauma associated with boxing, where the only choice is to punch. (The advent of boxing gloves a little over a century ago, replacing the bare-knuckle combat that would have given our contemporary legislators hives, may actually have made boxing more dangerous, since they protect the fighter’s hands against injury and thus make it easier to bludgeon an opponent’s hard head over and over again.) While safety claims are notoriously difficult to gauge, especially for a sport in its infancy, there have been no fatalities in UFC-sanctioned events so far.
For all their newsworthiness, fatalities aren’t the best measure of a sport’s safety anyway (though it’s worth noting that boxing deaths lag well behind those of horse racing and other sports). The real issue is the overall detrimental effect of a sport on the participant’s health—and this is what has long made boxing the target of the American Medical Association. Boxers may not die in the ring very often, but too many of them spend their days outside it as sad, shuffling ghosts, the victims of brain trauma and other maladies. The UFC simply hasn’t been around long enough to determine what its long-term effects might be.
Beyond the safety question is the more complicated one of culture, and ours hardly needs more coarsening. No doubt boxing’s old-timers would find it ironic to see their sport held up as venerable and genteel. But however brutal it could often be, the Sweet Science could also exhibit grace and even a violent beauty, for those who could appreciate the balletic gifts of a Sugar Ray Robinson or the irrepressible courage of a Joe Frazier. Boxing offered artful subtlety as well, a sense that gratification had to be earned, though often delayed and sometimes denied altogether.
Ultimate fighting has none of this. It’s a smackdown, and the pace is frenetic. It’s a logical outgrowth of our sensation-mad culture, which has seen a huge increase in so-called “extreme sports.” The atmosphere is over-the-top carnival; the UFC likes to choreograph fighters’ entrances to their favorite tough-guy theme songs. One of its most popular stars, Chuck Liddell, for example, arrives to the strains of the hip-hop album It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot. It gets even hotter inside the UFC’s ring, known as the Octagon, which is surrounded by a metal fence, evoking the staged spectacles of professional wrestling. What’s going on inside the Octagon is real, not staged, but that distinction alone doesn’t add up to an aesthetic.
Still, it’s difficult to condemn ultimate fighting too sternly on aesthetic or moral grounds in a culture that permits ultraviolent movies, gambling casinos, strip clubs, and the like. Unless evidence emerges that the sport is much more dangerous than it so far seems to be, the argument for banning it seems thin. “Anyone can put a tattoo on his head and get in a street fight,” says boxing champion Floyd Mayweather about the UFC. “It ain’t but a fad.” Mayweather has other fish to fry. But New York’s legislators ought not to be as condescending.