x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

How mixed martial arts conquered boxing and Hollywood

We examine the popularity of mixed martial arts, as well as its stars who have crossed over into the mainstream media.

Randy Couture, left, slugs it out with Mark Coleman in a 2006 UFC light heavyweight bout in Las Vegas before he retired to Hollywood. Jon Kopaloff / Getty Images
Randy Couture, left, slugs it out with Mark Coleman in a 2006 UFC light heavyweight bout in Las Vegas before he retired to Hollywood. Jon Kopaloff / Getty Images

Twenty years ago, boxing reigned unopposed as the most popular fight sport in the world, with champion pugilists up there with Hollywood A-listers in the celebrity stakes (where some still linger, as Mike Tyson's cameos in the Hangover films surely attest).

Today's boxers, however, have been overshadowed by a new heavyweight sport - mixed martial arts (MMA). A controversial fringe sport during the 1990s, it gained popularity in the new century, thanks largely to its most popular organisation, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Its regular pay-per-view events have surged in popularity, with contests held all over the world (including Abu Dhabi for the 2010 event, "UFC 112").

Because of this and the popularity of its spin-off reality show The Ultimate Fighter (a contest to find new MMA talent), the more popular fighters from UFC have found fame outside of the sport. With athletes appearing in television shows and big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, and as the MMA-themed drama Warrior shows on cinema screens across the Emirates, what is it about this new breed of fighter that has the public so fascinated?

While there are many other organisations within the world of MMA, UFC is clearly the market leader, with the foundations of that reputation built by one of its most popular fighters ever, Randy Couture. Now retired from the ring (or cage, as it's known in MMA, making boxing's rope enclosure look positively dainty), Couture was one of the first to capitalise on his fame by moving into the world of films. After many fighter-orientated roles in US TV series and films, he replaced Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior. A hit on DVD, this, combined with his sporting prowess, persuaded Sylvester Stallone to cast him in The Expendables, the 2010 hit that saw Couture appear alongside action greats such as Jason Statham, Jet Li and Bruce Willis. He would team up again with Willis for Set-Up, an action-thriller released in mid-2011, and is confirmed to return for Expendables 2 next summer.

Possibly the highest-profile role yet for an MMA fighter went to another former UFC champion, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. Again with only minor acting appearances to his credit, he was cast in the coveted role of BA Baracus (made famous by Mr T) in the big-screen version of The A-Team, where he shared the screen with the Oscar-winner Liam Neeson.

While these and other athletes continue to infiltrate mainstream America - popular fighter Chuck Liddell even tackled ballroom dancing on the reality show Dancing with the Stars - MMA has become a global sport, with fighters of different nationalities proving popular in their home countries. The biggest example of this is the Brazilian fighter Anderson Silva. Managed by the former football star Ronaldo's marketing company, he has become the face of many different brands in the country, advertising everything from cars to burger chains, and he has even been sponsored by Corinthians, his favourite football team.

Although the UAE has yet to produce a champion of its own, the sport's popularity has also spread to this part of the world, and 2010s UFC 112 proved just how involved the country is in this developing phenomenon. The Abu Dhabi event saw many firsts for MMA: the UFC's first Middle East visit, and the first to be held in an outdoor arena, as the specially built Concert Arena held a crowd of more than 11,000. UFC 112 also celebrated a landmark deal, where government-owned company Flash Entertainment bought a 10 per cent stake in UFC.

It is clear, then, that MMA's surging popularity has made audiences all around the world stand up and take notice. The question remains, however: why this sport?

With the recent release of Warrior, in which Tom Hardy - arguably Hollywood's biggest rising star - plays an MMA fighter, it is clear that the sport is not only legitimised but aspirational, in the same way that Sylvester Stallone made boxing aspirational with the Rocky films, but why are these athletes finding success where, for example, boxers and wrestlers have failed?

The answer may simply be realism. In a world that demands that its entertainment be more "real" and its stars more believable, these men who make their livings from combat are easier to "sell" to cinema or TV audiences as action stars. Viewers may be more inclined to believe the hero can beat up an improbable number of adversaries if they have seen the actor playing him fighting for real. When even the far-fetched conventions of the action movie are adjusting themselves for the sake of realism, Couture, Silva and company may emerge as the next generation of blockbuster contenders.

artslife@thenational.ae