x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Fighting talk from the UFC

With the popularity of boxing on the wane there is a 'new' sport spreading the word of pugilism around the world.

Anderson Silva, right, tries to connect with the head of Thales Leites with a swinging right fist in a recent UFC contest.
Anderson Silva, right, tries to connect with the head of Thales Leites with a swinging right fist in a recent UFC contest.

Dana White, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) president was bullish with his answer. "Are we coming to Abu Dhabi? Yes we are. It is a fact. We are going all over the world," he says. The UFC has become the world's leading mixed martial arts (MMA) competition, a sport and discipline that combines several martial arts into a combat event. The fighting takes place in an octagon-shaped ring enclosed in a cage. This sport has taken the world by storm and is seen in about 100 countries, broadcast in 20 languages to more than 400 million homes.

The boisterous White was reiterating the comments made this past week by UFC chairman and chief executive Lorenzo Fertitta. As the UFC celebrates its 100th prime time event tonight in Las Vegas, Nevada, Abu Dhabi is on the agenda as a future host city of the event. "We would like to host an event in Abu Dhabi. We are very serious about the market. I know that members of the Royal Family are big supporters of mixed martial arts," says Fertitta.

Lorenzo Fertitta and his brother Frank took over the UFC brand of MMA in Jan 2001, when the competition teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. "We certainly had high hopes when we took over the UFC. We felt the sport needed some rule changes and the implementation of more regulations to bring in more fans," says Fertitta. "We then focused on different ways to get the fans involved." The 2005 hit reality television series The Ultimate Fighter firmly entrenched the UFC in North America's sports psyche. The show went on to run on UK television during the spring of 2005.

Now in its ninth season, the first TV show featured 16 would-be fighters who were trained by the then UFC fighters, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. The drama of following these fighters from their beginnings as unknowns off the street proved to be a stroke of genius. The classic rags-to-riches model often casts fighters who are down on their luck and even homeless. This was human pageantry at its best. Brought into the UFC fold, these personalities fight their way through various stages of elimination, culminating in a final showdown between the remaining two contestants. The TV show's winner is then offered a UFC contract. In the first season's finale, Forrest Griffin was matched up against Stephan Bonnar. This epic duel had great fighting from start to finish. While Griffin and Bonnar were unknown fighters going into the show, their performance would go on to be considered one of the most important fights in UFC history. Both would be given contracts for their efforts.

It was by no means an overnight success for the UFC, but the show did bring an avalanche of attention. "Ultimate Fighter was available to 100 million homes in the US. The show built stars out of these fighters," adds Fertitta. "Ultimate Fighter contestants develop a large following from the show that is then brought to the UFC." The sport is often criticised for its seemingly barbaric nature, something that stems from the competition's original marketing in the early 1990s as a "no holds barred" style of fighting.

Over the past decade the sport has developed into a highly skilled form of combat. Part of that transition is due to the work of Marc Ratner, the UFC's vice president of regulatory affairs. Ratner was once the sport's biggest critic. Before joining the UFC, Ratner was the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC). "I came out against the sport because of its no-rules advertising. It took the new owners to get the sport headed in the right direction. We have since been able to get the sport approved in 40 of the 48 US states with athletic commissions," states Ratner.

"I now tell these commissions that this is not the 1995 version of the UFC. This sport is regulated and has an impeccable safety record. In its history, the UFC has never had a life-threatening injury. The most serious injury has been a broken arm. "There has only been one fatality in mixed martial arts in general, which was an undocumented case in Texas where there was a question as to that individual's pre-existing medical condition.

"I wish I could say the same for my beloved sport of boxing." During 14 years as the head of the NAC Ratner oversaw the state's professional boxing circuit. During this time, there were seven deaths as a result of injuries sustained in boxing. A comprehensive study released in 2008 from Johns Hopkins University in the US confirms Ratner's conclusions about the sport's safety. The study concludes that the overall risk of critical injury in MMA is low. While many remain skittish, the number of enthusiasts continues to grow.

Even the late Michael Jackson was a noted fan. "Jackson called me up and told me he was a big fan of the sport. He then attended UFC 92 in Dec 2008. The UFC has made fans everywhere," states Fertitta. "We just signed a television deal in China. While we are fairly new in Asia, we are now looking at India, evaluating the distribution possibilities in the region. We will also be running a live event in Australia next February," he adds.

Another reason the sport's popularity has grown in recent years is the practice of forcing the top UFC fighters to square off against each other, something the boxing world has been unable to do. "The best fighters fight against each other all the time. We provide three cards that could all easily be stand-alone events. We make sure our fans get their money's worth. That is the way we run things," says Fertitta.

In the vacuum created by the demise of boxing, the UFC has come to fill the public's desire for pugilism. While the competition's fighters have not reached iconic status in the world, White believes the opportunity is there for the taking. "More than perhaps any other sport, I think fighting has a global appeal. Muhammad Ali touched a nerve around the world and in doing so became arguably the most famous athlete of all time," argues White. "UFC's Lyoto Machita has the potential to be one of the greatest, someone who could go down in history."

Why are humans so attracted to pugilism? The essence of the UFC's popularity seems to be that people want to know who is the best fighter in the world, in the same way the 100 metres sprint at the Olympics garners worldwide attention because we are curious to know who is the world's fastest man. "Fighting is the sport all other sports aspire to be. It the one thing that reaches everywhere, crosses all demographics. There is something very straightforward about being the best fighter in the world. Guys want to be him and girls want to be with him," suggests White.

Hollywood has taken notice and has been keen to cash in with several MMA-themed story lines. "We have had a million different talks with Hollywood. I think it would be incredibly hard to do justice to the sport in a film," says White. "The sport is going to take the world by storm. "This is the most fascinating business on earth right now. Not even oil has its potential. It has taken the past nine years to build up the fan base in the States. As we turn our focus to the world at large, it is scary how much room we have to grow. When I try to wrap my brain around the potential, my brain hurts," concludes White. UFC 100 takes place at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas this weekend. Across town, the NBA's brightest young stars participate in the NBA summer league. The UFC is the hottest ticket in town.

All sports fans, NBA players included, want to see Brock Lesner taking on Frank Mir and Georges St Pierre facing Thiago Alves. A prominent NBA player agent told me his clients are clamouring for tickets to the big show. The agent confided that NBA players have the utmost respect and admiration for the UFC, what they themselves consider a real sport. In the end, perhaps White is right. For all the sports that are played, the timeless art of fighting is what every sport aspires to copy. Every other test of skill pales in comparison.

gdole@thenational.ae