Sunday, February 11, 2007

‘Bigger than boxing’

“I want to see blood,” says mixed martial arts fighter Dustin Hazelett. And in all probability, so too do the 10,787 fans who have crowded into Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Events Centre to watch him fight. The college-educated Hazelett is an up-and-coming fighter in one of the most violent and fastest growing sports in America, a promising performer in the bruising world of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

A fusion of jiu-jitsu, judo, karate, boxing, wrestling and other combat sports, the UFC has re-established itself after being close to extinction at the turn of the decade, when it was decried as “barbaric human cock-fighting”. The UFC has cleaned up its act since then, however. Its new owners have gained sanctioning and approval from respected state athletic commissions and tactics such as hair-pulling, headbutts and punches to the groin are now outlawed.

Yet to the naked eye, mixed martial arts still appears to be a notch above any other contact sport being practiced in terms of raw violence, its protagonists engaging in uncompromising hand-to-hand combat within an eight-sided cage, or Octagon. Even Dana White, the chief executive of the UFC who has overseen its transformation over the past five years, acknowledges it as “the most extreme of extreme sports”.

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