Sunday, March 11, 2007

Evolution or devolution?

By Joe Schoenmann


A defining moment in sports history occurred last week.

It flew across the media spectrum, in view of the entire country. But it was so subtle that few people noticed.

The Associated Press sports wire reported that Nevada had sanctioned a looming Ultimate Fighting Championship bout. The fight was reported not as an oddity. Not as a wink-wink, nod-nod, look-what-the-fringe-whackjobs-are-doing story.

But as news.

A sport that TelevisionWeek described last month as "blood genre" was sanctioned by the Nevada Athletic Commission that suspended boxer Mike Tyson for the comparatively tame act of biting a chunk out of opponent Evander Holyfield's ear.

Now, 10 years later, the commission gave the go-ahead to an Ultimate Fighting Championship match, a seal-clubbing throwback of a sport, with contests so brutal they remind you of the bare-knuckle prize fights that the nation outlawed as excessively violent more than a century ago.

Now we're inviting an even rougher sport into our living rooms? Are we on our last descent before the rapture? What's going on?

"It's the million-dollar question," says Matt Masucci, an assistant professor of sports studies at San Jose State University.

Masucci is going through training for the sport, known as "mixed martial arts," as part of his research in trying to understand why nonprofessionals take up boxing, karate or other unarmed combat sports.

Where does this new tolerance for violence come from, he asks. "Is it embedded in us? Or are we socialized to find some inherent value in violence?

"It's the question we've been debating for thousands of years. Maybe nature loads the gun but society pulls the trigger. I don't know."

Or maybe our natures have changed.

Almost 200 years ago an English essayist described a prizefight between two bare-knucklers, Tom Hickman and William Neate, in 1821: "All traces of life, of natural expression, were gone from him. His face was like a human skull, a death's head, spouting blood. The eyes were filled with blood, the nose streamed blood, the mouth gaped blood."

That fight was held a full 100 years before a professional rule-making body formed in Britain to regulate the sport.

But in the United States today, tune into Spike TV during the week and watch or wince as a fighter, his face bloodied by fierce elbow, knuckle or ankle shots, is about to pass out while being held in a guillotine chokehold.

For the uninitiated, here's a primer: They go quickly. Three to five rounds of five minutes each. It looks like simple brawling, just don't say that to purists who can quote chapter and verse about the extremely technical nature of the battle: A wrestler with little jiujitsu would never last, say, against a Muay Thai fighter who has also mastered wrestling.

At times, it can be like watching a car wreck. You don't want to see, but you do anyway. At one point, you'll see someone straddling another combatant on the ground, his fists flying, beating the guy's head, body, whatever he can get a clear shot at. Cuts around the eyes bleed, maybe the nose gets pushed to one side of the face.

Then they're up. Kicks fly. One fighter is known to kick so hard he can break the arm of someone defending against it. Then there's the arm-bar, which amounts to grabbing the other guy's arm and pulling, pulling, pulling so hard the guy has to give before his arm is ripped out of its socket.

Submission holds, where the fighter pushes someone's arm to its breaking point, are another way to force someone to give in. And there are lots of choking maneuvers. Not to crush the windpipe, just to shut down the carotid artery's flow of blood and oxygen to the brain. Common in the cage: Just before the choke-ee passes out, he taps the floor, the ref, someone or something. It's the universal sign that he's had it. "Uncle."

So that's it. The rule-making bodies are in place. The sport is palatable enough to be sanctioned in 32 of 46 states that allow unarmed combat. Money is being made, quite literally, hand over fist.

• • •

Al Bernstein is a longtime boxing commentator and former ESPN radio host. He sees a connection between the growing popularity of mixed martial arts and the declining noise heard from organizations that used to protest boxing after deaths in the ring.

"I've sensed a tremendous softening in terms of people who found boxing offensive," says Bernstein, reached at an Indian reservation casino in Michigan for a boxing match.

Even so, Bernstein is surprised at the popularity of mixed martial arts.

"It's more brutal and it's garnering a lot of fans," he says. "And what I find interesting is, it's not only popular with younger people, but it's crossing boundaries that I wouldn't think it would cross, both in terms of age and background.

"So yeah, clearly we've moved in terms of what we call entertainment. We've moved the line, too, of the boundary of what we are willing to accept."

Chuckling, Bernstein admits to being perplexed that the fan base seems to him to be the same people who vote into office conservatives who espouse belief in a peace-loving God.

"I'm staggered that we live in a country where you can't get elected dog catcher unless people think you have some kind of religious moral code, and God forbid you do something wacky," he says. "Yet millions of people will go to see movies that in a million years I couldn't bare to stomach. They go to UFC matches."

Showtime, the cable channel on which Bernstein does boxing play-by-play, broadcast its first mixed martial arts bout in February. Bernstein said HBO is also considering getting into the same fight genre.

Kevin Grace, a sports historian at the University of Cincinnati whose research includes "bloodsports of the underclass," believes that protests over mixed martial arts haven't cropped up yet largely because no one has died during official bouts since the first Ultimate Fighting Championship was sanctioned in 1993.

The sport is painful and bloody, but then, so are professional hockey and football.

No deaths? No problem.

Absent any fatalities, the sport succeeds in being portrayed as maybe just one notch up the scale of acceptable competitive violence. The fan base is growing because of slick marketing, with the personalities of fighters played up much the same way the backgrounds of Olympians are introduced to make coverage more interesting.

"Sports fans are greatly influenced by the media and what they see on TV," Grace says.

So, then, we're all just being led by the nose?

"Yeah, we are stupid," Grace says. "We want sound bites, immediate gratification and highlights. Even professional football, as popular as it is, doesn't have that. It plods along, you run a play, you break, you run another."

Grace also believes mixed martial arts is catching on, to some degree, because of 9/11.

"The post-9/11 mentality, in a certain segment of the population, has a need to strike out at something. There is this great fear in the future and when you cannot strike out legitimately, then you do it vicariously, and that's what ultimate fighting is."

• • •

Hard as it might be to believe after watching an ultimate fighting bout for the first time, the sport is cleaner than it was 15 years ago. Members of Congress tried to have mixed martial arts banned in the mid-1990s. That failed, but the sport put new rules in place in 2000 to keep lawmakers from future meddling.

Today, according to the UFC Web site, the rules include: no biting, no hair pulling, no eye gouging "of any kind," no head butts, no "putting a finger into any orifice or into any cut or laceration of an opponent;" no hits to the spine or back of the head, and no kicking, stomping or kneeing an opponent on the ground.

Also banned are spitting, kidney kicks and grabbing the clavicle.

On the other bloody hand, no nancy-boys are allowed. You go into that cage, you fight. The rules strictly forbid "throwing in the towel" or showing any sign of "timidity - including and without limitation, avoiding contact with an opponent, intentionally or consistently dropping the mouthpiece or faking an injury."

Within those rules, fighters have plenty left to mash. Blood is spattered, noses are displaced, eye sockets are busted, ears are ground into cauliflower and bones are snapped plenty enough for mayhem-screaming fans.

Yet here is a surprise: Good old-fashioned boxing is deadlier.

In the dozen or more years that mixed martial arts has been regulated, no one has ever died in the cage. You can't even come close to saying the same thing about boxing.

Since 1997 at least 12 boxers in the United States have died from injuries sustained sparring, during training or in a match. Four were in Las Vegas, the last being 35-year-old Leavander Johnson in September 2005.

No one knows officially what accounts for that difference. But Reno brain surgeon Dr. Joe Walker of Sierra Neurosurgery Group says that while injuries of all kinds from mixed martial arts fights are about three times that of boxing, knockout rates are half. Based on his knowledge of the physiology of brain injury, Walker guesses the relative safety might arise from mixed martial arts being about more than simply hitting an opponent's melon over and over.

"They're able to hit other things, there are fewer rounds, and it's not all about hitting," says Walker, admitting that the closest he's gotten to watching an Ultimate Fighting Championship fight is finding it on cable. "I'll watch it for 30 seconds and go, 'Yuck.' But some people, apparently, really get into it."

Even people with as much education about the nature of violence as Walker.

Sociology professor Keith Durkin of Ohio Northern University doesn't specialize in the sociology of sport - he's a criminologist. He's become a big fan of the sport because it seems "honest and genuine."

"And they seem like real people," he says of the fighters, "where a guy like Mike Tyson is like a cyborg who is going to kill someone."

Opponents are gracious to one another before and after a fight, he adds.

• • •

Ultimate Fighting Championship President Dana White told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last year that in 2004, it was losing money "well into eight figures."

Afraid that Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, the Station Casinos executives who bought the Ultimate Fighting Championship with him in 2000, were going to pull the plug, he persuaded them to try one more thing: a reality TV show.

In January 2005 "The Ultimate Fighter" debuted on Spike TV. The Oct. 10 title fight between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock drew 4.2 million viewers and an estimated half-million more men 18 to 34 years old than did a major-league playoff game on Fox.

On Dec. 30 a pay-per-view Ultimate Fighting Championship show took in 1.2 million buys for a total of $5.4 million, its largest ever. Even though the $19 million in ticket sales, not including pay-per-view, for the sold-out May 5 bout between Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather Jr. dwarfs that amount, the winds of change are strong.

Keith Kizer, executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, said that on a per-fight basis, boxing took in much less than mixed martial arts fights in 2006. The commission's take on 28 boxing matches - it taxes the fights the same percentage - amounted to an average of $52,074 per fight. For 12 mixed martial arts, it was $74,760 per fight.

Nevada approved mixed martial arts fights in August 2001, after the Ultimate Fighting Championship overhauled its regulations that "made it a sport," Kizer said.

California held the issue at bay for five more years, finally approving sanctioning of mixed martial arts fights last year. Armando Garcia, executive director of the California Athletic Commission, said there was really no other choice. Not only did no one speak out against them during public hearings, but regulation was seen as the only way to maintain some safety for the state's burgeoning growth in fights of all kinds.

"I had very strong concerns that these events were being handled in places where fighters weren't being taken care of, they weren't getting medical attention or were being ripped off," Garcia said. "The sport absolutely needed this."

Kizer says the sport's medley of fight techniques, from the Olympic-class wrestlers to world-class kick boxers, creates an "interplay" that makes the sport so appealing.

And to the casual viewer, to the neurosurgeon who pauses on Spike TV and goes "yuck," even the word "interplay" seems too high-falutin' when juxtaposed with the battered, bloodied, loose-toothed faces of those who have gone into the cage.

Yet people are watching - all kinds of people, even those you might think should know better.
Joe Schoenmann can be reached at 259-4096 or at


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