Friday, March 23, 2007

Scaling back violence of MMA leads to booming business

Ken Shamrock threw his opponent on the mat and cranked his rival’s leg back, snapping his ankle moments into the match. The vicious attack didn’t begin to satisfy the crowd. They wanted blood, and Shamrock, who calls himself the world’s most dangerous man, had merely given them a broken ankle.

”They were throwing things at me,” said Shamrock of the Denver audience at the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993. ”They were so mad that I had a hard time getting out of the arena. Can you believe it? I broke his ankle, and they wanted more.”

Now, less has become so much more for mixed martial arts, which combines judo, boxing, karate, Muay Thai, kickboxing, tae kwon do, jiu-jitsu and wrestling. By restricting the violence, the sport has found its way back into the spotlight, attracting new fans without alienating its original hard-core base.

”The way I look at it, it’s a fight, and violence sells,” said Ron Kort, CEO of New Era Fighting, a new MMA series. ”WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) is great, but it’s fake. UFC is great, because the violence is there. We’re trying to add entertainment with violence.”

And business is booming.

The International Fight League has deals in place with Coca Cola’s Vault energy drink, Suzuki and Microsoft’s Xbox. Meanwhile, the UFC is challenging WWE in pay-per-view profits, and networks are scurrying to line up MMA shows.

The UFC, Japan-based Pride Fighting Championships, King of the Cage and newcomers IFL, Elite Xtreme Combat and New Era Fighting, to name a few, have turned MMA into a big-money venture.

UFC president Dana White, who, with the help of brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, took over and revitalized the struggling company in 2001, welcomes the competition. But he worries a serious injury in any series will damage the sport’s carefully refurbished image _ one he has spent years and millions of dollars crafting.

”Anyone who can rub two nickels together to buy a cage, and can combine three letters together, is coming into the sport,” White said. ”But the bad guys and shady companies can end up hurting it. I’m always worried that something bad is going to happen. And it will reflect bad on us.”

MMA has been approved in 22 states, with several more introducing legislation to sanction it. Still, there are several states that have yet to accept the sport _ including New York.

It’s up to Marc Ratner, the UFC’s vice president of government and regulatory affairs, to dispel old myths.”Some still think it’s 1993 when it was no holds barred and anything goes,” Ratner said.

That he contends was the old UFC, where two combatants entered the Octagon ring and one came out, usually smeared in blood. Back then, there were basically only two rules _ no biting or eye-gouging. ”No politics, just two guys fighting,” said Shamrock, now a coach with IFL.

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