Saturday, March 17, 2007

UFC fighters take over ring

By Brice Cherry

THWAP! The fighter cringes as his chest is struck by a scissorlike chop from his opponent’s forearm.

CRICK-CRICK-CRUNCH! Now his wrist is locked in a death-grip squeeze as it is twisted, pretzel-like, behind his back. Finally, the fighter wiggles free from the hold, spins around and — THUD! — runs smack into his foe’s size-14, roundhouse-kicking foot.

And this is a sport?

You bet it is. This is mixed-martial arts — better known under the brand name the Ultimate Fighting Championship — and in terms of popularity growth among sports, it is pummeling professional boxing into a bloody mess.

Obviously, boxing, with its seedy promoters, scoring disputes and nameless heavyweights, has been stumbling around jelly-legged for years now. And if the UFC continues to siphon off its future fan base, it eventually could go plummeting toward the canvas.

Putting down the big bucks

First off, I’m not a UFC fan, because to be fanatical about something, you’ve got to watch it, and I’m not one to open my wallet for any kind of television programming above my normal monthly satellite TV bill. Pay-per-view? You could build a time machine, bring back Jack Dempsey, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant in their primes, give them all medieval weapons and put them in a steel-cage battle royale, and I’d still try to glom off some other sucker who spent the $39.95 pay-per-view pricetag.

But the fact is, those guys are out there. In earnest. In 2006, only its 13th year of existence, the UFC generated more than $220 million in pay-per-view revenue, more than boxing or professional wrestling had ever achieved in a single year.

It’s hard not to understand the appeal of Ultimate Fighting. Number one, it’s violent. Number two, it’s violent. It’s a running, jumping, punching, kicking barfight — only with better payoffs.

Ironically, though, the UFC has gained popularity over the past couple of years even while adding rules, which lends more credibility if it wants to market itself as a legitimate sport. When UFC first started in 1993, its mantra was “no-holds barred!” and that was nearly true, as there was very little combatants couldn’t do to one another, including pounding a knee into someone’s groin.


Boxing isn’t dead yet. There are still pockets of passionate boxing fans, particularly among the Hispanic community, which rabidly follows the many Latino stars of the middleweight and lightweight divisions.

Race is another factor in the UFC’s popularity. It’s another reason why the UFC has added so many new fans from the 18-to-35 white guy demographic. The UFC’s roll call of champions is decidedly paler than the boxing ranks.

Don’t tell me that doesn’t appeal to certain sports fans. It’s the same reason why Larry Bird and his Boston Celtics had so many suburban white-kid fans back in the 1980s. (Me, I hated the Celtics, but then I’ve always been a bit different).

Boxing not protecting itself

But the racial makeup of the sport is hardly the only reason for UFC’s burgeoning growth. It’s winning viewers mostly because it markets itself well and it delivers the action.

Boxing, meanwhile, is losing a fight it doesn’t seem to realize it’s even in. Until boxing can agree to show more big fights on basic cable or network TV so as to draw in new, younger viewers, and develop some charismatic, talented fighters in the most significant and visible class — the heavyweight division — it’s going to continue to take a beating from UFC.

Guess we’ll find out if the sweet science is too sweet to fight back.


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