From strength to strength
Leslie Wilson, Racing and Special Features writer
There is no doubt that Mixed Martial Arts is the fastest growing sport in the world, and is already established among the most popular. As UFC Fight Island reaches its finale on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island this weekend, it is safe to say that it has outgrown many mainstream sports that have been around much longer.
But what makes it so successful, so attractive to fans? And does it have the potential to retain interest or get even bigger in the years to come?
These are questions that everyone who has not bought into the MMA spirit is asking, many rather enviously.
A lot of it has to do with successful business model that UFC CEO Dana White has built over the years and continues to fine tune it to adapt to the changing times.
UFC has become one of the world’s most famous brands, here again hats off to White’s business acumen and farsightedness.
He’s as tough as the fighters he parades in the UFC Octagon and just as tough doing business with his consumers, clients and customers. For him it is all about giving the fans what they want and attracting more followers. He has even converted anti-MMA masses into hardcore UFC disciples.
White also has the knack of helping generate the hype by pitting two fighters who hate each other against each other. Simple as that. Take Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov, who absolute hate each other and have taken their animosity outside the Octagon, to ring side and even transport buses.
But the bottom line is that we humans are a perverse appetite to see somebody being beaten, bloodied, or knocked out cold. And they cheer when it happens. Just like royalty and commoners alike in the old days.
Only the setting has changed. The nuances are the same and the reactions just as they were thousands of years ago. Call that progress!
From Spartacus to Conor McGregor
Perhaps the world’s most famous gladiator was the Greek slave, Spartacus from 111-171 BC. Little is known about him beyond the events of the wars, but most people will agree that he was one of the greatest cage gladiators and an accomplished fighter and military leader to boot.
His exploits have been featured in literature, television, and Stanley Kubrick’s epic 1960 film which starred Kirk Douglas as the great warrior fighter.
Several sports clubs around the world, in particular the former Soviet and the Communist bloc, were named after the Roman gladiator. Spartacus’s name was also chosen in numerous football sides in Slavic Europe.
Today’s gladiators might not be worthy of comparison to this epic fighter, because of the different circumstances under which they compete and the prizes that were and are presently at stake.
Spartacus fought for his life against ferocious lions and equally ferocious human beasts in the colosseums of Ancient Greece.
Today the MMA has its own share of gladiators in McGregor, Nurmagomedov, Jon Jones, Georges St Pierre and Anderson Silva, who have claimed their share of the spotlight though their Herculean feats inside the sport’s colosseum, the Octagon.
At stake are pride, legacy and cash. Lots of it.
How much do MMA fighters earn?
Unlike Spartacus, whose reward would be his life, or in some cases the chance to dine at the royal banquet, today’s warriors pick up six-figure cash cheques. McGregor tops the rich list with earnings in excess of $110 million with Rorion Gracie a faraway second on $50 million. St Pierre is worth approximately $30 million, Silva $18 million and so on.
In the UFC, entry level fighters can earn around $10,000 for showing up to a fight and an additional $10,000 for a win. There is also another payment of $3,500 for incentives. The money increases as they accumulate more wins and once they break into the top 10 or 15, they can negotiate their purse.
At present the average annual income for a UFC fighter is $68,500, minus bonuses and winnings.
In the women’s ranks, Ronda Rousey, once the most popular female UFC fighter in the world, boasts a net worth of over $12 million, making her one of the richest MMA fighters in the world.
Industry figures revealed that the average UFC fighter earns about $138,000 on an annual basis, almost three times as much as the average US full-time worker.
Close to 200 of the UFC fighters earned more than $100,000 in 2019, while 37 per cent of UFC fighters earned less than the average American’s yearly salary.
In addition there are earnings made in bonuses and sponsorship opportunities tied to UFC appearances which, however, are difficult to substantiate.
A new industry is born
Mixed Martial Arts might be a relatively new sport having first emerged as a regulated league in the early 1980s in the United States where it was called Tough Guy Contest and later renamed Battle of the Superfighters.
The first state-regulated MMA event was held in Biloxi, Mississippi on August 23, 1996, with the sanctioning of The International Fight League’s Mayhem in Mississippi show by the Mississippi Athletic Commission under William Lyons.
However, the sport which combines techniques from boxing, wrestling, judo, jiu-jitsu, karate, Muay Thai and other disciplines, dates back to the ancient Olympic Games in 648 BCE, when pankration — the martial training of Greek armies — was considered the combat sport of ancient Greece.
Not for the faint-hearted MMA saw opponents wrestle, box or kick each other until one of them was down, or threw in the towel, which is called submission.
Pankration became one of the most popular events of the ancient Olympics.
The MMA as we now know it through its various franchises such as UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships), Bellator, Invicta, One FC, Polish KSW, Canada’s Maximum FC and Texas-based Legacy FC, is growing exponentially and UFC pulls in live audiences averaging 300,000 million per event.
Today, MMA events are sanctioned in many countries and in all 50 U.S states.
During the 20th century in Brazil via a combat sport known as vale tudo (“anything goes”). The sport was popularised by brothers Carlos and Helio Gracie, who began a jiu-jitsu school in Rio de Janeiro in 1925.
The brothers caught the attention of many by marketing it under the banner of the “Gracie Challenge” calling out to fighters with the message, “If you want a broken arm, or rib, contact Carlos Gracie.” The Gracie brothers would take on all challengers, in matches that resembled pankration, and it became so popular that the events had to be moved to large football stadiums to accommodate the growing crowds.
MMA first came to the attention of fans in North America after the Gracie family decided to showcase its Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the States in the 1990s.
Helio’s son Royce Gracie represented the family in a 1993 tournament in Denver, Colorado, that came to be known as ‘UFC 1’.
The earliest goal of the UFC organisers was to pit fighters of different styles against each other — such as wrestler against boxer and kickboxer against judoka.
Royce Gracie emerged as the champion of UFC 1, which was held in a caged ring at Denver’s McNichols Arena.
As the UFC’s first cable television pay-per-view event, it attracted a whopping 86,000 viewers. That number increased to 300,000 by the third event.
The UFC initially marketed its product as a no-holds-barred sport in which anything could happen which caused it to come in for massive criticism from many including politicians such as US Senator John McCain, who famously called the caged fights “human cockfighting” and attempted to have the sport banned.
Although the UFC did not catch fire in the early days, it was with the advent of the new millennium that the sport eventually developed into a highly profitable organisation. Between 2003 and 2006, a trilogy of fights between two of the sport’s biggest stars, Americans Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, at UFC 43, 52 and 57 helped to boost MMA and the UFC’s image.
The sport also received a shot in the arm from The Ultimate Fighter reality TV show, which first aired in 2005 a show which features fighters looking to break into the UFC. Divided into teams under celebrity fighter coaches, opponents fight each other in a knockout format, with the final winner earning a UFC contract.
Beginning in 2013, women also appeared on The Ultimate Fighter both as coaches and as competitors.
Rules And Regulations
Realising that the sport had the potential to capture world attention, the UFC sought a set of rules to standardise the sport globally, and by 2009 regulatory bodies in the United States and many fighting promotions worldwide had adopted standards known as the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, much like boxing’s Marquess of Queensberry Rules
Under these rules, MMA fighters began to compete in an Octagon between 25-30ft. They wore padded fingerless gloves but no shoes or headgear. They were allowed to strike, throw, kick, or grapple with an opponent and could attack from either a standing position or on the ground.
Butting, gouging (thrusting a finger or thumb into an opponent’s eye), hair pulling, and groin attacks of any kind were prohibited and punishable by having points deducted from a fighter’s score.
Downward elbow strikes, throat strikes, and strikes to the back of the head were also deemed illegal against a grounded opponent.
If a fighter violated any one of the rules, the referee would issue him/her with a warning, deduct points, or even disqualify the errant contestant.
Under the Unified Rules, non-championship MMA fights consist of three five-minute rounds, with a one-minute break between each round. Championship bouts are contested over five rounds.
A fighter can win a bout by knocking out the other fighter or by forcing an opponent to submit (either by tapping with his hand or verbally indicating to the referee that he has had enough).
Should the fight go the distance the winner is decided by a panel of three judges, using boxing’s 10-point must scoring system (the winner of the round gets 10 points; the loser is awarded nine or fewer points).
In the United States, MMA referees and judges are assigned by state athletic commissions, which also frequently conduct medical and drug tests on fighters.
In 2001 the new UFC management moved to cement its place in the sporting landscape by creating rules to make the sport less dangerous
It added weight classes, rounds and time limits and extended the list of fouls in the ring. The new-looked UFC no longer featured just street fighters or brawlers but was instead showcased by skilled fighters such as boxers, wrestlers, and professional martial arts practitioners.
MMA fighters are forced to train extensively in order to remain in top condition to perform to the best of their abilities.
In the United States the sport came under regulation by the same bodies that governed the sport of boxing, including the Nevada State Athletic Commission and the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board.
As a result to the sport’s refinement, even McCain changed his tunes and acknowledged in 2007 that the “sport has made significant progress”.
The UFC, the most high-profile of the MMA’s franchise, currently recognises a total of nine weight classes in the men’s division and two in the women’s.
The upper weight limits of these classes are as follows: strawweight, 115 pounds (52kg); flyweight, 125 pounds (57kg); bantamweight, 135 pounds (61kg); featherweight, 145 pounds (66kg); lightweight, 155 pounds (70kg); welterweight, 170 pounds (77kg); middleweight, 185 pounds (84kg); light heavyweight, 205 pounds (93kg); and heavyweight, 265 pounds (120kg).
Women’s UFC is currently restricted to just two weight classes: strawweight, for fighters weighing up to 115 pounds (52kg), and bantamweight, for fighters weighing up to 135 pounds (61kg).
Other MMA organisations, however, have sanctioned women’s bouts in several additional weight classes.
Who owns and manages UFC
Based in Las Vegas, Nevada, the UFC is MMA’s leading and most successful promoter. Founded in 1993, the UFC is owned and operated by Endeavor Group Holdings along with Silver Lake Partners, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and MSD Capital via Zuffa LLC.
It produces live events each month and reaches around the globe through its pay-per-view cable television broadcasts which are reported to have viewers in over 130 countries around the world.
In January, 2001, the UFC was acquired by Zuffa for a sum of $2 million and its new owners were quick to expand.
At the forefront of the UFC is its dynamic president, Dana White, who has become the face of the sport much like the legendary Don King was in boxing.
By 2006 the UFC began to capitalise on the sport’s growing popularity by buying other MMA organisations, including the World Fighting Alliance (WFA) and World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) and in 2007 it also acquired the Japan-based Pride Fighting Championships (known simply as Pride).
UFC also disbanded WFA and roped in top fighters such as Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and part of its plan was to have Pride and UFC champions face-off annually in a Super Bowl-style mixed martial arts spectacle.
In addition to the UFC, there are several other professional MMA organisations, which however, are not as popular. Among the most prominent of these are the California-based Bellator MMA, which was founded in 2008, and the Singapore-based ONE Championship, which promotes many of the top MMA fighters in Asia.
Invicta Fighting Championships, a promotion dedicated to female MMA fighters, was launched in the United States in 2012.
The International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) was founded in 2012 in Sweden to enhance the growth of the sport and to serve as the global governing body for the sport. Its ultimate goal is to secure admission to the Olympic Games.
UFC's celebrity shareholders
Several of the world’s leading actors and sports personalities have a share in the UFC, some more than others.
Actor Mark Wahlberg is one of 23 celebrity UFC investors who gained a fraction of the company when it was sold to WME-IMG for $4 billion in 2016.
Talk show host Conan O’Brien is also one of the celebrity clients with others being Ben Affleck, Michael Bay, Tom Brady, Rob Dyrdek, Guy Fieri, Flea, Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye, Calvin Harris, Anthony Kiedis, Jimmy Kimmel, Robert Kraft, Adam Levine, Li Na, LL Cool J, Cam Newton, Trey Parker, Tyler Perry, Maria Sharapova, Sylvester Stallone, Mark Wahlberg, Serena Williams and Venus Williams.
One of the earliest champions of MMA was Brazil’s Royce Gracie who helped propel the sport to the forefront in the 1990s.
An imposing six-footer Gracie was the inaugural UFC Champion in 1993, defeating Art Jimmersonn by submission at 2 minutes and 18 seconds of Round 1. Gracie was a high-class jiu-jitsu practitioner and used his trademark ground game to defend against attacks or to secure a deadly submission.
In 2003 Gracie became the first MMA fighter to be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame.
Other early superstars of the sport were light heavy to heavyweight fighters Americans Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell.
Couture came from a freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling background where he was a three-time National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) champion at Oklahoma State University and a four-time winner at the US national Greco-Roman Championships.
He won the UFC heavyweight belt before dropping down a weight class and dominating the UFC light heavyweight division en route to capturing that crown. He won his first fight against Liddell in 2003 but lost two rematches in 2005 and 2006.
During that period their trilogy of fights became stuff of legend with Liddell, with his shaved Mohawk and tattooed head, becoming one of the most recognisable figures.
Couture was admitted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2006 while Liddell joined him there in 2009.
More recently another Brazilian fighter, middleweight Anderson Silva, considered by many to be one of the most skilled MMA fighters in the history of the sport, rose into prominence.
Silva was the classic MMA fighter using tae kwon do, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, and boxing to finish off opponents.
In 2006 he made a winning UFC debut against Ultimate Fighter 1 contestant Chris Lebenin a bout that lasted just 49 seconds. Silva captured the UFC middleweight championship later that same year and successfully defended the title 10 times before losing it to Chris Weidman in 2013.
Subsequent UFC champions were The Ultimate Fighter hero Rashad Evans, Quinton Jackson and Tito Ortiz.
However, perhaps the biggest name in UFC is Irish fighter Conor McGregor who competed mostly in the featherweight and lightweight classes.
McGregor made his UFC debut in 2013 with a first-round technical knockout of Marcus Brimage and two years later won the UFC featherweight championship.
Two of the greatest fighters are the unbeaten Russian Khabib Nurmgomedov and the feared Jon Jones.
The most famous female MMA fighter was American Ronda Rousey, who won a bronze medal in judo at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing before launching her MMA career in 2011. She remained undefeated until 2015, when she suffered an surprise loss to countrywoman Holly Holm in UFC 193. The fight was a high earner generating 1.1 million pay-per-view buys, making it one of the UFC’s top-selling pay-per-view events of all time.
More recently the big names in the women’s ranks are Amanda Nunes, Rose Namajunus and Velentia Shevchenko.
It all began 2,000+ years ago ...
In Ancient China, combat sport appeared in the form of Leitai, where contests were held on an elevated square arena, without ropes or railings. Fighters used fatal weapons and fought bare-knuckle.
Pankration, an empty-hand submission sport similar to MMA as introduced into the Greek Olympic Games in 648BC, Similar mixed combat sports in Ancient Egypt, India and Japan.
Hybrid martial arts and catch wrestling became popular in the late 19th century.
In the late 1880s early no-holds-barred and mixed-style contests were known to take place.
By the end of the century, Bartitsu, which combined elements of boxing, jiu-jitsu, cane fighting, and French kick-boxing (savate) was a popular combat sport. It was also immortalised by Sherlock Homes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
In the early 1900s, Merikan contests were fought under a variety of rules, including points decision, best of three throws or knockdowns.
The 1920s saw vale tudo, an unarmed, full-contact combat sport with relatively few rules become popular in Brazil. However from 1960 onwards, vale tudo remained mostly an underground subculture, with most fights taking place in martial arts dojos or small gymnasiums.
By the 1960s and 1970s the legendary Bruce Lee revealed his “The way of the intercepting fist” in Cantonese, abbreviated JKD, It was a hybrid philosophy of martial arts heavily influenced by the personal experiences of Lee.
In 1976 world champion boxer Muhammad Ali fought Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki in an attempt to show that pro wrestling was the dominant fighting discipline. The fight was broadcast to 34 countries around the world to an estimated audience of 1.4 billion.
Shortly after, Japan’s top star and president Inoki hosted ishu kakutōgi sen or “different style martial arts matches” pitting his stars against the legends of other sports such as Ali, Willem Ruska, Chuck Wepner and Willie Williams. Many believe that the Japanese MMA has its roots in Inoki.
In the mid 1980s, Shooto, a combat sport and mixed martial arts organisation was formed.
By the nineties, pancrase, a mixed martial arts sport that dates back to the ancient Greek Olympics gained popularity and would lead to the emergence of ultimate fighting championship forms, Pride FC and International Vale Tudo
By 1999 the International Sport Combat Federation was founded as first sanctioning body of MMA.
At the turn of the century the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board (SACB) formulated the official rules. Soon after Zuffa acquired UFC and in 2005 The Ultimate Fighter made its debut.
By 2006, UFC enjoyed a significant dominance and experienced widespread international growth. The same year Zuffa secured the World Fighting Alliance (WFA) and the World Endurance Championships (WEC). UFC 66 generates over a million pay-per-views buys and Zuffa buys Pride FC.
In 2009, Strikeforce holds 1st major card with a female main event.
The year 2011 was a significant one, as WEC merged with UFC, Zuffa purchased Strikeforce and ‘UFC on Fox’ gained 8.8 million peak viewers on Fox.
In 2012, the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (MMA) was founded with support from UFC,
In 2016 WMG/WME-IMG buys UFC for a sum of $4 billion. In 2017 WMG/WME-IMG changed its holding name to Endeavor.
Why are some humans attracted to violence?
Yousra Zaki, Senior Features Editor
Violence is all around us. We see it on the news, in films and sometimes, as spectators sitting on the edge of our seats watching a sport. A sport like UFC for example.
A space that allows participants to jab, overhand and round kick to the face.
Many UFC fighters and loyal fans might argue that the sport isn’t ‘violent’ but ‘competitive.’ However, if you’re hitting someone in the face, slamming them to the ground or trying to snap their arm, that tends to be qualified as violence. Yet the sport has millions of fans all over the world. Sitting front row watching the literal bloody mess ensue.
“The relationship between violence and excitement is a paradox worth exploring,” Sneha John, a Counselling Psychologist at LifeWorks Holistic Counselling Centre in Dubai told Gulf News. “Research suggests that people do not necessarily watch violence for the brutality and gore. Their fascination with violence may hold a self-protective value. We may watch such content as we aspire to emulate courage, bravery and strength shown by a character. Violence on TV acts as bridge between our actual self and ideal self, that is, where we see ourselves and where we want to be. The desire to see ourselves as brave, courageous and bold may give us an appetite for such sports. It may also serve as an outlet for releasing pent-up frustration. Curiosity and a sense of thrill may be other factors. Although watching violent media is unhealthy in the long-term, the immediate pleasure/reward received from it, maintains this activity.”
Some people understand that they can’t live a hedonistic life, but are willing to expose themselves to scenes of bloodshed and aggression as a way to satisfy some aspect of the human condition and to also “live vicariously” through these fighters.
MMA is skilful combat, not savagery
Omar Shariff, International Editor
The grainy footage is from 1997. A nine-year-old boy is seen wrestling a baby bear that is twice his size for at least 7 minutes. Granted, the bear is on a leash, but it is still a bear. On more the one occasion, the boy is on top of the beast. Quite simply, he displays astonishing courage when faced with what is one of the top predators in the animal kingdom. That boy is Khabib Nurmagomedov, perhaps the most-loved mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter of all time.
But the sport he represents is a controversial one. Though it has gained a lot in popularity, many people find it ‘gruesome’ and ‘savage’. “Have we not evolved as humans?” they ask.
On the face of it, MMA does look a bit extreme. No bout seems complete without some bloodstains on the floor. It’s almost no-holds-barred, bloody combat between two individuals in a cage, cheered on by thousands. It brings to mind images of Russell Crowe screaming ‘Are you not entertained’ as frenzied crowds bay for more blood in the Colosseum in movie Gladiator (one of my all-time favourites, but that is another story).
To be honest, I just have a passing interest in the sport. For me, it is all about Khabib, and not MMA. But do I think MMA is ‘savage’? The answer is NO.
To begin with, the men slugging it out in the cage are trained professional athletes, who have chosen to become MMA fighters out of their own free will, and after making enormous sacrifices. Imagine the discipline involved: hours at the gym, strict diet, extreme training and, above all, the raw courage needed to excel is something this serious. Just as they have the ability to deliver the kicks and punches, they have also been taught to absorb them. It is a competition between two fighters who weigh in the same category and often stand a fair chance of defeating their opponents.
While a boxer needs to be good at boxing, and a judoka needs to train well for judo, an MMA athlete trains in many combat disciplines: boxing, judo, wrestling, Muay Thai and jiu-jitsu.
I believe those who condemn MMA should also condemn all other combat sports. Why is boxing OK if MMA is not, for instance? Doesn’t every self-respecting professional boxing bout end with either a knockout punch or swollen faces or broken noses?
George Orwell said that sport is just war minus the shooting. The spirit of competition is ingrained in the human DNA. It can be subdued but never fully exorcised.
I look at MMA simply as an exciting competition between two men, who have chosen the sport as their profession, and want to excel in it.
So, come September, when Khabib fights next, I will be ready with some hot popcorn and Red Bull, and won’t trouble my brain with questions about savagery.
Why I’m not interested in MMA
Shyam A. Krishna, Senior Associate Editor
Mixed Martial Arts never appealed to me. I know it’s the fastest-growing full-contact sport, having overtaken boxing in the popularity sweepstakes. Yet, I’m not inclined to watch an MMA contest.
It’s not that I hate contact sport. I love boxing. A bout between two talented and evenly matched boxers can make for a fantastic spectacle. Remember Floyd Mayweather Jr’s win against Manny Pacquiao with an excellent display of defensive technique.
It was the genius of Muhammad Ali that drew me to the ring. I followed his career with passion. The bouts against Ken Norton, George Foreman and Joe Frazier were the stuff of legends.
Those were heavyweight bouts. Yet it is wasn’t so brutal. The fights were a test of technique and temperament. Ali’s rope-a-dope technique is still vivid in memory. Of him laying on the ropes, soaking up the punches.
I also remember his fight against Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in 1976. How Inoki preferred to lie down to keep out of Ali’s range and attempted to pin him down with his legs. That bout is deemed a precursor to MMA.
Sugar Ray Leonard was another boxer, I followed with interest. His jousts with Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler were classics.
When Mike Tyson arrived on the scene, I stopped watching boxing. The sport became more brutal. More often he felled opponents with sledgehammer punches, very early in the bout. It ceased to be a contest.
Having followed boxing avidly, it should have been natural a progression if I had gone on to watch MMA. It never happened.
I always thought MMA was too brutal to be a sport. Blood’s often spilt in the Octagon, and that doesn’t make for a pretty sight. It’s a huge turn off for me.
The safety of the sport too is suspect. I remember reading a Guardian report calling for a ban on MMA, given its high rate of injuries. Maybe, that also influenced me.
So will I watch an MMA fight? I might. For curiosity sake. Without watching a fight, I can’t form an opinion. So I should. And I will.