As an inveterate if frequently uneasy fan of professional boxing, I have been peripherally aware of the rising tide in popularity that ultimate fighting and mixed martial arts have experienced over the past three or four years. The massive growth of these combat sports has quite rightly been judged in boxing circles as a bellwether for the sport’s declining fortunes. UFC and its analogous interests have cut deeply into what remains of professional boxing’s audience by providing something like a distilled, maximum violence at a cut-rate price. The absurd pay-per-view cots and purse fees demanded by professional boxing promoters have essentially priced out most networks and many consumers, and the uneven quality of the end product, typified by one unsatisfying Mike Tyson circus followed by the next during the late nineties and early 2000s, has conferred upon the sport a justifiable reputation as an unreliable bet for one’s entertainment dollar.
I’ve also always rather enjoyed professional wrestling. Back in the mid-90s when Bob Mould decided to take a few years off of music and go to work writing storylines for the WWF, many people reacted to this development with something on the order of slack-jawed astonishment. I however felt this made complete sense, and fully anticipate a similar career move in my future, possibly as soon as tomorrow. Nowadays wrestling has become a sort of sanitized big business enterprise — rather refined in its presentation, although I still find it pretty watchable when it comes on. When I was a child though, it was about as bizarre a spectacle as any I have witnessed before or since — huge, frequently unmuscular men assuming broad characters and pretending to beat on each other in high school auditoriums and county fairs. Telecasts like Georgia Championship Wrestling or AWA Wrestling from Minnesota were invariably shot on the grainiest of low-budget film and broadcast with minimum production values but a maximum air of palpable hysteria. From my comfortable home in suburban Washington DC, I watched saucer-eyed as a wholly exotic parade of regional accents and sensibilities were paraded in front of me, carnival-style, each Saturday morning. Blackjack Mulligan, Harley Race, Bruno Sammartino: these were world class weirdos, but also gifted, magnetic entertainers — the sort of traveling performers who would be a piece with Greil Marcus’s "Old, Weird America." Reviewing some of this footage now on YouTube, I am pleased to observe that it still has the same mysterious effect on me. There are terrible, nightmarish figures like Abdullah The Butcher and ersatz heroes — invariably broken off and perverted from some aspect of the contemporary culture, such as Magnum TA and The Rock -N- Roll express — who are so creepy as to be borderline impossible to root for. The entire business is so tremendously surreal as to play upon the Freudian unconscious — suppressed fears and desires are played out by hulking archetypes — Grimm Brother’s fairy tales come to life. Take a moment to watch the footage of some random match between "The American Dream" Dusty Rhodes versus "Nature Boy" Ric Flair on YouTube. Just listen to the wailing and shrieking of fans in attendance as events they KNOW are actually staged are played out in front of them. It may not be Macbeth, but it sure as hell sounds like catharsis.
Professional wrestling at its best specializes in this sort of release. The yearning for catharsis through physical exertion is a primal imperative. The deep-seated desire to experience triumph and anxiety played out on a large and metaphorical scale must account in a not insignificant way for the billion-dollar industry which is men running around, wacking balls, performing various feats, and punching and slapping each other. I must say, though, I wonder what exactly we’re getting into with the rise of the UFC.
Whatever its not inconsiderable (ok, massive) failings, professional boxing IS a sport, complete with a long-standing standardized rulebook, a modicum of order and a baseline for personal decency. For all of its inarguable marketing acumen and astounding mainstreaming, I’m not prepared to accept the recent media benediction which says the same for the UFC. It never ceases to amaze me how a patently bad idea can gain currency in our culture, no matter how prima facie terrible a notion it might appear on first blush. It is tempting to cast this observation in political terms with respect to the our country’s experiences over the past five several years — tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent of Americans, pre-emptive war without planning — but this is probably an inexact and ultimately misleading analogy to the ascendant popularity of the UFC. Tax cuts and the war were manufactured social and geo-political missteps, sold to a plurality of the American people through a concerted campaign of misleading propaganda and diversion. To me there is something even more disturbing at work in the case of ultimate fighting: it appears to be about the breaking of certain taboos, and not ones that I necessarily feel the need to see broken. Watching a UFC match, or, say, the countless ESPN replays of this past weekend’s Quinton "Rampage" Jackson versus Chuck Liddell contest, I am essentially put in mind of a resonant fantasy of my youthful preoccupation with professional wrestling: “What if this were REAL?” That is essentially what the UFC has done: placed to men in a steel octagon and actualized the fantasy world of professional wrestling. Is this good? Seriously? I get that the UFC is visceral and relatively affordable, and that some of these men are powerful athletes and skilled fighters. But since when did that in of itself justify locking them in a cage for a bare-knuckle street fight? Just because an event becomes a proven money-maker doesn’t seem to me a good reason to afford it a volitional wholesale embrace from the mainstream media. I mean, I don’t THINK it does.
Or maybe I am wrong. I could scarcely have been more startled by last week’s Sports Illustrated, with its L. Jon Wertheim-penned cover story/apologia for the UFC and its accumulating fan base. From the evergreen handmaiden of sports periodicals — perhaps slightly out of step with contemporary sensibilities, but still a reliable source for thoughtful, thorough journalism — I had expected an even-handed if seriously skeptical verdict on the phenomenon. Instead I was faced with an amazing series of assertions regarding the relative safety of ultimate fighting, certain of which struck me as almost irrepressibly comedic.
For instance, from Dr. Margaret Goodman, chairwoman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission’s Medical Advisory Board. "You’re going to see worse cuts in MMA than in boxing, especially with longer rounds, and there are more knockouts. Overall, is it safer than boxing? I think so. The guys [submit], and it’s over. You don’t have standing eight counts, you don’t have 10 rounds of guys taking shots to the head."
I’m sorry, Doctor — what sort of Rumsfeldian logic is this? Short of the terrible cuts and the high volume of concussion-producing knockouts, mixed martial arts is safer WHY? Because they don’t have a standing 8 count to see if an injured fighter who has not gone down can continue?! What do they have INSTEAD of the standing eight count in UFC? Well, they have the rule that says when a fighter is knocked down by a punch, his opponent may then jump on his chest and pound him with knees and fists before he can recover, or the referee can stop to see if he is in serious neurological danger. Why does this set of "rules” not strike me as safer then going to a neutral corner and allowing a man a ten count? Why do I have a feeling Dr. Goodman will be enjoying a lucrative career with testifying about the health benefits of smoking for the tobacco lobbies when her Athletic commission days are through?
Better still is Weirthem’s own following assertions: "Boxing doesn’t permit fighters to change tactics by clutching or wrestling. And one could even make a credible case that UFC and other MMA competitions are less brutal than — dare we say it? — the NFL."
Now wait a second — boxing doesn’t permit fighters to change tactics?! That is a completely deranged assertion. Witness for instance this footage offormer Heavyweight champion Larry Holmes defending his title against Earnie Shavers in 1979. You will notice a couple things around the five-minute mark, after Holmes is caught by a pulverizing right hook from Shavers, arguably the hardest puncher in the history of boxing: 1) Holmes is actually allowed to rise before he is hit again, and 2) He immediately changes tactics by clutching. That Holmes was to go on to win the fight by knockout is testimony to his greatness. That he had the opportunity to do so by rule separates this event from something you’d see in a high school parking lot.
In any event, the train is now out of the station with UFC and mixed martial arts, and none of my carping is going to cease its runaway momentum. Much is also made in the SI article about how none of the 71 UFC cards to date has ever had a fight which resulted in a fatality (what an achievement!) and in all likelihood, with its new mainstream media backing and exposure, nothing short of a truly awful occurrence will give pause to it’s dollar-besotted patrons. I’m just saying that whether it airs on ESPN or not, the personal sense of aversion I feel towards this phenomenon remains the same. Of course, all of this is highly subjective and it’s not like it couldn’t be worse. Someplace right now wealthy athletes are likely betting $30,000 on a dog fight. Are we having fun yet?