Blood In The Cage
An excerpt from L. Jon Wertheim's new book, which traces the rise of the UFC
Wertheim intertwined the life story of MMA fighter and trainer Pat Miletich
Unlike other bizarre fads, the UFC has already broken into mainstream sports
In his new book, Blood in the Cage, SI writer L. Jon Wertheim examines the furious rise of the UFC and mixed martial arts fighting.
There is a certain sense of ritual to a UFC card. At 8:00 sharp, the lights go down. The fans perk up. The slick presentation begins. Fighter A comes out to a suitably upbeat, pulsating music, something on the order of Rage Against the Machine's Killing in the Name Of or the White Stripes' Seven Nation Army. As they make their way from the vestibule of the arena to the cage, the fighters slap hands with fans leaning over the rails. The place is illuminated by a blitz of camera-phone flashes. There, the fighters hug their entourage, adding to the sense that they are warriors going off to battle. As the fighter gets a last check and greasing from the ringside doctor, the entourage hangs a "sponsor banner" from the cage, advertising every product from a hometown car dealership to a brand of nutritional supplement. This exercise always struck me as somewhat amateurish, not unlike the minor league baseball stadium that has outfield signage for Pearlman's Ale House or Verona's Used Cars. But given that fighters can double their salary with these sponsorships, easing pressure on the promoter to raise purses -- for a recent UFC show, the heavyweight Frank Mir was allegedly paid $100,000 by a single sponsor -- it's not hard to see why the UFC permits this bit of crass commercialism.*
Fighter B then goes through the same drill. He leaves a shared dressing room -- only the belt holder, in this case Anderson Silva, gets his own backstage suite -- jogs through a backstage vestibule and enters the arena. Between rounds the "Octagon Girls" orbit the cage and wave to the crowd, wearing little more than plasticized smiles and navel-rings. During the fight they sit a few feet in back of the cage, swaddled in official UFC robes, sometimes fiddling on their PDA's when the action in the cage doesn't captivate them.
But all the predictability ends once the fights start. Each takes on a unique rhythm. On this night, some were all-out, incautious slugfests. Competing for the $60,000 fight-of-the-night bonus, the combatants launched haymakers, trying to scramble the other guy's internal wiring. On this card, one fighter won with a devastating kick to his opponent's temple. Another brawled and ate a buffet of punches before catching his man with a right hand and winning by dramatic TKO. A third broke his hand during the fight, but ended up winning by knockout when he landed a vicious Muay Thai knee to the face of his opponent.