- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
While regulations such as a prohibition on "putting a finger into any orifice or into any cut or laceration" may not exactly recall the Marquess of Queensberry, the rules improved not only safety but marketability as well. Pay-per-view returned, forgetting its queasiness now that there was the potential for big bucks. No-holds-barred extreme fighting, such as the original UFC, was banned in 36 states; the new Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts have either been approved or are under review in all states with a sanctioning athletic commission. "You're going to see worse cuts in MMA than in boxing, especially with longer rounds, and there are more knockouts," says Dr. Margaret Goodman, chairwoman of the Nevada State Athletic Commission's Medical Advisory Board. "But 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."
Another slick move was creating The Ultimate Fighter, which matched aspiring UFC combatants, in 2005. Apart from capitalizing on the reality-television craze, the show demystified the sport of MMA, served as a sort of UFC farm system and made stars out of the fighters. After a dozen episodes viewers were intimately familiar with the personality and backstory of, say, Haynes, whose son Thor was born with a brain tumor and underwent seven surgeries and months of chemotherapy but has been cancer-free for four years. By the time he graduated from the show last June, Haynes already had traction with the fans. What's more, the show doubles as a de facto infomercial for the pay-per-view cards.
UFC is more likely to draw viewership away from WWE than boxing. "Athletes want to compete and [MMA] gives you a chance to do that in a way that pro wrestling doesn't," says former UFC middleweight champion Frank Shamrock.
Perhaps above all, White had seen firsthand how "f----- up" (his words) boxing was and did everything to avoid those missteps. "Blame Don King and Bob Arum. Those two sucked the life out of boxing, put it in their pockets and did nothing to secure the future of [the sport]," White says, his voice filling like a sail. "We just had a card that was like the biggest marketing spend in England's history! My CFO said, 'You know how long it will take to make this money back?' I said, 'I don't care if you're a f------ sheepherder in the middle of nowhere. You better have heard of the UFC!'"
The growing popularity of MMA and the creation of weight classes has upgraded the quality of UFC competition. Gone are the immobile 600-pound behemoths and the brawlers such as Tank Abbott--an early UFC cult hero who was hyped as specializing "in the ancient martial art of kicking ass"--replaced by world-class athletes. "If you're going to measure every parameter [endurance, flexibility, coordination, strength], without a doubt, MMA fighters are the most accomplished athletes out there," says Carlon Colker, a Connecticut physician who has trained or advised the likes of Andre Agassi and Shaquille O'Neal as well as UFC fighters. "It's not even close."
As the UFC improved the product, the pedigree of its participants changed too. One of the organization's talking points: Around 80% of the fighters have college degrees, including Chuck Liddell--he of the recent Entourage cameo--who may look like a bouncer at a biker bar but was an accounting major at Cal Poly--San Luis Obispo. Rich Franklin, a former middleweight champ, was a high school math teacher in Cincinnati. Even Ortiz, the resident bad boy who's dating porn star Jenna Jameson, can come across as thoughtful and well-spoken.
Top fighters like Ortiz have contracts that pay them six figures per fight and can earn seven figures when bonuses and a percentage of the pay-per-view haul are factored in. Lower-profile fighters on the same card, however, might earn only $2,000 to $3,000 for a bout. The UFC's current Zeus, heavyweight champ Couture, is a 43-year-old father of three who was an All-America wrestler at Oklahoma State, twice finishing as the heavyweight runner-up in the NCAA tournament, and served in the military for six years. After failing to make the 1996 Olympic team--the third time he was an alternate-- Couture figured his career in competitive sports was over. He was an assistant wrestling coach at Oregon when he saw a former Oklahoma State teammate, Don Frye, fighting on a televised MMA card.
Couture tried the sport, and it fed something in him. He had the wrestling component down. He picked up the boxing, the kicking and the ground game. He made his UFC debut in 1997; three fights later he was competing for a belt. "My goal was to be an Olympic wrestler, and I think if I would have achieved that, I would have been content," he says. "Instead, in my mid-30s I still had this hunger to compete--and thankfully I had a place to transfer it." Strangely, the nerves that plagued him at the worst moments when he wrestled haven't surfaced when he's fighting in a steel cage.
Couture came out of a 13-month retirement in March to fight UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia, 31. In a brutal but strategic fight, Couture scored a shocking upset and was subsequently accorded rock-star status. He landed a role in an upcoming David Mamet martial arts movie, Redbelt. ("Randy has some acting chops," says Mamet, a jujitsu enthusiast and UFC fan.) Couture's agent (all the top fighters have them) has been in negotiations for endorsements with a variety of companies. His nonprofit (the top guns have these too), Operation Xtreme Sacrifice, will host what Couture bills as a nonpolitical event on May 27 to benefit American troops wounded in action. "I think a lot of us are still trying to grasp the magnitude of all of this," he says. "In a sport like wrestling, you assume that after the Olympics, that's it, time for a real job. All of a sudden there's an opportunity, and it just keeps growing. What can you do besides ride the wave?"
On a lonesome stretch of Iowa highway, the parking lot of the Lumberyard II is overflowing with cars. The Lumberyard II ("Where real men go for wood") is a strip club in Cedar Rapids, but on this unseasonably warm night in early spring, the crowd is there to see minimally clad men, not women. It's Tuesday, which means it's Amateur MMA Night, the creation of Monte Cox, a former boxer turned promoter. As the sports editor of the Quad-City Times, in Davenport, Cox covered an MMA fight in the mid-'90s and, as he puts it, "saw the light." He quit his newspaper job and started to manage UFC fighters and promote MMA cards on the side. Today he represents dozens of competitors and puts on an average of one MMA card a week. "It was obvious that this sport was going to take off," he says. "People are always going to want to watch two guys fight--and boxing is a joke compared to this."