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Article: Mixed martial arts, which will make its Boise debut Saturday, is getting...
Article published Jul 14, 2006
Mixed martial arts, which will make its Boise debut Saturday, is getting mainstream attention
Jodi Sali never misses an opportunity to watch a mixed martial arts event. The Boisean watches shows on Spike TV. He catches all the big pay-per-view telecasts.
And Saturday, when mixed martial arts ? or extreme fighting ? makes its Boise debut in Qwest Arena, the 31-year-old Sali is cutting short a golf trip to Tamarack in order to be in his third-row seat.
"It's the ultimate in imposing your will over another guy," Sali said. "It's like the real world. In the real world, a fight goes to the ground. It's what I would consider an ancient form of gladiator style."
Just as the gladiators filled the ancient coliseums with spectators, extreme fighting in cages is packing fans like Sali and millions more across the nation into arenas and parking them in front of their television sets, fueling a cultural phenomenon.
The hugely popular Ultimate Fighting Championship ? more commonly known as UFC, which is the dominant entity in extreme fighting ? has attracted mainstream attention with large arena sellouts and huge television ratings.
In the past year, UFC and its trademarked Octagon cage have been featured in the New York Times, Forbes, Time, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Boston Globe and on ESPN's "Outside the Lines."
Sold-out shows in Los Angeles and Las Vegas have attracted celebrities such as Shaquille O'Neal and Paris Hilton and made stars out of UFC regulars such as Royce Gracie, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Matt Hughes.
The Boise-based Extreme Fight Series (XFS), which is not affiliated with UFC, is getting attention, too. For Saturday's inaugural event, about 750 tickets remain in the 6,500-seat Qwest Arena.
"It's definitely on people's radars, mixed martial arts. It's not at the Super Bowl-level yet, but the more the sport can get out there the better," said Brian Diamond, Spike TV's senior vice president of sports and specials.
Spike TV, which once declined offers to air UFC events, now televises six different UFC-themed shows, including the reality hit, "The Ultimate Fighter." Sixteen fighters live in a house and compete against each other for a UFC contract.
The season finale of "The Ultimate Fighter 3" in June drew 2.8 million viewers ? easily outdrawing a NASCAR event on FX, which drew 1.4 million. The season premiere in April received higher ratings than NBA games on TNT and the Masters on USA.
The UFC's largest audience segment ? men ages 18-40 ? is also a huge target for advertisers such as Burger King, the U.S. Army and Taco Bell.
"Spike was a perfect fit for us," UFC president Dana White said. "We know who we are going after."
UFC, a privately held company out of Las Vegas that was nearly bankrupt five years ago, is now big business. Other groups, including Knockout Promotions, are hoping to use UFC's popularity to help their own fight series.
Boise promoter thinking big
Kasey Thompson, Knockout's co-owner, said his plan is to bring at least three XFS events to Qwest Arena each year. XFS 2 is already scheduled for December in Boise. Thompson wants to expand the series to Portland, Seattle and Phoenix.
"It's not just a fad. We think it's here long term," Thompson said. "It's really hitting its main stride right now."
There is already an established audience in the market. The Crescent No Lawyers Bar and Grill in Boise consistently draws capacity crowds when it shows UFC's pay-per-view events. The bar had to close its doors for last week's Tito Ortiz-Ken Shamrock event, which attracted more than 400 people before the fights even started.
"People are calling weeks in advance wanting to reserve tables, which we don't do," Crescent manager Kurt Walker said.
Walker said hosting the event typically costs the bar around $1,000 ? far less than for a boxing title fight ? and returns much more than that. The Crescent tunes all of its 32 TVs on the fights.
"I figured it was going to be the working guys, the construction guys and that. But it's a little bit of everybody. Office guys, we have a group of doctors that come in and watch it," Walker said. "Just a little bit of everything."
Diamond, the Spike TV executive, noticed the diversity ? men and women, different ages and different ethnic groups ? when he attended his first UFC event. More women have become fans through "The Ultimate Fighter" series, he said, where viewers get to know the fighters well before they enter the ring.
The UFC benefits by picking up fighters who already have name recognition.
"When you watch the show, you get engaged and engrossed by the guys in the house," Diamond said. "When they get into the Octagon, the audience feels passionate about it."
Rules of the game
Boxing, the grandfather of combat sports, yearns for such familiarity. The sport of kings is perpetually in decline with its last crop of stars quickly fading away and no new superstars generating buzz.
Mixed martial arts, which combines elements of boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, jujitsu, judo, kung fu, tae kwon do and karate, is filling the void.
The fights take place inside a padded cage. The UFC has trademarked its eight-sided cage, so the ring for Saturday's event in Boise will have six sides.
Fighters square off for three five-minute rounds. Competitors wear four-ounce gloves as compared to boxing's 10-ounce gloves. The fighters begin standing, but often move to the ground. Submission holds, choke holds, throws and takedowns are allowed. A fighter can tap out ? ending a match by signaling to the referee that he can't go on by tapping the mat three times or through verbal communication.
"Like the old-school 'uncle,' " Sali said.
Unlike boxing matches, which can drag out to 12 rounds of sometimes slow action, MMA events are more likely to produce quick action and quick results.
"The MTV generation is used to things that are quick and fast. Those guys have grown up and they want their action now and they want it fast," said Spike's Diamond, who used to work at MTV, which is owned by the same parent company, Viacom, as Spike TV.
That desire for action has fueled extreme sports of all kinds ? witness the X Games or the popularity of snowboarding events in the Olympics ? and fighting is no different. However, unlike professional wrestling, which still draws higher TV ratings than mixed martial arts events, the outcomes are not scripted in advance. There is no story line to promote.
Different than boxing
Boxing has also fought a perception of predetermined outcomes with big-name fighters ? and those with expensive contracts ? often getting the benefit of the doubt when the fight goes to the judges' scorecards. The judges' calls often leave even the most experienced boxing fans scratching their heads. Mixed martial arts events have judges who score the bout, but fewer fights go to the cards.
"You don't have as many (bad) decisions as you do in boxing. It ends in the fighter's hands. In boxing, everybody is feeling cheated," said George Rogers, the head linesmaker for YouWager.com, an online gambling company.
Rogers, who has been setting odds for UFC fights for three years, said his organization handled between $20,000 and $25,000 of bets on the Ortiz-Shamrock fight, nearly the equivalent of a good boxing matchup.
Ortiz defeated Shamrock in a first-round technical knockout with Hilton in attendance, although the referee's decision to stop the fight was loudly booed by the sellout crowd in Las Vegas.
Scott Lincoln, a special education teacher at Borah High in Boise, is on the Saturday night card. Lincoln, who also has professional boxing experience, grew disenchanted with inconsistent scoring decisions in boxing. In addition, he believes mixed martial arts is safer than boxing, which rewards repeated blows to the head.
"I don't want another 280-pound dude hitting me 60 or 70 times in the head," Lincoln said. "I like to be able to talk sensibly and have conversations with people."
In the earliest days of mixed martial arts ? the UFC held its first event in 1993 ? Lincoln didn't have a good chance of talking sensibly after a match. It was sheer violence.
Until White and his partners, Las Vegas casino operators Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, purchased the UFC in 2001, the sport was a cult favorite with no mainstream appeal. There were very few rules, no weight classes and no rounds. Few states sanctioned the events, and Arizona Sen. John McCain likened the sport to "human cockfighting."
New rules, new results
The new owners quickly adopted a limited set of rules ? weight classes, rounds and time limits. There are now 31 illegal moves, including head-butts, eye gouging, biting, groin attacks and throat strikes. Today the sport is sanctioned in at least 19 states, including Idaho, which began sanctioning mixed martial arts events last year. The XFS will use UFC rules on Saturday.
The UFC further legitimized itself in May by hiring Marc Ratner, the longtime executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission. The Nevada commission, with Ratner as director, first approved mixed martial arts events in 2001.
"It's because it has changed from its original set of rules," said Dan Huff, a deputy commissioner with the Idaho State Athletic Commission, who overseas the martial arts events. "I think it's a safer sport than boxing and you're not taking shots to the head repeatedly. I'm not saying that's not possible, but you're looking at takedowns and laying on the ground with one guy on top. You can't get as much power on your punch as you can standing up.
"There are a lot of misconceptions that I think the states are starting to recognize."
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