A bloody exciting sport

It may have been branded ‘human cock-fighting’ by Senator John McCain, but the Ultimate Fighting Championship is a compelling spectacle.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

I recently signed up to sports channel Setanta so that I could watch the ‘Battle of Britain’. No, not the airborne tussle between the Luftwaffe and the RAF over Blighty in 1940. No need to get that on pay-per-view when you know who wins (it was pretty much a score-draw, actually). No, I’m talking about the fight between David Haye and Enzo Maccarinelli, two Brits who held different versions of boxing’s world cruiserweight championship.

The ‘Battle of Britain’, 2008-style, lasted about four minutes. David ‘the Hayemaker’ Haye lived up to his billing, stunning his Welsh opponent and thumping him until the referee stepped in. Job done. Next time we see Haye, he’ll be tearing up the heavyweight division.

Mildly disappointed at the fact that Haye-Maccarinelli hadn’t really lived up to the hype, I checked out what else I could find on Setanta’s broadband service, and discovered UFC Wired. I’d seen plenty of posters around London for UFC – Ultimate Fighting Championship – but kind of assumed it was a bit like the old WWF (and I don’t mean those panda-loving environmentalists).

But UFC is actually an example of mixed martial arts. The idea is that with some basic rules to stop people getting really seriously hurt or fights being truncated by a spot of eye-gouging – which doesn’t make for much of a spectacle – anything goes. You can get fighters from different styles together and see who wins. Will a jiu-jitsu specialist beat a Muay Thai boxer, for example? Fighters are forced to learn different styles to look for an advantage or to cope with their opponent’s different skills.

That means that UFC fights can be won by a variety of means. The handful of fights I’ve seen so far have been won by knockouts (punches, kicks and even the odd flying knee to the face) and by submission (usually by choking the opponent while wrestling on the ground). Occasionally, people even pass out in a choke before they get a chance to submit.

It is this variety that makes mixed martial arts so exciting. Even when one fighter appears to be on top, perhaps due to superior punching, his opponent may take him down and wrestle him into a position where he can apply a choke or simply get on top of him and punch the merry hell out of him. (You’re allowed to use punches and elbows on the ground in UFC, but not kicks.)

This latter method of victory is somewhat reminiscent of the end of a playground fight. ‘Give up?’ ‘No!’ (smack) ‘Give up?’ ‘No!’ (smack, smack)… until the teacher – sorry, referee – steps in. But such finishes are good evidence that UFC, unlike wrestling, is not fixed. When the guy on the floor stands up to reveal a bloodied face that looks somewhat like roast beef, you know they’re not playing around.

In fact, UFC’s early days were dogged by allegations that it was little more than ‘human cockfighting’ – at least, according to American Senator John McCain, who endeavoured to have UFC banned in the US. As David Plotz argued well on Slate back in 1999, this was based on misunderstanding. ‘Instead of being carnivals of gore, UFC fights looked strangely like … sex. Almost all fights ended on the ground, one man mounting the other in missionary position, the pair of them wiggling mysteriously along the canvas for five, 10, even 30 minutes. There were few spectacular knockouts. The referee – yes, there was always a referee – stopped many bouts, and in most others, fighters “tapped out”, surrendering to mild-looking but agonising chokes and joint locks. It was not barbarism. It was science.’ (1)

While no fighting sport will ever be entirely safe, there are good reasons to believe that mixed martial arts is safer than traditional boxing – principally the fact that it does not rely on repeated heavy blows to the head. The eight-sided, fenced ring – the Octagon – may look like a cage but it’s a damn sight safer for the competitors than the roped ring used in boxing. But the outcry led by McCain nearly killed UFC, forcing the organisation to bring in additional rules including weight divisions, rounds (previously, fights simply continued in one long struggle till one person won) and more limitations on the blows acceptable. Cleaned up, UFC has been cleaning up, making a fortune on pay-per-view sales.

To me, it still looks a little amateurish. When punching, the fighters seem to be much less capable of solid defence than a good boxer. Many of the competitors are still only semi-professional, making their living elsewhere. But as the sport takes off, standards will no doubt improve. Even now, the range of skills is impressive – and it makes compulsive viewing.

One barrier to taking UFC entirely seriously is the hooplah of promotion that surrounds it. Ideally, UFC would grow up, develop a sanctioning body entirely separate from promotion and get into the Olympics. That’s not as daft as it sounds, because a sport very similar to the mixed martial arts of UFC was part of the ancient Olympics: pankration.

Pankration came directly from the messy business of fighting and killing people on the battlefield. Fights could be to the death, especially if a fighter preferred to meet his maker rather than face the ignominy of submission. But even pankration had rules – much to the annoyance of the Spartans who stopped taking part because of a pussy-footing ban on eye-gouging. I guess they just thought all the other Greeks were big girl’s blouses.

A fascinating edition of the History Channel series Human Weapon (hey, even the history guys can do a little hyperbole), shows how the ancient sport has been revived in recent years (see video at the end of article). If you wanna learn how to choke someone, throw them to the ground and snap their arms, or break a shield with one kick, these are the boys to talk to.

Or, you can just be a cowardy custard like me, and watch other people do it instead, in the slightly safer confines of the Octagon.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. Duleep Allirajah is away.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Fight Clubbed, Slate, 17 November 1999

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Topics Politics


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