The Ultimate Fighting Championship: A New Variety of Primitive Spectacle

It all started with Royce Gracie. He was the last man standing on the night of November 12, 1993 at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado after a brutal martial arts tournament. The eight-man contest, now dubbed "The Beginning," was the creation of Art Davie, a Southern California advertising executive, and Rorion Gracie, one of Royce's six brothers in a legendary Brazilian martial arts family. There were essentially no rules, apart from no biting and no eye-gouging. The tournament was to determine the best fighter in the world, the "ultimate fighter." Broadcast live on pay-per-view, it introduced a new cultural phenomenon with a massive following.

The audience was shocked to see Gracie come out victorious, as he was smaller and lighter than his opponents. What the viewers didn't know yet was that Gracie's fighting style, a fierce grappling method originally developed in Japan known as jujitsu, was to be established as the superior form. Gracie possessed phenomenal skills in the deadly art, subjugating all of his opponents that historic night in Denver.

And there it started. Now, seventeen years later, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is a vast corporate enterprise estimated by Forbes to be worth over $1 billion. UFC reaches countries all over the world, including tournaments held in England, Ireland, Germany, Brazil, Canada, and Japan. On April 20, 2010, the organization made its foray into the Middle East, holding a tournament in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Fans of wrestling, boxing, jujitsu, judo, and other forms are captivated by the astonishing display of fighting talent in the UFC. The term MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), which has now entered everyday parlance, was coined by Jeff Blatnick soon after the UFC's creation to describe the blending of all fighting forms represented. (Blatnick, a former Greco-Roman wrestler, was an early UFC color commentator.)

Since "The Beginning" back in 1993, the UFC has amassed a list of legendary fighters trained in the deadliest forms of human combat. Jujitsu and wrestling have emerged as the dominant forms. A short list of famed UFC warriors includes Royce Gracie, Dan Severn, Ken Shamrock, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, and Georges St-Pierre. Gracie is known for his Brazilian jujitsu. Severn, Shamrock, Couture, and Hughes are known for their fierce, barbaric wrestling above all else. Liddell and St-Pierre represent a range of styles. After Gracie's elusive tactics were revealed in the early days, almost all UFC fighters incorporated elements of jujitsu in their styles. All are, in a sense, modern-day warriors hearkening back to the most primitive forms of human battle.

The current fascination with the UFC, and MMA in general, dates back to the primitive obsession with human combat. Ancient Greek and Roman gladiators engaged in ultra-violent confrontations for the entertainment of the spectators. MMA and the better-known fighting styles such as boxing and wrestling have merely followed this ancient tradition. Human nature, after all, doesn't seem to change very much. The public has always had a thirst for violent combat whereby two souls are pitted against each other in a struggle for survival.

As Joyce Carol Oates points out in her book exploring the psychology of boxing, straightforwardly titled On Boxing, the violent and gruesome aspects and potential consequences of stepping into the ring are deadly serious. In her insightful research on the subject, Oates remarks that there exists no true aspect of "play" in boxing, and as such, boxing can't be construed as a sport in the purest sense. As boxers, for instance, don't hit a ball back and forth (or throw footballs, dribble basketballs, kick soccer balls, hit hockey pucks, etc.), Oates necessarily views the concept of play as being absent in a boxing match and, by extension, in an MMA match. (This is why we don't speak of athletes playing a boxing match, compared to playing a baseball game, tennis match, soccer game, etc.) One might consider, say, swimming and track as lacking this element of play for the same reason, yet those activities are nevertheless regarded as healthier pursuits, as good exercise for everyone, as great activities for the kids, and so on. Swimming and track, as we know, lack the vicious elements of boxing and MMA, where extreme pain is very often the result. Although rare, even death will occur as a result of fierce blows or kicks to the head. So boxing, for Oates, is a most serious affair, essentially not a sport, and certainly not a game. As she sees it, the combatants who step into the boxing ring, or the "octagon," in the case of the UFC, are fighters, not players.

Fighters of the UFC have become increasingly sophisticated and dangerous in the octagon. They must be extremely vigilant of various barbaric moves and maneuvers that an opponent may use at any time. A fighter can instantly find himself trapped in a brutal choke such as the "anaconda," which squeezes the back of the head into the body, or a "neck crank" involving the twisting of the head with the full strength of two arms. A favorite of many fighters is the excruciatingly painful "arm bar," whereby a fighter literally pulls the arm from the body until his opponent submits. The pain from this move often lasts many months -- sometimes years. There's the "kimura" that cranks the arm behind the back, ripping the shoulder and elbow joints, and the similar "omoplata" that also yanks the arm into grotesque positions behind the back. There are various knee, ankle, toe, and wrist holds, all causing extreme pain and forcing the opponent to submit. The list goes on and on. (In an especially violent battle, the American Nick Diaz defeated Japan's Takanori Gomi utilizing an extremely rare move known as the "gogoplata," where Diaz trapped the wind pipe of Gomi between his shins, viciously squeezing the neck until submission. The Diaz-Gomi fight, although held in Las Vegas, was at the time sponsored by Pride Fighting Championship, UFC's rival organization based in Japan. UFC was to purchase the Pride organization that same year for around $70 million.)

The owners of the UFC, brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, through their promotion company Zuffa, LLC ("Zuffa" being an Italian word for "brawl" or "fight"), have tapped into this primitivism, along with the primitive instinct of the public. Forbes valued the UFC organization at around $1.2 billion in 2008, and that figure has significantly increased since then. (Current CEO Dana White, in September, 2010 valued the UFC at $2.5 billion.) Touting itself as "the fastest growing sport in the world," the UFC is headquartered in Las Vegas, and its televised events are now seen in over 170 countries. The sport draws ever more spectators, and it shows no signs of waning.
It all started with Royce Gracie. He was the last man standing on the night of November 12, 1993 at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado after a brutal martial arts tournament. The eight-man contest, now dubbed "The Beginning," was the creation of Art Davie, a Southern California advertising executive, and Rorion Gracie, one of Royce's six brothers in a legendary Brazilian martial arts family. There were essentially no rules, apart from no biting and no eye-gouging. The tournament was to determine the best fighter in the world, the "ultimate fighter." Broadcast live on pay-per-view, it introduced a new cultural phenomenon with a massive following.

The audience was shocked to see Gracie come out victorious, as he was smaller and lighter than his opponents. What the viewers didn't know yet was that Gracie's fighting style, a fierce grappling method originally developed in Japan known as jujitsu, was to be established as the superior form. Gracie possessed phenomenal skills in the deadly art, subjugating all of his opponents that historic night in Denver.

And there it started. Now, seventeen years later, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is a vast corporate enterprise estimated by Forbes to be worth over $1 billion. UFC reaches countries all over the world, including tournaments held in England, Ireland, Germany, Brazil, Canada, and Japan. On April 20, 2010, the organization made its foray into the Middle East, holding a tournament in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Fans of wrestling, boxing, jujitsu, judo, and other forms are captivated by the astonishing display of fighting talent in the UFC. The term MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), which has now entered everyday parlance, was coined by Jeff Blatnick soon after the UFC's creation to describe the blending of all fighting forms represented. (Blatnick, a former Greco-Roman wrestler, was an early UFC color commentator.)

Since "The Beginning" back in 1993, the UFC has amassed a list of legendary fighters trained in the deadliest forms of human combat. Jujitsu and wrestling have emerged as the dominant forms. A short list of famed UFC warriors includes Royce Gracie, Dan Severn, Ken Shamrock, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, and Georges St-Pierre. Gracie is known for his Brazilian jujitsu. Severn, Shamrock, Couture, and Hughes are known for their fierce, barbaric wrestling above all else. Liddell and St-Pierre represent a range of styles. After Gracie's elusive tactics were revealed in the early days, almost all UFC fighters incorporated elements of jujitsu in their styles. All are, in a sense, modern-day warriors hearkening back to the most primitive forms of human battle.

The current fascination with the UFC, and MMA in general, dates back to the primitive obsession with human combat. Ancient Greek and Roman gladiators engaged in ultra-violent confrontations for the entertainment of the spectators. MMA and the better-known fighting styles such as boxing and wrestling have merely followed this ancient tradition. Human nature, after all, doesn't seem to change very much. The public has always had a thirst for violent combat whereby two souls are pitted against each other in a struggle for survival.

As Joyce Carol Oates points out in her book exploring the psychology of boxing, straightforwardly titled On Boxing, the violent and gruesome aspects and potential consequences of stepping into the ring are deadly serious. In her insightful research on the subject, Oates remarks that there exists no true aspect of "play" in boxing, and as such, boxing can't be construed as a sport in the purest sense. As boxers, for instance, don't hit a ball back and forth (or throw footballs, dribble basketballs, kick soccer balls, hit hockey pucks, etc.), Oates necessarily views the concept of play as being absent in a boxing match and, by extension, in an MMA match. (This is why we don't speak of athletes playing a boxing match, compared to playing a baseball game, tennis match, soccer game, etc.) One might consider, say, swimming and track as lacking this element of play for the same reason, yet those activities are nevertheless regarded as healthier pursuits, as good exercise for everyone, as great activities for the kids, and so on. Swimming and track, as we know, lack the vicious elements of boxing and MMA, where extreme pain is very often the result. Although rare, even death will occur as a result of fierce blows or kicks to the head. So boxing, for Oates, is a most serious affair, essentially not a sport, and certainly not a game. As she sees it, the combatants who step into the boxing ring, or the "octagon," in the case of the UFC, are fighters, not players.

Fighters of the UFC have become increasingly sophisticated and dangerous in the octagon. They must be extremely vigilant of various barbaric moves and maneuvers that an opponent may use at any time. A fighter can instantly find himself trapped in a brutal choke such as the "anaconda," which squeezes the back of the head into the body, or a "neck crank" involving the twisting of the head with the full strength of two arms. A favorite of many fighters is the excruciatingly painful "arm bar," whereby a fighter literally pulls the arm from the body until his opponent submits. The pain from this move often lasts many months -- sometimes years. There's the "kimura" that cranks the arm behind the back, ripping the shoulder and elbow joints, and the similar "omoplata" that also yanks the arm into grotesque positions behind the back. There are various knee, ankle, toe, and wrist holds, all causing extreme pain and forcing the opponent to submit. The list goes on and on. (In an especially violent battle, the American Nick Diaz defeated Japan's Takanori Gomi utilizing an extremely rare move known as the "gogoplata," where Diaz trapped the wind pipe of Gomi between his shins, viciously squeezing the neck until submission. The Diaz-Gomi fight, although held in Las Vegas, was at the time sponsored by Pride Fighting Championship, UFC's rival organization based in Japan. UFC was to purchase the Pride organization that same year for around $70 million.)

The owners of the UFC, brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, through their promotion company Zuffa, LLC ("Zuffa" being an Italian word for "brawl" or "fight"), have tapped into this primitivism, along with the primitive instinct of the public. Forbes valued the UFC organization at around $1.2 billion in 2008, and that figure has significantly increased since then. (Current CEO Dana White, in September, 2010 valued the UFC at $2.5 billion.) Touting itself as "the fastest growing sport in the world," the UFC is headquartered in Las Vegas, and its televised events are now seen in over 170 countries. The sport draws ever more spectators, and it shows no signs of waning.