The sport Senator John McCain once described as "human cockfighting" is on the verge of making it into the mainstream.
It is hard to believe that mixed martial arts (MMA) is one of the fastest growing sports in the U.S., considering that just a few years ago it nearly evaporated as a spectator sport. The flagship MMA operation in the U.S., the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), saw a lot of pay-per-view success in the early 1990s. However, the UFC received a lashing in the media due to the perceived brutality of the "no holds barred" events. Following outcries by McCain and the American public, UFC was yanked from the major pay-per-view services in 1997, and had sanctioning issues throughout the U.S, confining its events to the Southern U.S. or internationally. Even when the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board began sanctioning MMA events in 2000 (with Las Vegas joining them the following year), the sport as a whole remained mostly under the radar, surviving without any mainstream media coverage and depending on a small group of loyal fans, interacting mostly through the internet to keep the sport alive.
Then came Spike TV.
"The Ultimate Fighter", a reality show that followed upcoming MMA fighters, debuted on Spike TV in 2005. The finale was the first live, non-pay-per-view broadcast of a UFC event. It also turned into one of the most memorable UFC events of all time, as Stephan Bonnar and Forrest Griffin battled to a decision in the Light Heavyweight Championship. About 2 million households watched this live event on Spike TV, although it received practically no coverage by major media outlets, even after the event.
Once MMA was given a foothold on television, the genie was out of the bottle. "The Ultimate Fighter", with four seasons aired to date, continues to be a large draw for Spike TV. MMA events routinely outdraw NBA, NHL, and college basketball broadcasts in their timeslot. It has quietly become the American sports fan's guilty pleasure.
Capitalizing on the newfound success, Spike TV aired a live match between Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz in October 2006, which drew almost 6 million television viewers for the main event. Prior to the Spike TV deal, UFC pay-per-views (in the post-McCain era) rarely got even 100,000 buys, with the largest being 150,000 for UFC 40 in 2002. UFC 52 took place one week after the initial season of The Ultimate Fighter and logged an amazing 280,000 buys. UFC 60 saw buys pass the 600,000 mark, and UFC 67 (Ortiz vs. Liddell 2, December 30, 2006) was estimated to have over 1 million pay-per-view purchases, making it the largest non-boxing pay-per-view event ever. In a short two years, MMA has increased its pay-per-view sales ten-fold, taking it from a fringe sport in America to nearly mainstream status.
While the television exposure has helped to propel the popularity of MMA competitions, changes in the sport itself have also been instrumental. First and foremost, the sport has become much less violent in the last decade. This is no longer the MMA of the mid 90's, when you might have tuned in to see teeth being knocked out (UFC 1) or "ground-and-pound" athletes like Mark Coleman and Mark Kerr tenderizing a downed opponent's face with vicious, bloody head butts.
1997 saw head butts, groin strikes, and kicks to downed opponents outlawed, and weight classes were introduced. These amendments made the fights more evenly matched and eliminated a lot of the brutal fights that had given the sport eye a black eye up to that point. Five-minute rounds were introduced in 1999, making the sport more commercially accessible, and the movement away from tournament events to individual matches prevented the additional injuries that can come from exhaustion over multiple matches in one day. Additionally, fighters today are much more well rounded than their counterparts of a decade ago, being "cross-trained" in a variety of fighting disciplines which reduces the chance of finding themselves in a helpless position. Referees are also very quick to stop fights before they become too one-sided, something that was missing in the early days of MMA.
While the safety of the sport is often debated, it is worth noting that there is only one recorded death attributed to MMA, in 1998 in the Ukraine. There have been over 1300 documented deaths related to boxing, including 2 in Nevada alone in 2005. While the MMA data is limited due to its short existence, it is clearly not a sport where people are being killed or maimed regularly. Many would say that it is actually safer than boxing, since MMA fighters are rarely exposed to the same level of blunt-force head trauma as a boxer. The influence of sanctioning bodies in making the sport safer has been a huge influence on its current popularity.
The mainstream media is starting to catch on to the MMA explosion. "60 Minutes" recently ran a feature on the UFC, and MSNBC recently aired a 4-part MMA documentary under the title "Warrior Nation". "USA Today" even ran an MMA story as its sports headline in one edition. The "LA Times" and "Houston Chronicle" also provide some coverage of MMA events, although most national news media are still avoiding routine reporting on the sport. Unfortunately, much of the mainstream media coverage that has been received has been on the negative end of the spectrum, although recent coverage has certainly not been as universally scolding as the coverage of years past.
Of course, the surging popularity of UFC in the U.S. has spawned plenty of competition. Japan-based PRIDE Fighting Championships (which holds the record for live MMA attendance at 91,107 in a 2002 event co-promoted by K-1) held its first U.S. event in October and has some limited coverage on FoxSportsNet. The International Fight League, a publicly-traded company (ticker: IFLI) with a market capitalization of over $20 million, has reached an agreement with MyNetworkTV that will eventually allow their events to be televised to 107 million American homes. World Extreme Cagefighting (recently purchased by Zuffa, parent company of UFC) has a deal with Versus, the network currently covering NHL games. And this past weekend, Showtime aired the first of several Saturday night specials featuring the Elite XC promotion. Notably, this cable broadcast included a women's MMA event. Online sportsbook BoDog has even gotten into the fight promotion business with its "Bodogfight" line, which is airing on the ION network (next on February 13th and 17th).
In the face of competition, UFC continues to chug its promotion machine right along. Spike TV is airing an average of 15 hours of UFC-related programming per week, and will debut a new season of "The Ultimate Fighter" in April, with two more seasons already in the works. They will also air live bouts as part of their "UFC Fight Night" series on March 13 and April 5. With the UFC-Spike partnership extended through 2008, expect plenty more MMA on your TV. There are also strong rumors that HBO will begin airing UFC events later this year, which may end up being the real catalyst of making UFC a household name.
Whether MMA continues to grow is the big question. Currently 32 U.S. States sanction MMA events, and media coverage is slowly growing. Increased exposure has brought increased talent, and UFC has plenty of up-and-coming fighters to develop into champions and stars. As boxing limps out of public favor, MMA seems to be taking its place as the combat sport of choice.