by Jose Rodriguez – Winnipeg Sun
LAS VEGAS — In the city of wedding chapels and one-armed bandits, perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone hit the jackpot with the perfect marriage: the union of blood sports known as the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
UFC, which combines boxing, wrestling and other martial arts, is leaving its mark on the fighting world with all the subtlety of a flying knee to the chops.
It is the fashionable place for celebrities to be seen. George Clooney, Leonardo Dicaprio and UFC fixtures Cindy Crawford and Shaquille O’Neal are often cageside for big events.
Young men between 18 and 35 are drawn to the sport like spit to a mouthguard, and there’s little doubt UFC has become the new darling of Vegas and a major force in the lucrative world of pay-per-view fighting.
But it hasn’t always been that way.
In 1993, UFC was a much different animal.
The goal of the upstart fighters’ showcase was to prove which discipline was most potent.
Kickboxers squared off with jiu-jitsu experts and wrestlers grappled with karate masters as virtually all forms of fighting kicked, punched and choked for top spot.
It was pitched as a real-life street fight.
A brawl for it all.
In those dark early days, fighters would scrap their way through a round robin until the final fight would crown a champ.
The winner of the first event, legendary UFC hall-of-famer Royce Gracie, once defeated four opponents in one night.
At the time, UFC was billed as no-holds-barred. It did have minimal rules such as no biting and no eye gouging, but most everything else was fair game.
It was bare-knuckle fighting, where kicks to the groin and stomps to the head weren’t only allowed, they were encouraged.
It was not uncommon to have a 180-pound martial artist fight a 600-pound sumo wrestler one fight and a 400-pound wrestler the next.
“The purpose behind it was different back then,” recalls Joe Silva, UFC vice-president of talent relations and an 11-year veteran of the organization.
“The whole question was: If a karate guy fought a boxer, what would happen?”
The sheer brutality of the event was as big a draw as it was a turnoff to some.
In 1996, the travelling carnival of carnage caught the attention of U.S. Senator John McCain, who embarked on a mission to kill UFC.
He wrote letters to all 50 governors asking them to ban this form of “human cockfighting” in their states.
Despite being a lifelong boxing fan, McCain called ultimate fighting “barbaric”.
But unlike boxing, no one has ever died in UFC competition.
Still, McCain said ultimate fighting was “not a sport,” and his crusade put a stranglehold on the UFC that was slowly choking it into submission.
Cable companies, venues and sponsors would rather align themselves with home reno shows and fishing derbies than the UFC.
Top fighters, such as Ken Shamrock and Gracie, left once the depleted UFC could no longer afford them.
The then-owners of UFC did little to help their cause, continuing to bill the event as more spectacle than sport.
It is here the seeds to revamp the mixed martial arts phenomenon of today were planted, but it would be years before the sport would refine itself and blossom beyond its niche audience.
Randy Couture, the only man to win both the heavyweight and light-heavyweight championships in the UFC, says it’s been a long road to legitimacy.
“I think in the beginning we were misunderstood and got a bad rap,” says Couture, who retired from the sport earlier this month after eight years.
“When I came in, I wanted to represent wrestling and show what wrestlers were all about. But quickly that changed, and I developed a passion for this (new) sport.”
Through the 1990s, UFC bobbed and weaved between extreme sport and fringe oddity.
UFC did well with its core fan base, but the great unwashed seemed increasingly out of reach.
That was until a pair of millionaire brothers and a self-proclaimed boxing nut stepped up to buy the outfit in 2000.
Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III, who own more than a dozen casinos in the Las Vegas area, teamed with Lorenzo’s childhood friend, Dana White.
The trio saw something in UFC — though on the ropes and bleeding financially — it knew would appeal to a larger audience.
But there would be patience-testing baby steps before the new UFC would take off.
“When we first bought the company, Lorenzo and I flew around talking to venues,” recalls White, now the president of UFC.
“Venues that never wanted us.
“Now, we’ve got the Staples Center, the Pond in Anaheim and all the casinos in Vegas fighting over us.
“Does it feel good? Hell ya.”
Under the trio’s tutelage, UFC has morphed into a true mixed martial arts showcase and mega-merchandising machine.
Today, there are rules, weight classes and timed rounds. Bouts are sanctioned, fighters only engage in one fight a night and are subject to the same drug testing as boxers.
Though most fighters still carry a preferred style — whether it be jiu-jitsu, wrestling or kickboxing — all are proficient in most disciplines, a necessity in a sport where the mantra ‘know your enemy’ can never be taken lightly.
Canadian fighter David Loiseau has been taking martial arts since his first karate class at age six. On Saturday night, he will fight for the world middleweight championship.
“This is what I’ve been preparing for all my life,” says Loiseau.
The soft-spoken Montrealer believes his sport of mixed martial arts will one day become the international combat sport of choice.
“UFC has grown more in one year than it had over the previous 10,” says Loiseau.
“It’s going to be bigger than boxing. I truly believe that.”
There is some momentum to back his claim.
The UFC’s biggest star and reigning light-heavyweight champion, Chuck Liddell, has seen his career catapulted to include million-dollar sponsorship deals and roles in movies and TV.
At the biggest event in its history — UFC 57, Chuck Liddell vs. Couture 3 — last month, single tickets for the fight were being scalped for as much as $3,000.
Even more impressive, all 17,000 tickets for the April 15 UFC 59: Reality Check in Anaheim, Calif., sold out within days.
“That’s the kind of stuff we used to lay in bed and dream about,” says White.
“We can’t be denied anymore. We are a real sport.”
Some of the celebrities seen on fight night:
Michael Clark Duncan