by Peter Sanders – WJSU
‘Ultimate Fighting’ Matches
Score Fans, Ads, Bettors;
Luring the ‘Maxim’ Crowd

March 15, 2006; Page A1

LAS VEGAS — With its history of glitzy championship bouts, this city’s famous gambling Strip is boxing’s home turf. But when longtime fans Brian Schulz and Derek Ellis drove five-plus hours here from northern Utah one recent Saturday night, the hottest fight in town wasn’t staged in a boxing ring. It was inside “the Octagon.”

The Octagon is the eight-sided, fenced-in battleground used by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the martial arts-inspired circuit that is fast gaining popularity nationwide. Here in Las Vegas, the sport — known for its chokeholds, elbow punches and acrobatic takedowns — is making a run at boxing’s supremacy.

[Rich ‘Ace’ Franklin throws David ‘The Crow’ Loiseau to the mat during a March 4 Ultimate Fighting bout at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.]
Rich ‘Ace’ Franklin throws David ‘The Crow’ Loiseau to the mat during a March 4 Ultimate Fighting bout at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.

For decades, Las Vegas was the biggest venue for boxing’s prizefights, featuring ring stars like Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis. But with few new marquee names and younger spectators craving harder, faster action, heavyweight boxing’s golden era has faded. The Ultimate Fighting Championship is muscling in with corporate sponsors, pay-per-view specials and star-flecked audiences. On Feb. 4, boldface names like Paris Hilton, Cindy Crawford and Charles Barkley showed up for a championship Ultimate Fighting event at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino.

Dana White, the UFC’s 36-year-old president, says the sport fills a void left by boxing’s failure to adapt to fans’ changing tastes. “The UFC is the most exciting combat sport in the world because there are so many ways to win and so many ways to lose,” he says. “Boxing is your father’s sport.”

On March 4, Mr. Schulz, 41, was among more than 10,000 fans who paid between $50 and $450 to watch the action at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, also in Las Vegas. He likes to describe Ultimate Fighting as “a purer sport than boxing.” For one thing, it’s more violent.

Ultimate Fighting is a so-called mixed martial-arts event that combines karate, judo, jiu-jitsu, boxing, wrestling and old-fashioned street fighting. The result is a sport that features many more ways for combatants — wearing thin, fingerless gloves, not the padded boxing kind — to effect maximum carnage.

The object is simple: overwhelm the opponent by whatever means necessary, save a few banned tactics like biting. If a fight doesn’t lead to a knockout or surrender, then a panel of three judges uses a scoring system to determine the winner.

The early March card at Mandalay showcased Ultimate Fighting’s fast pace and brutality. In one match, Jason Lambert and Rob MacDonald sparred like boxers for a minute or so. Then, Mr. Lambert drove his head into Mr. MacDonald’s midsection and piled him into the mat. Squatting on his face, Mr. Lambert twisted and wrenched his opponent’s left arm backward in an unnatural and painful trajectory. Grimacing in pain, Mr. MacDonald “tapped out,” banging his free hand on the mat in the UFC’s universal “mercy” signal.

[Jason Lambert]In a later match, Mike Swick was quickly tossed to the mat by opponent Steve Vigneault. But Mr. Swick instantly turned the tables with a move called “The Guillotine Choke.” Cradling his opponent’s head in his elbow, between bulging biceps and his forearm, Mr. Swick squeezed hard and temporarily cut off Mr. Vigneault’s ability to breathe.

Boxing promoter Gary Shaw attributes Ultimate Fighting’s rise to a generation inured to violence and mayhem — the sort commonly depicted in movies and videogames. “The mixture of wrestling with boxing and the fact that it’s not staged goes to the bloodthirsty segment of the population,” he says.

The fights are bona fide competitions, part of the official Ultimate Fighting Championship circuit. The UFC is the leading force among a growing number of slickly packaged versions of a sport that has evolved from unregulated, no-holds-barred free-for-alls staged in bars and Indian casinos a few years ago. Those brawls attracted the attention of regulators and other critics as long as a decade ago. Sen. John McCain described the sport as a “human cockfight” and sought to ban the competitions.

Rather than collapse under government scrutiny, the sport’s proponents decided to adopt formal rules and regulations. Over the past several years, they worked with states like New Jersey and Nevada to ensure that officials would authorize them to stage fights.

[Rob MacDonald]Today, the UFC has weight classes, ringside doctors and a scoring system that is similar to boxing. It has also reined in some violence, outlawing such crowd-pleasing tactics as eye-gouging, head-butting and biting. Mixed martial-arts events are now sanctioned by more than 20 state athletic commissions. The most recent state to sign on was California, where in September Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation allowing the bouts.

The UFC has shrewdly built a following with flashy marketing that appeals to the coveted 18- to 34-year-old male sought by everyone from Maxim magazine to beer makers. A weekly reality show on Viacom Inc.’s Spike TV features contestants vying for a spot on the UFC circuit; it draws a weekly average of two million viewers. At the events, ear-splitting rock music plays over endless highlight reels between fights, and big-screen ads pitch BMW cars and coming movie thrillers like “The Hills Have Eyes.” Also prominently featured are ads for the league’s DVD titles like “Ultimate Beatdowns Vol. 1.” In Nevada, casino bettors can now make wagers on the fights.

In Las Vegas and some other cities, the audience for Ultimate Fighting matches can now rival or surpass big boxing matches. For the Super Bowl weekend matchup between Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell — UFC stars capable of earning $1 million or more per year — about 10,300 people packed the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Tickets ranged from $50 to $750, but scalpers commanded well above face value. Most fans were in their seat for the entire card, not just the marquee matchup. An image of spectator Paris Hilton, flashed on the big screen, drew lusty boos from the raucous crowd. The event took in about $3.4 million.

A few weeks later, a big junior middleweight boxing match was held at Mandalay Bay between “Sugar” Shane Mosely and Fernando Vargas, two of the sport’s few remaining brand-name fighters. Though the venue seats nearly 11,000, only about 8,500 fans showed up to watch the bout. The fight took in about $3.5 million. A spokesman for Mandalay Bay’s owner, MGM Mirage, declined to comment on why the venue did not sell out.

Although big names in boxing acknowledge the ring’s flagging appeal, they don’t necessarily blame the UFC. Don King, the boxing promoter, thinks an aging demographic, the loss of recognizable names in the heavyweight classes and a disappearance from network television have all crippled the sport. “Since network television left boxing, people can’t identify with the fighters,” Mr. King says.

“If boxing were a stock, I’d sell it short,” says Bert Randolph Sugar, a longtime boxing writer who’s enshrined in the sport’s hall of fame. Even so, Mr. Sugar dismisses Ultimate Fighting as little more than “bar fights without the beer bottles.”