When Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar entered the Octagon in 2005 with the object of beating each other to a pulp, mixed martial arts fights were still largely a gruesome curiosity.
Sen. John McCain had derided the concept of combining combat disciplines such as boxing, karate, judo, jiu jitsu, wrestling and muay thai as “human cockfighting” and wanted to ban it.
But Griffin and Bonnar’s epic thriller proved that MMA had evolved from its raw head-butting, hair-pulling, groin-striking days. It was more sport than spectacle. The fighters were athletes, not back-alley brawlers.
After Griffin was declared winner of The Ultimate Fighter championship, he wound up meeting Bonnar in the emergency room in Las Vegas while they were being stitched back together. Bonnar needed treatment on his face and hand, Griffin on his broken nose.
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“We were both really excited,” Griffin said. “We realized it had been a pivotal fight. We knew even then that it would be a catalyst for the image and future of MMA.”
Ten years later, as the Ultimate Fighting Championship circuit stops in South Florida, a broader audience will surround the Octagon. When Brazilian karate specialist Lyoto Machida fights Cuban Olympic silver-medal-winning wrestler Yoel Romero in the featured match Saturday at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, the UFC Fight Night will be one of 41 events held worldwide this year. The UFC’s season is longer than that of the NFL.
Another measure of the growth of UFC, the prime franchise for MMA, is in the expansion of female fighting and its followers. There are two female weight classes with 50 fighters. UFC president Dana White estimates that 38 percent of UFC’s fan base is female. Ronda Rousey, the 135-pound bantamweight champion, is the biggest name in the sport. Rousey, 28, a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in judo, is nicknamed “The Arm Collector.” She has won nine of her 11 fights by armbar submission. With her signature move, she compels opponents to surrender before she breaks their arm. She won her other bouts by knockout. She has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and has a role in the movie Entourage.
The popularity of UFC events is reflected in higher TV ratings and ticket sales.
“It used to be a niche thing,” Griffin said. “Now you can find it or watch it anywhere. If it’s not a mainstream sport, it’s very close.”
There will be blood at Fight Night 70. Gory violence is still the essence of its appeal.
“Set up any intersection with a baseball game on one corner, basketball on another, football on another, and on the fourth corner a fight breaks out,” White said. “Everyone wants to watch the fight. Even the athletes playing the other games run over to watch the fight.
“Fighting is universal. We’re fascinated as humans by who is the toughest. It’s in our DNA.”
Rousey elevated the profile even higher with her provocative comments about taking on boxing champion Floyd Mayweather.
“Well, I would never say that I can’t beat anyone, but I don’t think me and him would ever fight, unless we ended up dating,” Rousey said of Mayweather, who has served jail time for domestic violence.
“Ronda is an absolute game-changer because she’s changing the way we look at women and the way women and girls look at themselves,” White said. “As for Floyd, if you can see the guy through all his bodyguards, he’s about two feet tall. What Ronda would do to him would be to hurt him badly. She’s a strong woman. Even more important, she has that killer instinct. Her finish rate is 100 percent — and it’s vicious.”
The Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao showdown, anticipated for years as the boxers danced around a contractual agreement, was a letdown which further highlighted UFC’s appeal. The nonstop action of MMA is perfect for the 18-34 age group, White said.
“This is the short-attention-span generation accustomed to having everything at its fingertips,” said White, a former boxer and boxing manager. “The old demographic is for boxing, which is a 12-round borefest. Our fights are faster, more exciting, packed with multiple ways to lose or win.”
The quality of the action has improved along with the depth of the sport, Griffin said. Technique and conditioning are paramount compared to the old days of guts, bravura and flying fists.
“Every fighter today has very good skills,” said Griffin, director of athlete development for UFC. He was working as a police officer when White convinced him to be in The Ultimate Fighter. “I had to rent VHS tapes to find different moves. Now you can watch them and copy them and practice them. There are no secret moves. The level of experience is higher. The spinning and kicking is much more sophisticated. The trainers used to tell us not to attempt certain maneuvers back then that are effective today.”
In the early to mid-1990s, UFC used the line “There are no rules!” to promote its no-holds-barred brand of combat. The idea that two men entered the cage and only one was left standing gave MMA a gladiator flavor that was a turnoff to many potential fans. But when White and casino executives Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta bought the franchise in 2001, they set about rebranding it by implementing more regulation.
“Our owners realized that for this to be considered a legitimate sport, there couldn’t be hair-pulling or kicks to the groin or stomping the head of a fighter when he’s down,” said Dave Sholler, a UFC vice president. “We adopted the unified rules of martial arts. It’s acceptable to tap out. Our referees are trained to stop the fight when someone is helpless.
“People no longer consider it barbaric and inhumane. We have some of the best and most well-conditioned athletes in all of sports.”
UFC is sanctioned in every state but New York, earning credibility, as well.
“The WWE pro wrestling guys could tell you on Friday who is going to win,” Sholler said. “Our sport is 100 percent authentic, and nothing is predetermined. Wrestlers are incredible performers. UFC fighters are incredible athletes.”
UFC has diverged so far from its wild and wooly roots that the health and safety of fighters is a major priority.
“We had a period in 2014 when injuries hit hard and we lost some big names,” said Dave Lockett, UFC director of information. “We’ve made a renewed commitment to reducing injuries and keeping our stars in the matchups fans want to see.”
The UFC is collaborating with the Cleveland Clinic on a study of the long-term impact of fighting on fighters’ brains, and whether some are predisposed to brain injuries.
The UFC hired Jeff Novitzki as its vice president of health and performance and to oversee anti-doping policy in conjunction with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Novitzki is a former investigator who played a key role in the BALCO investigation and doping scandal involving athletes such as Barry Bonds.
A new campus with facilities dedicated to rehabilitation, therapy and training is being built at UFC headquarters in Las Vegas.
“No one believes that getting punched in the head is good for you,” White said. “Injuries are a big part of our sport. But we have a responsibility to be smarter about them.
“At the same time, I’m proud of our record. In 20 years, there has never been a death or life-changing injury in UFC. There have been deaths and paralysis in cheerleading and other sports, so we’re doing a lot of things right.”
Television exposure has been a key to UFC’s success. The Ultimate Fighter, the reality show on which Griffin became famous, is now in its 10th season. In the latest installment, 16 fighters representing two South Florida gyms are the stars. Athletes from American Top Team in Coconut Creek and the Blackzilians of Boca Raton were pitted as rivals and locked in a house together in Fort Lauderdale for six weeks as they trained for the July 12 finale fight.
The ATT gym is home to UFC welterweight champ Robbie Lawler, and it’s where Thiago “Pitbull” Alves trained. The Blackzilians boast former UFC light heavyweight champ Rashad Evans and top contender Anthony Johnson, as well as Michael Johnson and Eddie Alvarez.
The series airs on FOX Sports 1, which will broadcast 15 to 20 fights per year. Four events will be broadcast on FOX, and UFC also offers fights via Pay Per View and live streaming.
“UFC is consistently one of our highest draws, and we’ve seen the 18-49 demographic grow 10 percent and Fight Nights grow 24 percent compared to last year,” said David Nathanson, head of business opportunities at FOX. “The passion of the fan base is as deep and vibrant as any, including college sports. We’re betting that the sport will continue to grow.”
White sees progress in UFC’s global reach, with recent hit events in Mexico City and Berlin. The stop in Hollywood will be in one of UFC’s “hotbeds,” he said.
“When I got addicted to the sport, I believed it could be the most popular ever, everywhere,” White said. “We’re building an entire industry. But we have a lot of work to do. We’re only 15 years old. We’re like our fighters. We’re getting better and stronger.”