The fight game reloaded: how MMA conquered the world
‘No matter what colour you are, what language you speak, what country you are from. It is fighting. And at some level, people get it’
Conor McGregor, the star of the UFC, is in action this Saturday night against Nate Diaz. Photograph: Getty Images
Late last Saturday night, two fights. The first a boxing match in Manchester, between Carl Frampton and Scott Quigg. Frampton won, then said that it had all been pretty boring. Online, there was so much talk about how dull the fight had been that the next day’s papers ran stories about fans demanding refunds. The second fight was in London, at the O2 Arena. You won’t have read about it in the printed press, but you might have seen it online. Because it was the single most talked about sports event on Twitter that day, beating the Premier League, the Six Nations, and Frampton v Quigg. It was a middleweight mixed martial arts contest between Anderson Silva and Michael Bisping, five five-minute rounds in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Among the UFC’s many millions of fans what happened at the O2 is already famous. For everyone else, here’s a short sketch.
Silva is 40 and from São Paulo. He has more Twitter followers than some countries have citizens, 7.47m. Those who know say Silva might be the greatest martial artist in the world. Another of the UFC’s fighters, Dan ‘The Outlaw’ Hardy, describes Silva as “a modern-day Bruce Lee”. Hardy has a 10in tattoo of Lee along his left shin. Between 2006 and 2012, Silva won 16 fights in a row, the longest streak in the UFC’s short history. He lost the title at the end of 2012. Since then he’s suffered a broken leg and been banned for a year because he failed a drugs test. Before the fight against Bisping the retired UFC fighter Forrest Griffin explained that Silva had already broken one of the main rules of mixed martial arts – “don’t be over 40”.
Bisping is 36, born in Cyprus, brought up in Manchester. If Silva is trying to make it back to the summit, Bisping is still trying to find it. He has been in the UFC for a decade, a perennial top-10 contender who has never been given a title shot. In 2013, the retina of Bisping’s right eye became detached after he was kicked by another Brazilian fighter, Vitor Belfort, who had been banned in 2006 for failing a drugs test. Bisping’s had five rounds of surgery, but it’s still not fixed. After that, Bisping swore that he would never again fight anybody who had used performance-enhancing drugs, but he broke the rule for Silva, a fighter he once idolised. “This man is a cheat. This man is a fraud,” said Bisping at the weigh-in, when he and Silva were face-to-face. “All the needles in your ass, all the steroids will not help you, you pussy.”
There are a lot of misconceptions about MMA. The main one is that it is, in any way, a simple sport. It is endlessly technical and complex. An athlete could spend a lifetime trying to master just one of the key disciplines it combines, wrestling, striking, and grappling. For instance, to succeed on the mat a fighter needs a sound understanding of Brazilian jiu jitsu, which, one teacher tells me, contains more than 2,500 techniques, each designed to counter against another. They say MMA is human chess. It is sometimes so intricate that it can seem entirely unfathomable. Silva, though, is so extravagantly talented that even a newcomer can appreciate his skill. He has an almost supernatural ability to sense punches coming and sway away from them, like a sapling in a strong wind. Some opponents simply can’t hit him. “There are times when you watch him fight,” Hardy told me, “and you think: ‘This is like watching The Matrix.’”
Silva also has all the arrogance of a great champion. He spent much of the first two rounds taunting Bisping, leaning back and beckoning him on. Bisping, unimpressed, stood off and demanded Silva step up and start fighting. Bisping is not a hugely skilful fighter, nor a very powerful striker, but he has great stamina and enormous quantities of that intangible quality – heart. MMA, like boxing, is scored on a 10-point must system and Bisping won the first two rounds simply because he landed so many blows.
My enjoyment drained away, and in its place grew a queasy uneasiness Silva seemed almost too busy looking good to bother with the business of scoring points. He wanted to win with a flourish, in a big finish. It was brilliant sport and it brought each and every one of the 17,000 people inside the O2 to their feet. Me included.
Then it happened. At the end of the third round, Bisping’s mouthguard flew loose during a flurry of punches. The referee, Herb Dean, picked it up. The rules of MMA state that to reinsert the mouthpiece, Dean had to wait for “the first opportune moment without interfering with the action”. Seconds later, Bisping reached what he thought was an opportune moment. Silva disagreed. As Bisping turned his head to ask Dean for the guard, Silva, quick as a snake, flew his knee into Bisping’s jaw. Bisping crumpled. As he fell, the buzzer rang for the end of the round. Silva started to celebrate, medical and coaching staff started to swarm around Bisping and the O2 erupted. Only the fight wasn’t over.
One point MMA fans and fighters make over and again is that its sport is, in one key regard, safer than boxing because in MMA a knockout ends the fight. There is no standing count. After being knocked unconscious, no one gets a second chance to get hit in the head all over again. Dean would say later: “I saw that when he fell he was not unconscious.”
Silva had made a mistake, Dean suggested, by standing off Bisping, when he should have followed up with another blow and so forced Dean to stop the fight. The UFC had a medical consultant and five local doctors at the fight. In rugby union medics take 10 minutes to make head injury assessments. In the NFL they have between eight and 12. At the O2, the UFC’s doctors had 60 seconds.
Bisping, bleeding profusely from his nose, brow, and cheeks, fought on. My enjoyment drained away and in its place grew a queasy uneasiness. Instinct made me think “someone should have stopped this fight”, but if they had, Bisping would have been robbed of the greatest victory of his career. He won on points, because he had landed many more scoring shots in three of the five rounds. Immediately after the decision was announced, Silva said in Portuguese: “Sometimes it’s just like Brazil, total corruption.”
Oddly, the phrase got lost in translation over the PA. Soon after, the 17,000 fans filed out into night, some furious, some exhilarated, some overjoyed, some dismayed. But here’s the thing: there wasn’t one among them who wanted their money back.
Boxing has been sanctified by all the fine minds who have fallen for it through the years. From William Hazlitt through Norman Mailer to Joyce Carol Oates. Some say MMA has a long history too. They stretch it back to pankration, a combat sport staged at the ancient Olympics. The UFC, though, is a modern phenomenon. The inaugural event was in November 1993 and so far as great writers go, it has one major advocate: David Mamet. In 2007 Mamet wrote an article for the Guardian describing MMA as the future of American sport.
The day before Bisping v Silva I met Lorenzo Fertitta in the boardroom on the top floor of Claridge’s. As I shake Fertitta’s hand, it’s another of Mamet’s lines that comes to mind. From Glengarry Glen Ross: “You see this watch? This watch cost more than your car.”
The front man of the UFC is Dana White, but Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta are the brothers who own it. They are also the principal shareholders in Station Casinos. Forbes estimates that Lorenzo is worth $1.56bn. In 2001, he and Frank bought the UFC for what Lorenzo describes as the “very, very reasonable price” of $2m. Last year, the company behind the UFC, Zuffa, made around $600m. There is a feeling within the organisation that 2015 was a tipping point. James Elliott, the UFC’s general manager in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, describes the last six months as a breakthrough moment. By the end of the year, UFC was being watched, they say, in 1.2 billion households in 158 countries. UFC London sold out in 27 minutes. UFC Dublin sold out in 60 seconds. In July, they signed a six-year, $70m kit sponsorship deal with Reebok.
James Elliott, UFC general manager for Europe, and UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta on its growth.
To understand the success of the UFC today, you have to go back before what Lorenzo Fertitta calls the modern era. In the US, MMA grew out of the Brazilian tradition of Vale Tudo, “anything goes” contests between rival martial arts gyms, each with its own fighting style. The concept was exported to the US by Rorion Gracie, grandmaster of jiu jitsu, scion of one of the most famous fighting families in the world, and, as a 1989 article in Playboy put it, “the toughest man in the United States”. The UFC was concocted by Gracie and three partners. One was John Milius, who wrote and directed Conan the Barbarian. Another, an advertising executive named Art Davie and the last the promoter Bob Meyrowitz, a pioneer of pay-per-view TV. Milius thought the fights should take place in a pit. Davie suggested a ring surrounded by a moat filled with either sharks or alligators. In the end they settled on an eight-sided cage.
The British martial arts teacher Windy Miller says “the worst thing that ever happened to MMA was that people started calling it ‘a cage’.” The fencing serves a practical purpose – in a ring, fighters would slip through the ropes while they were grappling – but the phrase cagefighting came to carry all the wrong connotations, largely because the UFC wanted it that way. Hardy describes these as the wild west days of the sport, no gloves, no weight categories, no rules. At the first UFC, victory could be won only by “knockout, surrender, doctor’s intervention, or death”. The card included a fight between a Dutch karate fighter and a 500lb sumo wrestler. The doctors ended up picking the wrestler’s teeth out of the karate fighter’s feet. By the late 90s, the UFC was in danger of extinction, despite the efforts Meyrowitz had made to improve its image. Political pressure had driven it off cable TV. John McCain led the campaign. He called it “human cockfighting”.
Fertitta says the UFC “wouldn’t exist as it does today without John McCain”, because “that’s what allowed us to step in and gave us the opportunity to buy the business.” As a kid, Fertitta used to go to the fights in Vegas. After his MBA, Fertitta started working for the Nevada Athletic Commission, which regulates boxing and combat sports. He wanted to get into the fight business, but not the boxing business.
Boxing “was, in a sense, broken. There was no other business or industry I could think of that had been around for so long, had generated billions of dollars in revenue, yet had no value. There was no brand associated with it at all.” In the UFC, he saw an opportunity. “It was a very tarnished brand and a broken business. The one thing we did see was there was a brand and there was structure, something we could at least start with.”
The Fertittas knew a little about MMA as they were doing some jiu jitsu training. When their attorneys insisted that their UFC ownership contract include a dispute resolution clause, the brothers agreed that in the event of a boardroom deadlock they would stage a sport jiu jitsu fight against each other, over three five-minute rounds, refereed by their friend White. As White often says when talking about the UFC’s success “fighting is in our DNA”, but Fertitta’s understanding of sport was far less important than his understanding of sports administration. Zuffa made one crucial change to the business strategy. Instead of shying away from independent regulation, they would encourage it. He approached a few key athletic commissions – Nevada, Texas, Florida – and, Fertitta says, asked them: “‘How can we create a set of rules that will address whatever issues you have?’” Zuffa decided to use what Fertitta calls “the gold standard for sport in the world – the Olympics”.
They borrowed rules from the Olympic sports of Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling, boxing, taekwondo and judo. “We essentially combined those four martial arts and created the unified rules of MMA.” Some people still imagine that MMA has no rules. It’s part of what Fertitta calls the massive hangover from the early days, but the rulebook runs to eight pages. There are 31 fouls for which a fighter can be docked points or disqualified. They include butting, eye-gouging and striking the throat, groin, spine or back of the head.
At the same time, the list of ways an MMA fighter is allowed to inflict damage is a lot longer and some techniques, such as the ground and pound (where one fighter straddles the chest of another on the mat and pummels his head with his fists) are particularly brutal. For the fans and fighters, these are essential parts of the sport. Hardy says that while Zuffa needed to bring in rules, they also needed to make sure that it remained “rooted in the reality of combat”. Hardy started out in taekwondo, but when it was admitted to the Olympics the rules changed and he lost interest. “I felt it took it much more towards sport, and too far away from fighting.” Hardy, who studied fine art at Nottingham Trent, would like the rules of MMA to be little looser. “As a purist I would love the fighters to be able to kick the head of a downed opponent,” he says. “But with the sport where it is right now, I can see how that would set us back.”
Outside the Octagon, Zuffa don’t just regulate, they overregulate. It was their route to being sanctioned and, ultimately, to being back on cable TV. These days they’re even on BBC3. It’s as if, having come so close to being banned, they have resolved to be one better than they need to be ever since. As Elliott explains: “The way we set up the medical provision for instance is that we go above and beyond that which we are required to do, and certainly that which the boxing authorities would have in place.” Their health and safety record is excellent, especially when set next to other combat and collision sports. There have been several deaths in the wider sport of MMA, but the worst injury anyone has suffered in the UFC is a broken bone.
The UFC was quick to understand the growing concerns about the long-term effects of concussion and the way the issue had been mishandled by other sports. In 2012, it entered a partnership with the Cleveland Clinic to understand better what the sport was doing to their fighter’s brains. They send dozens of their fighters for brain scans and cognitive testing. “We want,” Elliott says, “to understand and get in front of any issues before they arise.”
Most UFC fighters and fans argue that the risk of long-term brain damage is considerably smaller in their sport than it is in boxing, even though the gloves they use are so slight that some call them sleeping pills. “I want to be able chew my food when I’m older,” Hardy says, “and the MMA rule set is the safest place for me to test myself in a controlled environment.”
The best example of Zuffa’s approach, though, is their anti-doping policy. There’s no doubt that the sport of MMA has a doping problem. Jack ‘The Stone’ Mason, who has fought 47 professional MMA fights, tells me that he dreads to think how many of them were against fighters who had taken steroids. In the UFC, Silva’s was only one of the more high-profile cases.
The UFC’s solution was to hire the best anti-doping expert it could find, Jeff Novitzky. He has joined the UFC from a 22-year career in federal law enforcement, the last 12 of them spent in anti-doping. Novitzky worked on the Balco laboratories case that brought down Marion Jones and Barry Bonds. Then, in the words of the cyclist Tyler Hamilton, he “drove a bulldozer into the bike-racing world” and busted Lance Armstrong. The UFC asked Novitzky to draw up its anti-doping program. “It wasn’t lip service,” Novitzky says. “They were looking to clean up their sport, they were dead serious about it.” Novitzky has designed what he describes as the best anti-doping programme in professional sports. “And frankly,” he says, “there is not really a close second.” All UFC athletes are now subject to random testing, every day of the year.
The programme is being eased in. Right now, Novitzky says, it’s running at about 60-70 per cent of what it will be. In the meantime, fans have fun spotting the fighters who once had ripped bodies but whose physiques seem to have mysteriously softened in recent months.
Novitzky says that what drew him to the UFC was the opportunity “to build a programme from the foundation up”, as if he’d been given a blank piece of paper to work on. That touches on another key reason for the UFC’s success. It was in such a mess when the Fertittas took it over they were able to rebuild it as it liked, applying lessons they had learned from other sports. Lorenzo Fertitta says: “Boxing provided a tremendous roadmap, from a case study standpoint, as far as what to do and what not to do.” It felt boxing had become too fragmented, included too many titles at too many weights. “When we bought the company we sat down and I said, ‘Somebody buy me a Ring magazine from the 1950s. I want to go back to when boxing was simple and I want to see what the weight classes were.’” The UFC has eight weight classes. Boxing has 17, multiplied by the many different governing bodies.
On top of that, he says, “boxing came to the point where it was really only about the main event, it wasn’t about the show”. At a UFC event the card is stacked and at UFC London the O2 was packed from the first fight, at 5.45pm, to the finish five hours later. But the single most important point is this, according to Fertitta. “Boxing had failed the fans because they had been unable to put on the fights the fans wanted to see. We waited, what, six or seven years to see Mayweather v Pacquiao?” There is, he says, “no running, there is no hiding in the UFC”. He’s right because the UFC has something close to a monopoly on the sport. For the top fighters, the UFC is pretty much the only option in MMA. At the end of 2015, it had 573 fighters under contract and it’s the UFC’s matchmakers who decide who fights who, where and when.
That control extends into all areas. The UFC is a thoroughly modern model of a sports business and where it once borrowed from other sports, other sports would now love to be able to copy it. It controls promotion and production, some aspects of regulation and, increasingly, distribution. It realised early on, as Fertitta says, that the best way to “reposition the brand and reposition the sport, really comes through our athletes”. The athletes are its best advocates. “At first, people think: ‘Gosh, these guys are just a bunch of bar room brawlers,’” Fertitta says. But “when they get to meet them they see that they are martial artists. They are intelligent. It is about the competition. It is about the sport. It is not about, in any way, the violence.”
So in 2005, it launched its own reality TV show, Ultimate Fighter, so that viewers could get to know the athletes and their backstories. It gathered a group of fighters, had them live and train together and then compete for a UFC contract. In the next two years, UFC had a 1,258 per cent increase in revenue, including a 1,700 per cent increase in PPV sales.
Since then, the UFC has turned down broadcast deals with HBO and ESPN because it didn’t want to give up control of production. Off the record conversations with some of its broadcast partners reveal that the UFC has a reputation for being notoriously demanding to work with. Its move into distribution meant UFC London was available only on Fight Pass, its online streaming service.
Add it all up and UFC has become so prominent that its name has almost synonymous with the wider sport of MMA. That, says Fertitta, “is one of the biggest misunderstandings”. MMA, he says, “is a vibrant industry, that happens every weekend, all around the world”. He estimates that there are 3,000-4,000 fights every year. The UFC stages 42 of them. It’s in those smaller promotions that the megastars such as Conor McGregor cut their teeth. “That’s how he got his experience, how he got his name and his following, and eventually our talent scouts find somebody like that and bring them into the UFC.” At these lower levels, MMA feels very different indeed.
‘A week before Silva fought Bisping at UFC London, one of those smaller events was taking place in a leisure centre just outside Colchester. It was called BCMMA and it was run by Jack Mason, a fighter, promoter and trainer who, like Hardy and Bisping, is an old hand in that he’s been on the scene for a decade or so. Hardy says his second professional fight was on the end of the pier in Portsmouth. He was paid £100 for it. “I didn’t know anything about my opponent. I didn’t do any kind of medical testing and everybody was smoking.” MMA is evolving so quickly that Hardy, 33, says he is “part of the last generation that will remember the sport before it was a sport”.
It is the same with Mason. When he started, there weren’t any gyms to train in. “We used to put a couple of mats down on my friend’s garage floor,” he says. When Mason wanted to study new techniques, he would either look them up on YouTube or buy or borrow a VHS tape. Now there are MMA gyms across the country. Mason runs two, BKK Fighters, one in Colchester, the other in Chelmsford. One of BKK’s fighters, Arnold Allen, has just made it to the UFC. He fought, and won, on the undercard at UFC London. Allen is 22 and baby-faced. He wears a moustache that somehow makes him look even younger.
Last year Allen was called up as a late replacement for his first fight in the UFC. He had a week’s notice, but won so well that he earned a $50,000 bonus. He used the money to move to Montreal so he could train at the famous Tristar gym. Mason sees Allen as a member of the new generation. “They have been training since they were children, and their level is just crazy compared to mine when I started,” he says.
When he was 16, Allen decided to leave school and become a professional MMA fighter. He even wrote the goal down in his notebook. His ambition was more specific still: he wanted to become a UFC world champion. Whereas Mason and Hardy fell into MMA, Allen grew up with it.
Every fighter at Mason’s event in Colchester wants the very same thing Allen does. A on the top of the bill, Luke Barnatt and John Maguire, have been to the UFC and are trying to find their way back. Others are pros on the lower levels hoping to be picked up by the UFC’s talent spotters. Still more are amateurs, hoping to make the switch to the professional sport. Allen is living their dream, but it isn’t easy. After his victory at the O2, Allen pleads: “Somebody sponsor me, please.” He’s shocked by how expensive life is in Montreal. While the UFC’s top fighters are making plenty, money is tight lower down the ranks and while the UFC helps arrange medical insurance for its fighters, Allen is struggling to pay for his meals.
The best estimate is that between 2005 and 2011, 13.6 per cent of the UFC’s revenue went on the fighters’ wages. In many American sports, the split is nearer 50-50. In 2015, when its revenue was around $600m, Zuffa spent “over $100m” on “athlete costs including compensation, insurance, medical, and travel”. The former UFC champion Griffin says that the UFC’s formula is simple: “If you sell tickets, you make money.” There’s pressure on the fighters to entertain, as well to win, and Allen is annoyed that he let his last fight go to a decision and missed out on a “finishing” bonus.
At BCMMA in Colchester, no one is getting rich. Not even Mason, the promoter, who ended up with a profit of around £100. But then, like so many of the MMA community at this level, Mason isn’t in it for the money. BCMMA was a sell-out, but a lot was spent bringing in fighters from overseas, from Portugal, Poland, and, in particular, Norway and France.
Competitive MMA is banned in the latter two countries. In France, MMA is struggling to be recognised by the Ministry of Sport, largely, it says, because of opposition from the judo federation. “Our only option in France at the moment to hold an event is to apply as an entertainment,” says Elliott. “And we refuse to do that. Because this is a sport. MMA is a sport.”
It sometimes seems a fine line. While the 17,000 at the O2 were well-educated in the intricacies of MMA and so knew where that line lay, many of the hundreds in Colchester didn’t. At one point, the referee had to ask two ladies to stop screaming “elbow him in the face”. It was, he explained, an amateur bout and so that move wasn’t allowed.
Most of the audience were there to see a Polish heavyweight named Rafal Cejrowski. Plenty had flown over especially to watch him. He was fighting João Mimoso, who is, no joke, a Portuguese university professor.
Their fight was especially brutal. Less human chess, more like two big men belting each other in the face. Before it started, the security guards closed in around the Octagon. Cejrowski’s fans have a reputation for storming the fencing and, indeed, as soon as he had won, they started hurling themselves over the judges’ tables to reach the Octagon.
Despite that, BCMMA is one of the bigger and better-run events on the domestic circuit. It works with the UK Mixed Martial Arts Federation, which was formed three years ago to try to bring more order to the sport, and also SafeMMA, a body that works to ensure minimum standards of medical provision. SafeMMA has a list of volunteer doctors, often GPs, who attend events and perform medical checks before and after fights. It has also set up a register of fighters, to ensure they take six-monthly blood tests for hepatitis C, hep B and HIV.
One of the overseas fighters at BCMMA had a problem with his hep C test, so Mason spent the night before the show escorting him to London for an emergency test. Backstage, a paramedic ran through a few simple tests after the fights. If the medic picks up any problems, the fighter is issued with a medical suspension so promoters who are signed up to SafeMMA won’t use them again until it has passed.
This is all very new. I’m told that as recently as three years ago, things were very different. It was around that time that UKMMAF was formed. Its secretary, Nigel Burgess, explains that while the fighters “are doing blood sweat and tears in the gym”, the UKMMAF officials “are doing blood, sweat and tears in front of our PCs and in meetings with councils”. It has introduced coaching courses, refereeing courses, and judging courses, are putting in place the pyramids and pathways that make up the grassroots of all sports. Its biggest problem at the moment is securing insurance cover.
There is a long way to go, but Burgess believes the sport will soon be in the Olympics. So does Fertitta and he thinks it will happen within the next decade. He says the IOC “see the popularity of what we are bringing to the table”. It is a business, he says, and “believe me they are paying attention to the ratings that we are generating”. Even the online stream of BCMMA pulled in 31,000 viewers, spread around Europe and the US.
MMA and the UFC are going to continue to grow. Fertitta says that the sport is around 20 per cent of where it will be in a decade. What’s happening in the UK is also under way around the rest of the world. In 2015, the UFC staged its first events in Seoul, Melbourne, Krakow, Manila, Monterey and Glasgow. Its fighters are drawn from 45 countries, and its TV audience from 158.
Because, Fertitta says, here’s the thing: “What we have is this incredible thing where you take two athletes, at the top of their game, in the most incredible shape and you put them in the Octagon and you let them use any martial art they want to compete. And it translates. Immediately. Overnight.
“No matter what colour you are, what language you speak, what country you are from. It is fighting. And at some level, people get it.”