Last weekend was one of the most anticipated sports weekends of a mild US summer.
Tens of thousands of American fans gathered, wearing shirts honouring their favourite athletes and scraping together hundreds of dollars to get tickets to the biggest show in town. The stage was Las Vegas and the sport was Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).
MMA has seen its popularity grow exponentially in recent years. Events held by the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship, the country's top fight promotion) in 2003 averaged just 50,000 to 75,000 total PPV (pay per view) buys and were a financial disaster; last weekend's UFC 100 event generated an estimated 1.3 million PPV purchases in the US alone.
The history of Mixed Martial Arts dates back to 1993, when Brazilian martial arts pioneer Rorion Gracie and American promoter Bob Meyrowitz created the “Ultimate Fighting Championship” tournament, now known as UFC 1. The goal was to match martial artists and combat sport participants of all types - boxers, kick-boxers, wrestlers, karate champions --- in a combat tournament to determine the “ultimate” form of fighting.
The success of the initial event (won by Rorion’s brother Royce Gracie, a practitioner of Brazilian ju-jitsu) spawned subsequent tournaments and created new stars. In time, participants learned that optimal training required borrowing techniques from multiple disciplines — giving rise to the sport’s label as MMA.
The rules of these battles are simple and sparse. Eye-gouging, groin shots, biting, head-to-head contact, and other primitive techniques are disallowed. Common offensive maneuvres are kicks, punches, knees, elbows, takedowns, and throws. Through these techniques, fighters often shift from standing and trading strikes to grappling on the ground.
In addition to pure excitement, much of the sport’s rise can be attributed to its ability to cross into new media and genres. “The Ultimate Fighter,” a UFC reality show in which athletes compete tournament-style for a spot within the promotion while living under a single roof, garners high ratings here. A recently released MMA video game sold nearly twice as many copies as any other video game in the month of May. MMA-oriented T-shirt companies such as Tapout and Affliction (which itself now promotes fights) have evolved from small proprietorships to fashion giants.
The sport is rapidly crossing borders as well. While forms of MMA have long been popular in Brazil and Japan, countries like Canada, England, Ireland, and Germany have served as enthusiastic hosts for UFC events in 2009. Top fighters — Fedor Emilianenko, Georges St. Pierre, and Anderson Silva — are respectively Russian, French and Brazilian.
While no event is currently pending for India, UFC President Dana White envisions Mixed Martial Arts becoming “the biggest sport in the world.” He’ll never get there without tapping into the Indian market. When that day does come, sports fans should prepare themselves for a wild ride.
(The author is an American attorney by day, but prefers his night job, where he is a professional sports fanatic. He’s been following MMA for eight years).