Why would you watch sweaty shirtless men and occasionally some sweaty workout-clothed women hit each other and roll around on a mat? Unless you’re by yourself with the lights dimmed and the romantic music on, what’s the appeal? If you don’t get it, I can’t explain it to you. But I’ll try:
I was actually living in UFC-mecca, aka Las Vegas, Nevada, when this sport started entering the public consciousness in a big way, so I might be a little more sensitive to the UFC than most folks. Also, there’s a west coast bias to UFC Fandom due to most of the Live PPV events taking place late in the evening (9-10pm EST) and often not staging the best fights until midnight. That can make it less accessible to those of us here on the East Coast. I’d love to say I watched all the really old Ultimate Fighting Championships, where they basically put a bunch of angry people who could fight in a ring, didn’t make any rules (regular groin-punching was common), and let them go at it. But I wasn’t.
I started getting into it in 2004, when the reality TV show The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) went on the air, and I was hooked. That first season told the story of these men putting their lives on hold and struggling to get a UFC contract. It culminated in, to me, the best and most important fight in the history of the UFC, Stephen Bonnar vs. Forest Griffin to win the show, a UFC contract, and a new Range Rover. If you want to understand why I like the UFC, watch that first season (TUF kind of goes off the rails after that, and isn’t as fun) and the final show. Bonnar and Griffin, two of the funniest most likable blokes in the house, go out in the finale and put on a show. They could’ve tried to be technical with takedowns, submissions, etc. but instead, they decided to stand and punch each other for 15 minutes. It was so epic that Dana White and the UFC decided to give both men UFC contracts afterwards.
And that’s kind of the appeal of the UFC in a nutshell. Some of the fights can be overly technical, and even somewhat boring. Only the most educated of fans can appreciate the nuances of the chess match of Jiu-Jitsu that involves leverage, bluffs, feints, and position. To most folks it looks like two sweaty dudes rolling around on a mat while people watch and yell (some folks have used the term “homo-erotic” and I sadly can’t say its inaccurate). Even then there’s the dreaded “lay and pray” tactic that involves a wrestler essentially tackling and laying on top of an opponent till the time runs out. Even educated fans hate that.
UFC is the closest thing we have to legal, condoned bloodsport in the modern world. That can be a turn-off to some people, and in the last decade Dana White (CEO) has strived to make it as accessible, regulated, and mass-appealing as he could. And overall he’s succeeded. UFC has supplanted boxing as America’s #1 combat sport. He’s turned what was a laughable stable of thugs and uncontrolled violence into a pulse-pounding, controlled competition between two highly-skilled athletes. His biggest draw, a female fighter named Ronda Rousey, is in blockbuster movies and on Sports Illustrated covers. The sanctioning and control removes some of the guilt viewers feel at watching two grown men strive to hurt each other, and that ingrained desire to watch violence that we all have, but may not want to acknowledge, can be exercised in a healthy way.
For the most part, the competitors are college-educated and diverse, and generally disciplined and well-behaved. One of the tenets of all the martial arts that can form the basis or a component of their training is self-discipline. With a few notable exceptions (War Machine, Thiago Silva, Rampage Jackson, and most recently John Jones) the UFC stable is full of potential role-models, I’d even say more so than an NFL Roster. These athletes weren’t babied or sheltered from consequences and reality the way many prodigies in other sports are, and the very vast majority have earned their way into national prominence through hard work and dedication. Yes, they try and hurt each other for a living. No, that doesn’t mean they’re bad people.
The UFC may not be for everyone, but I encourage everyone to at least give it a try. They have plenty of events on cable channels and every few months on broadcast TV (Fox). You might be surprised to find that internal bloodlust likes to be sated once in a while. Don’t be afraid of it. Embrace it. Millions of people have, and we’re ok. Mostly ok.