Bleeding into the Mainstream

How John McCain Popularized Human Cockfighting

Last December at Ultimate Fighting Championship 66, in the first round of a many-holds-barred, mixed martial arts grudge match between the evenly weighted gladiators Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, the former floored the latter with a gloved right hook that had been fully sanctioned by the Nevada Athletic Commission. Bleeding from a gash over his eye, his back pressed into the ring’s padded canvas, Ortiz bit down hard on his physician-approved mouthpiece and used his legs to ward off further blows from Liddell, who carefully refrained from striking his opponent’s throat, attacking his groin, or intentionally inserting a finger into any of his orifices.

The Las Vegas crowd went nuts over the scrupulously regulated assault. At home, more than 1 million viewers spent $39.95 apiece to watch the match on pay-per-view TV.

A decade ago, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other legislative strongmen had choked the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) into near-submission. Nearly 40 states banned mixed martial arts events. The cable industry, over which McCain exercised considerable influence as the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, took note too. In 1997 TCI and Time Warner stopped carrying UFC pay-per-view events on their systems. Semaphore Entertainment Group, the company that produced UFC, nearly went bankrupt.

When he attacked the UFC, McCain never pushed for reform; he wanted to eliminate it entirely. But despite its initial image of lawless, bone-crunching mayhem, the UFC ultimately proved quite capable of policing itself. Apparently, the public’s interest in the fights was not as base as McCain had perhaps imagined. Today, the UFC is a sanitized, bureaucratized, more genteelly marketed version of its former self, yet it’s also more popular than ever. As much as we like violence, we apparently like it even more when it’s tempered by a sense of order.

In its first incarnation, the UFC was a cult phenomenon. Now it’s bleeding into the mainstream. In 2006 it outearned boxing and wrestling in the pay-per-view world, taking in more than $222 million. It has spawned video games, a reality TV series, and enough books and magazines to fill a library. Liddell has played himself on HBO’s Entourage and graced the cover of ESPN magazine; noted dramaturgical he-man David Mamet is writing and directing a movie about the sport.

It’s not the first time Hollywood has taken notice of the spectacle. In 1993, when the UFC made its debut, the bouts took place in an octagonal ring designed by the director John Milius to resemble the one in his flick Conan the Barbarian. Back then, barbarism was the UFC’s primary selling point. The first event was billed as featuring “eight of the deadliest fighters in the world,” and early marketing materials announced that “the ethos of the Roman coliseums is back—with a bloody vengeance!”

The ring was fenced in with chicken wire to prevent easy escapes, and refs ostensibly had little jurisdiction over the proceedings within: Only “knockout, surrender, doctor’s intervention, or death” could end a bout. (In practice, this wasn’t exactly true. The first UFC bout ever was terminated by the referee even though he lacked the explicit power to do so. By the third event, that power had been formally granted to him.) There were no gloves, no rounds or time limits, no judges, no weight divisions, and (almost) no holds barred. Even then, eye gouging and groin attacks were officially off limits. But head butts, hair pulling, kicking a man while he was down—all that and more was allowed.

Semaphore Entertainment Group was a pay-per-view production company seeking a vehicle to compete with ToughMan amateur boxing matches in the “combat television” market. The first event featured eight fighters with different areas of expertise—a kickboxer, a jiujitsu expert, a street brawler. The idea, essentially, was to create a free market of global fighting styles and determine which were most effective in lightly regulated head-to-head combat.

Twenty-six seconds into the first bout, a 410-pound sumo wrestler from Samoa found himself a few grams lighter as two of his teeth went flying from the ring. His opponent, a towering Dutchman who was versed in the arts of karate and French foot fighting, had kicked him in the face.
To old-school fans of the manly arts, the UFC must have seemed like a shameless circus. But to those who had grown up playing video games like Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Kombat, it looked instantly familiar, a higher-resolution version of the bloody, multidisciplinary brawls they’d been staging in arcades for years.

Like professional wrestling, the UFC was built around outsized mano-a-mano clinches and smackdowns. But with ultimate fighting, the punches weren’t scripted and the winces weren’t faked. As the ’90s progressed, Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation offered less physical action and more opera bouffe; at the UFC, the plot points were confined to snapped noses and separated shoulders, and no combatant ever stepped into the ring wearing an outfit a Cher impersonator might covet. Promoters, fighters, and fans all emphasized the “realness” of the enterprise, even if that realism was achieved in part via Hollywood set design and video game aesthetics.

As the UFC’s profile grew, it popularized a genre of combat whose incarnations and spin-offs included “cage fighting,” “extreme fighting,” “submission grappling,” and “vale tudo.” (That’s Portuguese for “anything goes.”) Its critics liked to call it “human cockfighting.” In 1995 ardent boxing fan John McCain urged the governor of North Carolina to block the fifth UFC from taking place in Charlotte, and for the next several years the senator would continue his efforts to destroy ultimate fighting.

Of course, no ultimate fighting league worth its name would go down without a long, sweaty battle. As McCain put the pressure on, the UFC counterattacked by going legit, implementing dozens of new rules, gaining the sanction of state athletic commissions in New Jersey and Nevada, and softening the marketing hype. An ownership change in 2001 further hastened the UFC’s makeover, and by September of that year its events were back on pay-per-view.

Today’s UFC audiences, fueled in large part by the popularity of the Spike TV reality series The Ultimate Fighter, dwarf those the enterprise attracted in its pre-crackdown golden age. Would they be even bigger now if the UFC were still operating in its original bare-knuckle fashion?

Maybe. But there’s plenty of unregulated combat available on DVD, including the infamous Bumfights series, Urban Warfare, Extreme Chick Fights, and other titles that promise “uncensored ultraviolence,” “eye gouging, throat choking, head lumping,” and “KO’d convulsing bodies.” While such titles have a loyal following, their market is much smaller than that of the more civilized genre of mixed martial arts.

Professional vice hunters typically talk about violent entertainment the same way they characterize pornography: as an addictive force for which you rapidly acquire a tolerance, necessitating increasing amounts of transgression to satiate your craving. But consider the success of Maxim magazine and the Girls Gone Wild videos, both of which debuted in the late ’90s, precisely as the Internet was revolutionizing the distribution of strains of hard-core porn that even most perverts didn’t know existed. According to the addiction/escalation theory, Maxim and Girls Gone Wild should be obsolete by now. Why pay good money for a few photos of Eva Longoria in her bathing suit when you can watch golden shower orgies for free at the click of a button?

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  • ||

    Is it timidity that saves us? An essential decency? Shrewd self-preservation? Whatever the reasons, the same story plays out again and again. We choose Victoria's Secret TV specials over Airtight Grannies, Maroon 5 over death metal. And as much as we might like human cockfighting, we like humane cockfighting even more.

    But, but, but, if the government doesn't prohibit/regulate it, we're too morally weak to control ouselves. 9 out of 10 televangelists agree.

  • Episiarch||

    Airtight Grannies

    Beato, props for making me laugh out loud.

  • ||

    Interesting look at the UFC, but the premise doesn't entirely make sense. Reading the article, it seems very much the case that UFC sanitized their fighting at least in part due to the efforts of McCain.

    And now that it's a little less barbaric, the government is generally staying off UFC's back, right? If McCain and company just wanted to protect boxing then they'd still be hounding UFC.

    So it seems like this one worked out well for everybody.

  • Jacob||

    Mixed Martial Arts, NOT "Ultimate FIghting"

  • ed||

    Ironic how Americans shrug off this kind of brutality but flip out over dog fighting, e.g. the vilified Michael Vick. Both "sports" are disgusting, but where are our priorities?

  • ||

    ed,

    Uh, the people get to choose but the dogs don't?

  • ||

    When McCain first started his anti-MMA campaign, I called his office and talked to one of his staffers. I had heard that McCain had never actually seen an MMA event, just a series of clips of the most spectacular KOs from several televised shows. I thought that was rather like condemnng football based solely on watching one of those "NFLK's Greates hits" tapes.

    I asked his spokesman if McCain had ever actually seen an MMA show. He just reiterated McCain's belief that the sport was barbaric. I asked the question again. Again, he went off on another point. so I asked a third time, and his answer was, to the best of my memory, "The senator has seen all he needs to see."

  • robc||

    ed,

    I dont think anyone in MMA has ever been hurt as bad as the worst injury in the first 2 weeks of this NFL season.

    At least since the rules changes. Anyone who follows MMA know for sure?

  • ||

    I don't think there's ever been a truly serious injury (like Kevin Everett), at least in UFC/Pride. I'm not sure if it's occurred elsewhere in MMA.

    But anyways, like any other sport, or boxing, or pro wrestling, it doesn't matter. If the fighters consent to participating, why is there even an issue?

  • VM||

    Jacob | September 20, 2007, 12:35pm | #
    Mixed Martial Arts, NOT "Ultimate FIghting"



    QFT!!!!!!!!!

  • ||

    It's fun to watch so called real sports like NHL and Boxing flail around in the face of NASCAR and UFC.

  • VM||

    John McCain by Gogoplata!!!!!!!!!

  • ||

    "Ironic how Americans shrug off this kind of brutality but flip out over dog fighting"

    what a stupid comparison. MMA fighters voluntarily choose to be warriors and fight. dogs don't exactly "consent" to be brutalized, and nobody claims they have the capacity to "opt out".

    it's ridiculous.

    furthermore, injured dogs are euthanized when their utility as fighters runs out, etc.

    don't make stupid comparisons.

    mccain, as much as i admire him in some respects, is a statist ninny.

    he was equally as ridiculous in baseball and campaign finance 'reform', why should MMA be any different.

    as to injuries, i have seen some NASTY cuts, and there have been several nasty bone breaks (tim sylvia's forearm comes to mind)

    it's still RELATIVELY safe, when compared to many contact (and even some non-contact) sports.

    also note that the way MMA matches are stopped by refs vs. the way boxing matches are, means they are less likely to result in the kind of permanent brain damage that boxers suffer. at least, i heard one neurologist make that point.

  • SIV||

    Uh, the people get to choose but the dogs don't?

    Animals would never fight each other without being forced to by humans.

  • ||

    Is it timidity that saves us? An essential decency? Shrewd self-preservation?

    I'd like to say evolutionary psychology i.e., that we are becoming more civilized. But given that we continue to optimize the tools of fratricide and extinction, not so much.

    In the same manner that war images are too "icky" for mass consumption, we seemingly have a limit for the violence we want watch when we know it is real (as opposed to the slasher film). Why we seemingly have less concern when we know it is occurring, but don't see it, I really can't explain.

  • ed||

    what a stupid comparison. MMA fighters voluntarily choose to be warriors and fight. dogs don't exactly "consent" to be brutalized...

    Neither do chickens, cattle, fish and other tasty creatures who are "brutalized" then eaten.

  • ||

    "Ironic how Americans shrug off this kind of brutality but flip out over dog fighting, e.g. the vilified Michael Vick. Both "sports" are disgusting, but where are our priorities?"

    "Animals would never fight each other without being forced to by humans."

    Animals would fight, but not in the artificial and often deadlier ways that humans involved in cockfighting and dogfighting rig up (ever seen the cockspurs sometimes used?). And of course in the wild there is no third party to douse the loser with water and electrocute them if they lose...

    As several people have pointed out, in UFC there are many bloody noses but few serious longstanding injuries. In fact, as the sport has progressed and the less able have been weeded out it often devolves into a wrestling match between two well versed professionals who know well when they are beaten and tap out quickly. I think this, more than McCain et al's leaning on the sport, is what has made it seem less "savage."

  • ||

    A closer analogy to dog or cockfighting would be televised knife fights between humans that were grabbed off the street, given a knife, and then pushed into a "ring" with an opponent and goaded into going at it.

  • ed||

    I dont think anyone in MMA has ever been hurt as bad as the worst injury in the first 2 weeks of this NFL season.

    robc,

    Agreed. That's one of the reasons I finally gave up on the NFL after decades of fandom. That and the endless replays of each and every insignificant down from every conceivable angle, the crappy and jingoistic truck commercials and the hours upon hours of tedious pregame, postgame and during-game analysis. I'd rather drink Draino.

  • ||

    See this circle I'm marking off here? This is my zone of terror.

  • VM||

    destijl by flying armbar!!!!!!!!!

  • ||

    "Neither do chickens, cattle, fish and other tasty creatures who are "brutalized" then eaten."

    fwiw, that's why i prefer kosher butchered meats.

    it's a CLEAN KILL :)

  • ||

    Interesting look at the UFC, but the premise doesn't entirely make sense. Reading the article, it seems very much the case that UFC sanitized their fighting at least in part due to the efforts of McCain.

    And now that it's a little less barbaric, the government is generally staying off UFC's back, right? If McCain and company just wanted to protect boxing then they'd still be hounding UFC.



    No... McCain hounded UFC until it was watered down not to be any competition to pro-boxing.

    UFC might not have gone out of buisness, but without the censorship tactics of McCain on behalf of the Boxing industry, MMA probably would have replaced boxing.

  • ||

    I think I'll stick to STARGATE ATLANTIS.

  • mph||


    Is it timidity that saves us? An essential decency? Shrewd self-preservation? Whatever the reasons, the same story plays out again and again. We choose Victoria's Secret TV specials over Airtight Grannies, Maroon 5 over death metal. And as much as we might like human cockfighting, we like humane cockfighting even more.



    Watching MMA without a lot of the rules that have been implemented is boring.

    Prior to this phase of the sport, it was sliding into an essential conservatism on the part of the fighters: Fans were getting increasingly restive over long, boring grappling contests that surely happened in part because the fighters had to weigh the tradeoff between the damage they were free to inflict and the damage they were free to suffer. Safer to lock up, "lay-and-pray," and look either for a submission or superior enough position to pound the daylights out of the opposition while he flails around underneath. It was a case of too much of a "good thing," to the extent unrestrained violence is good, having stifling consequences.

    In the last few years, the fighters (and fights) have gotten more dynamic. I'd say that the introduction of gloves, the emphasis on proper taping and cut treatment, and more cautious refereeing has freed fighters. They're more safe if they walk into a knockout, and they're less likely to have limbs broken by submissions if they tap out in time. It's an environment that encourages more risk by blunting some of the consequences.

    I think there are probably some old-school fans who'll think I'm retarded. I just know that my first exposure to the UFC in the mid-90s (in a barracks room at Ft. Bragg, where all the drunken hooting did nothing to enliven the proceedings) was unwatchably dull. I became a lot more engaged when I tried it out again two or so years ago.

  • ||

    A closer analogy to dog or cockfighting would be televised knife fights between humans that were grabbed off the street, given a knife, and then pushed into a "ring" with an opponent and goaded into going at it.

    Mr Nice Guy, an apt analogy, but you omitted executing the loser.

  • VM||

    did you ever see PRIDE fighting?

  • Ska||

    That picture of McCain looks more like "Bleeding in the Stool." That's what you get for eating 4 lbs. of cheese in one sitting Senator.

  • ||

    did you ever see PRIDE fighting?

    Is that like Friday Night Sissy Fights with the Tyrannical Teabagger?

  • ||

    Not that there's anything wrong with that.

  • VM||

    exactly :)

    Go Big Nog!

  • JW||

    Ok, first, a small correction to the article. In the first UFC events biting and eye gouging were the only things that were illegal. Groin strikes were legal.

    Second, when saying that animals wouldn't fight unless humans force them isn't completely true. Roosters(cocks) will fight naturally. It is a territorial thing. Dogs on the other hand have to be brutalized to be made to fight. Not justifying either, just saying.

    Third, to Rex Rhino, MMA is taking boxing's place. Regulation is what got MMA and specifically the UFC to where it is today.

  • ||

    No fighting is ultimate without allowing chimpanzees to participate.

  • VM||

    but don't forget, ProGLib, that there have been suspicions that at least one of the fights has been fixed...

  • ||

    Who is watching the fights this weekend??? I can't wait to see Shogun in the UFC!!!

  • JBinMO||

    "A closer analogy to dog or cockfighting would be televised knife fights between humans that were grabbed off the street, given a knife, and then pushed into a "ring" with an opponent and goaded into going at it."

    That sounds like an awsome show!

  • dhex||

    In the last few years, the fighters (and fights) have gotten more dynamic. I'd say that the introduction of gloves, the emphasis on proper taping and cut treatment, and more cautious refereeing has freed fighters.

    i would agree. there's more emphasis on stand-up fighting, which is as you mentioned a lot less boring.

    the bad thing about the ufc et al getting more popular is they have the same goofy packaging and whatnot that other sports have PLUS the design sensibilities of spike tv. it kinda gets in the way.

    i am both heartened and saddened to see that channel 9 league - well channel 9 in ny - get kinda popular, revamp its design and go for the beefcake angle with the ladies all in one shot.

    or as my wife put it, "more cuties!"

  • ||

    MPH summed up my thoughts exactly,although I am going to miss Shogun's flying head stomps but seeing him dismantle Forrest Griffin none the less. And for the love of god someone please sign Fedor ASAP. North American fans don't know what they're missing in that guy.

  • ||

    "i would agree. there's more emphasis on stand-up fighting, which is as you mentioned a lot less boring"

    i disagree. i think it's less exciting to some, more exciting to others. groundfighting is generally more boring, the less you understand it. also, some practitioners (frank shamrock) were exceptionally exciting on the ground. others, not so much.

    stand up fighting can be boring, too. when you get a counterpuncher vs. somebody who is not willing to be the agressor, it can be PAINFUL to watch.

    some refs, yves lavigne comes to mind, stand the fighter up WAY too quickly. i saw him do it once AS one fighter was applying a kimora (sp?). it was insane. i do think it's ok when the fighters are TRULY stalemated on the ground, that they stand them up.

    it's usually when the fighters are very evenly matched, that the ground game comes to a standstill. i can say that some of the most exciting fights i have ever seen have been almost entirely ground based.

    the primary difference in pride is the frigging ring, which is FAR inferior, since the refs have to keep moving people on the ground when they slide too far. that gets old. cages are far more suited to MMA.

    last i checked, pride allowed knees and kickes to a downed subject (UFC doesn't) but didn't allows elbows to the head from the ground (which si absurd imo).

    the thing that has made it a lot more exciting isn't just the structural changes but the fact that the fighters have gotten much better. it used to be that many fighters were good, except on the ground, where they played defense at best. this meant a good ground guy could simply down them (not so simple all the time) and then win by attrition.

    now, there are so many guys who are really good OFFENSIVELY and DEFENSIVELY on the ground, that it can be immensely exciting on the ground. i agree with rogan, that some judges are way too quick to stand the guys up.

  • ||

    edit: i meant "knees and kicks 2 the head"

    ufc does allow kicks 2 the body of a downed subject

  • SIV||

    No... McCain hounded UFC until it was watered down not to be any competition to pro-boxing.

    I am a casual fan at best but my understanding is the "reforms" were a mixture of improving the sport and conforming to State athletic commission
    rules so they could stage events outside of a handful of southern states.

    I loved the old UFC but the tournament format led to forfeited championships or poorly matched finals.I believe the original rules banned only fish -hooking,eye-gouging and small joint manipulation.Everthing else was within the rules.Brazillian vale tudo permits everything and has no time limits.

  • ||

    MPH,
    I agree, Ultimate Fighting in the bad old days should have been called, "Ultimate Snuggling." The Brazilian dude who won year after year simply was the best at lying down and spooning the hell out of the other guy.

    Oliver,
    "The senator has seen all he needs to see." Cute discourse technique, right? He says the title, "The Senator" (disembodied august presence) as though the title alone grants that statement all the authority it needs to answer any residual, lingering doubts.

    Ed,
    Well, chickens where I live have it pretty good. They run around free to peck away at bugs and garbage in my neighborhood and crap on my motorbike in the morning. When they are killed it's actually very quick and humane. Also, I whisper the fish to sleep before I kill them.

  • bill||

    UFC sucks! World Combat League is the shiznit! No wrestling and you HAVE to attack or you lose points. Awesome!

  • penxv||

    MMA progressed in Japan without state regulation or too many rules (or drug testing).

    That's not to say that there aren't problems in the Japanese scene, but McCain definitely held back MMA's progression in the U.S.

    The sport was legal in so few states that not many people had seen live events... and it is nearly impossible for a sport to cultivate an audience under such restrictions.

    McCain didn't do any long term damage, but fighter pay is significantly lower now than it would have been if McCain hadn't gone on his crusade (no doubt encouraged by his boxing friends).

    This is a better article than most regarding MMA. If you could see the uselessness of the athletic commissions up close... it is pure comedy.

  • Robert||

    I still think football sold out by involving the faculty, should've gone undergound instead.

  • ||

    I thought this was a superb article. It kind of reminds me of what sellouts politicians can be, in the corner of "special interests" like the boxing community and dogging legitimate sports like MMA. UFC and Pride are awesome; about the only good boxing I've seen lately was "Rocky Balboa".

  • Jacob||

    For every inaccurate/ill-informed statement made on this thread, Fedor will eat a baby.

  • Jacob||

    And for those who think ground fights are boring, I refer you to Noguiera vs. Barnett, Griffin vs. Guida, or even two nights ago Diaz vs. Assuncao(SP?)

  • VM||

    BIG NOG!!!!!!!!!!

    What Jacob says!

    [ignoring midbrow, as he's obviously an ignorant idiot]

    bill - check out other mma organizations. Pride (fought in a ring) had amazing fights, and the rules allowed for a good mix of submission grappling and stand up. As a fan of standup, you might like K1, too! Enjoy!

    pen - no drug testing - Mark Coleman and Phil Baroni? tee hee. grin.

  • ||

    [ignoring midbrow, as he's obviously an ignorant idiot]

    You're lucky we're not in the same room or I'd spoon the hell out of you.
    :)

  • VM||

    srsly!

    Royce could kick ass. certainly kicked the asses of lots of leather throwers.

    but hang on - lemme get the crisco sticks and the noam chomsky blow up doll! let's party!!!!!

    woo hoo!

    :)

  • bill||

    Oh ya K-1 is cool (Bonjasky is one bad mutha) so is Shidokan. I just mentioned WCL because they have the "no passivity, no holding" rule. Even in K-1 they can clinch or step back and not fight for a period of time. WCL is balls to the wall all out fighting for 3 minutes.

  • nfl jerseys||

    nhrs

  • دردشه عراقية||

    Thanks

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