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?
Because we live in a soft-core world, that's why. Around the country, cocaine prices are at all-time lows. Legalized gambling has better market penetration than Starbucks. Yet even as vice and transgression get more and more accessible, we hold steady.
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.
Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.