Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Mixed Martial Arts: A Knockout to Boxing?

Hermes Franca (left) and Sean Sherk clash in an Ultimate Fighting Championship match in Sacramento, Calif., in July 2007. UFC hide caption

See Highlights of an Ultimate Fighting Championship Match
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One of the questions I'm often asked is this: When today's kids who love the so-called extreme sports — that's the X-Games, like skateboarding — when they grow up, won't that mean that traditional sports will tumble in popularity?

My answer is that there are lots of things you cotton to as a teenager, but, mercifully, you grow out of them. But then, with apologies to Mencken: Nobody ever went broke underestimating the adolescence of the American public.

Case in point: Boxing is the only major sport where the object is to hurt your opponent. Surely there can be no place for such an exercise in a more enlightened 21st century. But what has happened? Boxing has indeed lost favor, not because it's too violent for the modern civilized world, but because it's not violent enough.

Boxing is being superseded by what is called the mixed martial arts — emphasis on martial — which apparently is especially attractive because it's like a video game, only featuring flesh-and-blood human beings. Emphasis on blood.

If you are not a video gamer and/or not familiar with mixed martial arts, the first thing you need to know is that it is fought in a cage. The applied, uh, arts include wrestling, boxing, jujitsu and kickboxing, although after John McCain called it "human cockfighting" a few years ago, various strategies like biting and eye-gouging were outlawed in a bow to our national sensibility.

The second thing you need to know is that MMA is hugely popular amongst young men and hugely profitable for those who own the cages and those who inhabit them. The most prestigious MMA outfit is called the Ultimate Fighting Championship — UFC — and it has run shows that have drawn gates of more than $4 million. The biggest stars themselves make millions of dollars a year.

The third thing you should know about the mixed martial arts is that, as befits a live video game, it rather appeals to those with a short attention span. Bouts average about six or seven minutes. Mop up the blood in the cage and bring on two more gladiators.

Poor boxing. The idea in boxing, which has always styled itself as "the sweet science," is not to get hit. The best of the current heavyweight champions is Wladimir Klitschko, who wins with defense. This is the pugilistic equivalent of going green, and, I'm sorry, Wladimir, but from a marketing point of view, you're very 19th century.

But then, I guess we shouldn't be surprised that digital technology has spawned a sport. After all, as cars replaced horses, automobile races superseded horse races in popularity. No reason to think a human video game shouldn't knock out poor old-fashioned boxing. Or, uh, kick it out.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford