ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
It may not be the biggest event on your weekend calendar, but for fans of mixed martial arts, tomorrow there is a huge event in Las Vegas.
(Soundbite of TV ad of "UFC 74: RESPECT")
Unidentified Man #1: UFC world heavyweight champion Randy Couture faces Gabriel Gonzaga for the UFC heavyweight crown.
SIEGEL: It's "UFC's 74: RESPECT," which is to say, it's the 74th fight night organized by the UFC, which stands for Ultimate Fighting Championship. The Respect part is pure hype.
The UFC and, more generally, mixed martial arts have become big business with a large and growing fan base.
(Soundbite of TV ad of "UFC 74: RESPECT")
Unidentified Man #1: Saturday, August 25th, from the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. Only on pay-per-view.
SIEGEL: This is a kind of fighting in which anything that's legal in jujitsu or tae kwon do or wrestling or boxing is fair game - punching, grappling, kicking, choking.
In this segment of the program, we'll take a look at this booming sport that's beating out prize fighting for audiences and worrying a lot of people who say that it's just too brutal.
We asked reporter Tamara Keith of member station KQED to go to last month's UFC fight in Sacramento. Tamara, tell us what you saw.
TAMARA KEITH: Well, it was loud in ARCO Arena. Down center stage, there was the famous UFC octagon. It's about six feet tall with padding all along the top, that's the ring. You know, I've been to concerts, basketball games, monster truck rally in this arena. This event had a different feel. There was just a lot more anticipation. You know there's going to be a fight, but you don't know how it's going to go down, I guess.
(Soundbite of UFC match)
Mr. BRUCE BUFFER (Main Ring Announcer, Ultimate Fighting Championship): Ladies and gentlemen, we are live from the ARCO Arena in Sacramento, California, for UFC 73.
(Soundbite of applause)
SIEGEL: And what did the bouts actually look like, Tamara?
KEITH: Well, I don't know a lot about fighting but I know that there were a lot of different styles. One minute, they're boxing. And then, somebody kicks the other guy in the neck. Then, they'll be rolling around on the ground, wrestling. There are a bunch of different holds, like a triangle hold, a guillotine, the rear naked choke. But either way, it either ends with a guy passing out or tapping out, which is basically like hey, I can't take it anymore.
(Soundbite of man screaming)
SIEGEL: Well, that's what's happening inside the octagon. Describe for us a little bit about the people watching this, outside the octagon.
(Soundbite of men chanting)
KEITH: Well, they are very much into the fights. During the lightweight title fight, I sat with John Storch(ph) and his friend Mark. John actually flew in from Seattle for this fight. And as it's going on, they're totally into it. And the defending champion Sean Sherk lands a few good hits into Hermes Franca's face and Franca starts bleeding. Then, they get into one of these wrestling positions. And Franca is leaning over Sherk back, dripping blood all over his shirt. So I looked over at John and Mark and it was like they didn't even notice it.
Another thing I found pretty amazing about this crowd is that they weren't content with boxing. But, you know, a high kick or a takedown and everyone goes crazy.
(Soundbite of crowd shouting)
KEITH: Chris Marlini(ph), he came to watch with a few of his friends. He's 18 and he's studying Brazilian jujitsu, which is one of the fighting techniques involved with ultimate fighting.
Mr. CHRIS MARLINI (UFC Fan): It's truly a sport. Two athletes, I like to call them gladiators, get in the octagon. They're coming at peak physical condition and they beat the hell out of each other.
KEITH: I think he's like a lot of fans of this sport. They like that it's decisive.
SIEGEL: And it turns out, a lot of people like this sport. A lot of people bought tickets to the card that you witnessed.
KEITH: Absolutely. There were more than 14,000 people at this fight. They Brought in $1.5 million. Some people paid $500 for their tickets. The UFC won't release their pay-per-view numbers for this event. But last year, according to Sports Illustrated, they brought in $223 million in pay-per-view broadcasts.
SIEGEL: But, Tamara, what did the fighters get out of all of this?
KEITH: Well, the big headline fighter, Tito Ortiz, he got a big gash on his face and a rematch. His fight with Rashad Evans ended in a draw. And just to give you an idea of the pay range. Ortiz earned $200,000 for that fight. But Evans got just $16,000.
One of the other fighters, Jorge Gurgel, he won but he ended up in the hospital with a broken jaw and a paycheck of $14,000. And both of the lightweight, Sean Sherk and Hermes Franca, they both tested positive for steroids.
Franca owned up to the doping and so the California Athletic Commission has suspended him for a year. And Sherk, who won the bout, he's appealing.
SIEGEL: So we made a lifelong fan of the mixed martial arts out of you?
KEITH: Maybe. Or maybe not. I don't think I can admit this on public radio either way.
SIEGEL: It's reporter Tamara Keith of member station KQED, who went to UFC 73 in Sacramento. There's some video at npr.org.
Mixed martial arts has its detractors, like Steven Acunto. He was a longtime member of the New York State Athletic Commission. All his life, he has loved, taught, and coached boxing. Mixed martial arts may be drawing bigger audiences now, but unlike boxing, Acunto says, it is not a sport.
Mr. STEVEN ACUNTO (Member, New York State Athletic Commission): It attracts more people because I think it satiates the barbaric pleasure of people who like to see someone hurt. I think they would watch cockfighting, bullfighting, dogfighting, and anything of that nature.
SIEGEL: Can you imagine such a league keeping the general idea of how these guys are fighting, but having enough rules and having doctors in attendance and having organized scoring...
Mr. ACUNTO: Yeah.
SIEGEL: ...so that it would satisfy, would meet your definition of a sport, even though it would be quite different from boxing?
Mr. ACUNTO: It's quite different. It takes place in a cage where animals go in chain link-fenced cages. When they attempt to cloak the sport with rules and regulations. That is to try to get the governor or the state legislators would approve of this.
SIEGEL: The rules that Steven Acunto is talking about have been adopted in recent years and they have served to get mixed martial arts widely sanctioned. In the early '90s, when the UFC was just getting started, it was virtually anything goes. No eye gouging or fish hooking.
Now, more rules. No head butting or hair pulling, for instance. And gloves.
Dana White is president of the UFC.
Mr. DANA WHITE (President, UFC): Back then, Senator John McCain was saying, this thing needs to be regulated by an athletic commission.
SIEGEL: He called it human cockfighting.
Mr. WHITE: Exactly. And the old owner said, nobody's going to tell me how to run my business. I'll go to places where there is no sanctioning. When we bought the company, we felt these guys are athletes. This is a sport and this does need to be sanctioned. So we ran toward the regulation, not away from it. And at the end of the day, there are more people who would rather watch a sport than watch a spectacle.
SIEGEL: I've watched a video online of a bout, which ends with one fighter delivering, I think, eight or nine consecutive blows in the face to his opponent who is down on his back at that moment. And there's something about it - it doesn't say just a game. There's something about it that says come here for blood and for brutality.
Mr. WHITE: Well, that's how some people see it. The reality is, the reason you think that way is because we grew up with, you know, the John Wayne culture. Never hit a man when he's down. You know, in the John Wayne movies, he'd knock a guy down and instead of jumping on him and hitting him, he'd stand and back up and punch him again.
Mr. WHITE: You know, that's the society we come from. Most of these other countries out there, martial arts has been a part of their culture forever. And the reality is, you hit a man standing up, with a lot more force than you can when the man is on the ground. We could sit here all day and debate on how safe this is or how unsafe that is, there really aren't very many sports out there that there aren't any deaths in. There's never been a death in the UFC. Polo can't say that there's never been death. You'd be surprised to hear how many kids die every year playing high school football.
SIEGEL: Drug testing, is there a drug problem in mixed martial arts?
Mr. WHITE: No. I wouldn't say that there's a drug problem in mixed martial arts. Anytime that your product, I guess I'll call it, is a human being, you're going to have issues. Guys are going to have issues with alcohol, family problems, drugs, unfortunately, you know?
SIEGEL: Steroids, is there a problem with steroids?
Mr. WHITE: There's not a problem with steroids. Have we had guys who've tested positive for steroids, absolutely. But I'd say for the amount of fights that we have and the amount of athletes we have under contract, it hasn't been very bad. You know, our guys are pretty good about that.
SIEGEL: Dana White's UFC has cleaned up enough for Senator John McCain to soften his criticism.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): They have cleaned it up - the sport, at least in my view that it's not human cockfighting anymore. I think they've made significant progress. They haven't made me a fan but they have made progress.
SIEGEL: But Dana White has plenty of other fans.
Mr. WHITE: We are not only the largest pay-per-view provider in the United States, beating HBO boxing and the WWE, but we're also one of the highest-rated television shows on cables.
(Soundbite of UFC match)
Unidentified Man #2: One win, one loss. He's a big man at 6'1, but weighs 261 pounds. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Bryan Vetell.
SIEGEL: Dozens of smaller organizations now mimic the UFC. The International Fight League consists of 12 mixed martial arts teams.
(Soundbite of UFC match)
Unidentified Man #4: And Vetell's got (unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #5: Mo Fowzi taps out. Mo Fowzi taps out. And Bryan Vetell gets the victory for the Pitbulls.
SIEGEL: Bryan Vetell is the heavyweight for the New York Pitbulls.
Mr. BRYAN VETELL (Heavyweight Fighter, New York Pitbulls): We get a lot of freaks, a lot of weird people. If you like to fight, if you like getting punched in the face all day, maybe you're not the most normal person on Earth.
SIEGEL: You would count yourself in that category, right?
Mr. VETELL: Probably yeah. I mean, seriously, you know, you're waking up every day, you're going into the gym, you know, three times a day, and you think it's great.
SIEGEL: You're a philosophy major at Hoffstra University, I gather.
Mr. VETELL: Yes.
SIEGEL: So this is the examined life that you're leading.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. VETELL: Maybe. You know? I'm trying to live something that's interesting.
SIEGEL: Are you concerned a bit that some day you can really get yourself hurt?
Mr. VETELL: No.
Mr. VETELL: If that's what you're worried about, then you shouldn't fight. You're with a referee whose main job is to protect your health. You have good corner men, good coaches. I mean, any accident could happen, but, you know, I could step in the street and get hit by a car tomorrow. I live in New York. It's not unheard of.
SIEGEL: But many people are concerned about safety, as states debate whether and how to regulate mixed martial arts.
Doctor Joseph Estwanik is an orthopedic surgeon who helped the sport get legalized in North Carolina. He helped developed the glove that brought the Ultimate Fighting Championship out of the bare-knuckle era. He says very, very few fights end with a knockout punch. And a knockout punch is much more harmful than an ugly laceration.
Dr. JOSEPH ESTWANIK (Orthopedic Surgeon): There are many, many ways to win in the martial arts other than by an obvious concussion. And the things that we see, as far as more blood, is really problems that are occurring outside the skull, as compared to boxing, where we have these cumulative blows that are occurring inside the skull.
SIEGEL: So you're saying, it may look unpleasant but, indeed, blood streaming from the face of a fighter is a lot less serious than what might be the neater concussion that knocks out a boxer.
Dr. ESTWANIK: Yes, sir. It's more graphic but it's treatable, fixable, and temporary.
SIEGEL: Dr. Robert Cantu takes a more measured view. He's co-director of the Neurological Sports Injury Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. And he says we haven't seen enough study of mixed martial arts to accurately describe the risks.
Dr. ROBERT CANTU (Co-Director, Neurological Sports Injury Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital): There really is a kind of an on-site medical team that makes some quick assessments, but the athletes really aren't studied in great degree most of the time.
SIEGEL: If you had your I'd-rathers, would you license, more carefully supervise, or outlaw mixed martial arts or boxing for that matter?
Dr. CANTU: Well, if I had my I'd-rathers, I'd, number one, very carefully license it, and very carefully follow the injury patterns. I think it's very important that that data be obtained. I think if you were to outlaw it, just like if you were to outlaw boxing, it would still go on. It would just be without supervision.
(Soundbite of IFL fight)
Unidentified man: And Vetell is an angry man at Fowzi even though he won the fight. I don't know what happened in the clinch there.
SIEGEL: IFL fighter Bryan Vetell defends his sport. But he balks at the notion that I put to him of making mixed martial arts a high school sport.
Mr. VETELL: Hey, I don't know if I have the maturity to handle what I'm doing right now, so I don't know if a 15-year-old should be doing it.
SIEGEL: But they wrestle and they...
Mr. VETELL: They box.
SIEGEL: Play football for sure. These are all dangerous activities.
Mr. VETELL: They are. But the idea of what you're doing is - I mean, you're beating somebody up. You know, that's what you're doing. I mean, I think the kids should train it. But I don't know if there should be a competitive aspect to doing that. I just don't think so.
SIEGEL: Bryan Vetell's college education isn't all that remarkable in mixed martial arts. The boxing gym may be a ticket out of the ghetto or the barrio. But the college wrestling team and the strip mall tae kwon do academy, the places were a lot of these fighters come from, are straight out of middle-class America. And so, it seems, is mixed martial arts.
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.