The Right Coast

April 20, 2005
The pathetic UFC show
By Tom Smith

I got interested in the world of "mixed martial arts" in the following way. My 13 year old Luke has long been interested ("obsessed" might be more accurate) in things Japanese, especially samurai warriors and the like. Looking for a place we could study Japanese weapons together, we came across a Christian martial arts dojo with which we have been pretty happy. For various reasons, such as its not being more expensive, we decided to take the Jujitsu class as well as the Kobujitsu (weapons) class.

When you start to take Jujitsu, you quickly learn the recent history of Brazilian Jujitsu (which they spell Jiu-Jitsu for purely idiosyncratic, historical reasons) in the US. Briefly, in 1993 a member of the famous Gracie grappling clan of Brazil helped organize a fighting tournament dubbed the Ultimate Fighting Championship, in which masters of various sorts of martial arts could face each other, and so empirically test which arts were most effective under fairly realistic conditions. Surprisingly, the Brazilian Jujitsu (or 'BJJ') practitioners dominated the fighting. This was because they could take strikers (people who punch and kick) to the ground, and there put them in various submission or finishing locks or chokes, forcing their opponents to "tap out," or concede defeat. Ground fighting is a world of its own, with its own skills, essentially a type of combat wrestling, with much less in the way of rules than NCAA or Olympic freestyle wrestling, though with many of the same physical skills involved.

In the following ten years, mixed martial art fighters trained in ground fighting, mostly BJJ, so that they could fight on the ground. Different types of fighters would have different strengths, but everyone had to have at least rudimentary ground fighting skills, if they wanted to survive. This book includes an excellent account of the history.

UFC evolved into a major commercial enterprize, which is where I take up the story. A week or so ago, the UFC finished its first season of a reality show in which young fighters from across the country were recruited, trained in Las Vegas, and then pitted against each other to see who would win professional fighting contracts. I, along with no doubt many others, watched the final fights on the Spike TV channel, and it is clear something has gone very wrong with the UFC.

The fights were bloody spectacles, but pathetic as displays of fighting skills. Very little in the way of grappling was in evidence. The fights looked like exactly what they were: Golden gloves level fighters, that is, decent amateurs, no more, put in the ring with only minimally padded grappling gloves on, who proceeded to spend three rounds pounding each others' faces into bloody pulp. It was just low level boxing without gloves. Of course there were lots of cuts and blood, and probably some serious brain injury besides. It was a disgrace.

I have nothing but admiration for boxers. If I want to watch boxing, however, I will watch professional contenders wearing gloves. The gloves not only protect against head injury (which occurs anyway) but makes possible a certain style of fighting, with repeated blows to the head.

What UFC rules now do is encourage striking over grappling, while still allowing the striking to result in lots of cuts and no doubt other injuries, mainly, I do not doubt, to produce the spectacular gore audiences want. This may be martial, but it's not very mixed and it's certainly not art.

"Reforming" UFC could involve going back to more "old school" rules. Grappling gloves paradoxically make the sport more dangerous, bloody and boring. Gloveless fighters cannot direct repeated blows at opponents' heads without breaking their hands. This forces the fight to go to a grappling mode, or at least limits blows to a few well chosen strikes. Alternatively, or in addition, the match should not be organized into several short rounds. This was another innovation made to accommodate strikers. The result is more spectacle, but less skill.

I realize it is naive to expect integrity out of a fight promotion business. Other aspects of the UFC show are frankly fraudulent. In the big event of the night, contender Rich Franklin TKO'ed legendary fighter Ken Shamrock of San Diego, but, and here's the part left out in their account, it happened because Shamrock slipped and fell down, at which point Franklin jumped on him and pummeled him. It was embarassing. It was the second time Shamrock slipped and fell in attempting to deliver high kicks. Whether this happened because the deck was still wet from wiping up the blood and sweat, or because Shamrock's knees are not as fully healed as advertized, I don't know.

The UFC says it wants respect from the mainstream media. If so, they should find a set of rules that will emphasize fighting skills across the different phases of combat instead of just amateur boxers with hardly any gloves and expendable brains and faces.

PROOF that UFC fans can engage in civilized dialogue. Schmidtty may well be right. I probably would like champion professional UFC bouts more, and I have never watched all of one through, mainly because of difficulty finding the right Pay Per View channel on Cox Cable. (Boy, if you are too dumb to figure out how to watch UFC, that is a bad sign.) I understand a lot of UFC fans just buy the DVD's so maybe that's what I'll do. However, I still think the Ultimate Fighter reality show does not bode well for the direction of the UFC, and that the organization ought to develop some norms about realism over spectacle. I also wonder if the current champions aren't strong grapplers partly because they came up in style that used to be more pro grappling than it is now. All I am saying is that if it evolves in the direction of striking without gloves, it is going to be "bad for the game."