The Right Coast

March 17, 2006
San Diego boy makes good, or bad, depending on your POV
By Tom Smith

UFC is in the news with this WSJ story.

On the Vegas Strip,A Fast, Brutal SportDeals Blow to Boxing
'Ultimate Fighting' MatchesScore Fans, Ads, Bettors;Luring the 'Maxim' Crowd

By PETER SANDERSMarch 15, 2006; Page A1
LAS VEGAS -- With its history of glitzy championship bouts, this city's famous gambling Strip is boxing's home turf. But when longtime fans Brian Schulz and Derek Ellis drove five-plus hours here from northern Utah one recent Saturday night, the hottest fight in town wasn't staged in a boxing ring. It was inside "the Octagon."
The Octagon is the eight-sided, fenced-in battleground used by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the martial arts-inspired circuit that is fast gaining popularity nationwide. Here in Las Vegas, the sport -- known for its chokeholds, elbow punches and acrobatic takedowns -- is making a run at boxing's supremacy.
Rich 'Ace' Franklin throws David 'The Crow' Loiseau to the mat during a March 4 Ultimate Fighting bout at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.
For decades, Las Vegas was the biggest venue for boxing's prizefights, featuring ring stars like Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe and Lennox Lewis. But with few new marquee names and younger spectators craving harder, faster action, heavyweight boxing's golden era has faded. The Ultimate Fighting Championship is muscling in with corporate sponsors, pay-per-view specials and star-flecked audiences. On Feb. 4, boldface names like Paris Hilton, Cindy Crawford and Charles Barkley showed up for a championship Ultimate Fighting event at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino.
Dana White, the UFC's 36-year-old president, says the sport fills a void left by boxing's failure to adapt to fans' changing tastes. "The UFC is the most exciting combat sport in the world because there are so many ways to win and so many ways to lose," he says. "Boxing is your father's sport."
On March 4, Mr. Schulz, 41, was among more than 10,000 fans who paid between $50 and $450 to watch the action at the Mandalay Bay Events Center, also in Las Vegas. He likes to describe Ultimate Fighting as "a purer sport than boxing." For one thing, it's more violent.
Ultimate Fighting is a so-called mixed martial-arts event that combines karate, judo, jiu-jitsu, boxing, wrestling and old-fashioned street fighting. The result is a sport that features many more ways for combatants -- wearing thin, fingerless gloves, not the padded boxing kind -- to effect maximum carnage.
The object is simple: overwhelm the opponent by whatever means necessary, save a few banned tactics like biting. If a fight doesn't lead to a knockout or surrender, then a panel of three judges uses a scoring system to determine the winner.
The early March card at Mandalay showcased Ultimate Fighting's fast pace and brutality. In one match, Jason Lambert and Rob MacDonald sparred like boxers for a minute or so. Then, Mr. Lambert drove his head into Mr. MacDonald's midsection and piled him into the mat. Squatting on his face, Mr. Lambert twisted and wrenched his opponent's left arm backward in an unnatural and painful trajectory. Grimacing in pain, Mr. MacDonald "tapped out," banging his free hand on the mat in the UFC's universal "mercy" signal.
In a later match, Mike Swick was quickly tossed to the mat by opponent Steve Vigneault. But Mr. Swick instantly turned the tables with a move called "The Guillotine Choke." Cradling his opponent's head in his elbow, between bulging biceps and his forearm, Mr. Swick squeezed hard and temporarily cut off Mr. Vigneault's ability to breathe.
Boxing promoter Gary Shaw attributes Ultimate Fighting's rise to a generation inured to violence and mayhem -- the sort commonly depicted in movies and videogames. "The mixture of wrestling with boxing and the fact that it's not staged goes to the bloodthirsty segment of the population," he says.

The above mentioned Jason Lambert used to train with Roy Harris at the Harris International Academy here in San Diego. A few weeks ago I attended the BJJ Over 40 seminar Roy Harris taught, and I found it very rewarding. (One of the participants called it "geri-jitsu"-- pretty clever, I thought.) I did not know what to expect, but the atmosphere was friendly and informal, and the dozen other guys did not have fangs or mumble "kill, kill" in their spare moments. The quality of instruction and depth and subtlety of the knowledge conveyed was very impressive. It would have been a bargain at twice the price.

I have been watching a little UFC on TV, and I obviously got the wrong idea from watching the Ultimate Fighter reality show, where I was left thinking the contestants just weren't that good. But at the championship levels, where people like Lambert are competing, you do indeed see scary impressive martial arts skills, with a good combination of both striking and grappling skills. It strikes me as a crazy way to make a living, but then so is working yourself to death in a giant law firm.

I don't know if anyone has died in the Octagon, but it is bound to happen sooner or later. In the UFC Best of 2005 I was watching the other night, I saw a shorter, stockier fighter (whom I favored, of course) shoot in for a take-down, which had worked very well for him against the taller fighter in the first round, only to catch a flying knee right in the head. He was knocked out so fast, his heels literally bounced on the canvas. Had the knee come up a little sooner, the downed fighter would have been killed, or at least gotten many bones in his face broken. But there's no denying it was a thrilling spectacle to watch, even if I'm a little queasy about its propriety. By contrast, jujitsu, Brazilian or otherwise, if practiced in good faith, need not injure anybody.

I do think, however, that the WSJ overplays the brutality of UFC fighting. I'm not sure at the end of the day it really is much worse than boxing. Boxing is a war of attrition on brain tissue. It looks a lot less awful than it is. A choke or arm bar in UFC typically does a lot less damage, I would think, than any well landed jab. The choke-ee taps out, after all, before any serious brain damage is done. About knock out punches or kicks in UFC, I don't have any defense. They are indeed likely to inflict permanent damage; but then so are many of the punches thrown in boxing, gloves or not.