King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

Selling mixed martial arts: UFC president Dana White on a sport that's exploding in popularity.


I owe one to mixed martial arts. Earlier this year in a column ripping boxing I noted that Nevada State Athletic Commission chief Mark Ratner was leaving to take a job with Ultimate Fighting Championship.

“There’s a nice feather in the cap for boxing,” I wrote, “losing one of the top officials in the sport to a made-for-TV enterprise with, not to put too fine a point on it, not a whole lot of rules.”

Letter writers rightly jacked me up as “ignorant.”

Though the new sport of mixed martial arts — which combines boxing, kickboxing, wrestling and various martial arts — has its roots in made-for-TV no-holds-barred competitions that looked like bar fights, organizations such as UFC and the Japanese PRIDE Fighting Championships have cleaned up and codified it, helping turn it into one of the fastest-growing sports in the world.

Mixed martial arts was profiled on “60 Minutes” earlier this month.

On Dec. 30 two of the sports biggest stars, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, will fight for the UFC light-heavyweight championship in a pay-per-view event at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas. The Los Angeles Times last week called the rematch of Liddell’s 2004 win over Ortiz “the biggest fight in the United States in seven years in any genre, whether it be real fights (pro boxing) or the more popular choreographed fights (pro wrestling).”

A check at Ticketmaster Wednesday morning revealed tickets still available, though not at the cheapest levels, which start at $100.

I appreciate the rules that have taken mixed martial arts fights from pure brutality to true sport. The rules are fairly straightforward — no gouging, attacking the groin, manipulating small joints, kicking an opponent when down, that sort of thing — and don’t get in the way of good action, as overly aggressive rules in amateur boxing and other combat sports sometimes do.

As a lapsed boxing fan, tired of the talent drain, corruption and long-term health effects for the fighters in that sport, I’d welcome a sport that provides that same pure one-on-one competition without the problems that have all but killed boxing. I’m still not sold. The legality of hitting — though not kicking — a man when he’s down still makes it look a little back alley for my tastes.

Of course, my tastes don’t matter much because I’m older than 34.

Still, I called Dana White, president and part owner of UFC, and invited him to sell me the Dec. 30 event and the sport.

White, 37, is a former amateur boxer, Las Vegas gym owner and boxing trainer and manager who fell in love with mixed martial arts seven years ago after his first jujitsu lesson.

“I said, ‘How have I walked around for 30 years not knowing this, boxing as much as I have?’ White said. “Not only did you have to be incredibly talented and gifted to do it, but it took a lot of thinking. It was like a human chess match.”

I caught up with White by phone as he vacationed in the Bahamas. When I asked him to sell the sport to me, he told me the story of how he got involved with mixed martial arts, then asked if I was a fan of Bruce Lee growing up.

White: The way the Ultimate Fighting Championship was created was a bunch of television guys got together and said, “Let’s answer the age-old question, Which fighting style is the best?” Would a boxer beat a wrestler? Would a kung fu guy beat a karate guy? It was just supposed to be a one-off show. Well, the first pay-per-view did so well, they did another and another and another.

The problem was these guys didn’t know what they were doing with this thing. They had this thing on their hands that was a pay-per-view success, and never in a million years did these guys think they were creating a sport.

But the answer to that age-old question is no one fighting style is the best. You have to have a little piece of everything to be a complete fighter. And really the first mixed martial artist was Bruce Lee. He was preaching that shit back in the ’60s. When you really get into this and start to look at it it’s fascinating. The stuff that Bruce Lee was preaching back in the day.

You’d go to these karate or kung fu classes, and they were telling you, this is the way you’re supposed to punch, this is the way you’re supposed to kick and block and all this stuff. Well, Bruce Lee said, “What if you’re 5-foot-2? And what if you’re 6-foot-3?” Everybody has their own size and weaknesses and things like that. So no one style is the best, you’ve got to take a little piece of everything that works and throw the rest away.

Is the fascination that strategy of mixing styles?

Absolutely. These guys that fight in this sport, they have to learn everything. You know how hard it is, you’ve been a big boxing fan over the years. How conditioned and how disciplined and how good you have to be to be a boxer. Now imagine in this sport, you’ve got to be that good at Muay Thai, that good at boxing, that good at wrestling, that good at jujitsu. You have to have all these different pieces to complete your game.

Doesn’t that lead to being a jack-of-all-trades, master of none?

Yes. You have to take, for your body style — some guys are fast, some guys hit hard. Some guys are this, some guys are that. You have to take what works for you and create your own fighting style for yourself, using all the different disciplines.

What percentage of fights end in knockouts?

[About 7 percent end in true knockouts, according to UFC spokesman Jim Byrne, who points out that there are also TKOs and "submissions," where a fighter surrenders. Unlike boxing, UFC doesn't lump in TKOs with KOs.]

That’s one of the things too, when you were talking about brutality? Think about this. In boxing, the goal is you and I get into the best shape that we can possibly get in, we stand in front of each other for 12 rounds, and the way that I win is I either hit you in the head so hard that I knock you unconscious, or I hit you in the head more times than you hit me in the head.

The reality is, that’s where the deaths and the injuries occur. Because there’s this big misconception about the gloves. We wear the tiny little fingerless gloves. The glove was created at the turn of the century because it used to be bare-knuckles, and what would happen was a big fight would start and a guy would break his hand in the first round and it would ruin the fight. So they created a glove so I could hit you more times in the head, harder, and not break my hands.

In UFC, a fight can end without one punch being thrown. I think that’s why we’ve had the record we’ve had so far. In the 14-year history of this thing, there’s never been a death or serious injury in the UFC. In no way am I saying, “Oh God, it’s the safest sport in the world.” It’s a contact sport. There’s risks. But I think the reason we have that record is because the object isn’t to stand in front of you and punch you in the head for 12 rounds. You can win in other ways.

Tell me about the event on the 30th.

We think it’s going to be the biggest fight of the year, bigger than anything in boxing, any [Oscar] De la Hoya fight or anything.

I sometimes get letters from readers or read things about the UFC, people saying these guys are some of the best athletes in the world –

It’s true. Not only do we have tons of fans who show up, but we have tons of celebrities, tons of athletes from other sports. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey. Those guys all say, man, these guys are the best-conditioned athletes in the world. Not only do they have to know all these fighting styles, but they still have to do their weight training, they do their cardio. It’s unbelievable.

You have five weight classes –

Yeah, we have lightweights, welterweights, middleweights, light heavyweights and heavyweights. That’s the other problem with boxing, all the fragmented weight classes and all the different sanctioning bodies, all that crap. Believe me, man, I’m with you 100 percent on the boxing thing. It’s unfortunate. What’s starting to happen now is this sport’s getting so big and so popular that all the creepy people who destroyed the great sport of boxing are now seeping over into this sport.

I looked at the five championship listings. Four of the champs are in their 30s, one of them [Liddell] is 37. That strikes me as a little older than if these guys were the best athletes in the world.

Trust me, they are. You know what that says? Think about this. In boxing, you’re in your prime between 28 and 32. You’re mentally and physically there, you’re a lot craftier than you were at 22, and then boxers, at 32 on, you start to go downhill.

Any athlete does, and I would argue that a lightweight is in his prime at 24 or 25.

Yeah, I don’t know about that. I think guys are in their prime in boxing 28 to 32. Athletes these days are getting older and older and competing. We’ve learned so much over the years about how to stay an athlete for a long time and take care of yourself. A lot of it is your reflexes. After taking punishment to the head for so long, the first thing to go is your reflexes. And it’s not the same with our guys. I mean, it does happen to our guys. Guys who don’t take care of themselves.

Let me ask you about the talent pool. One of the problems with boxing is that it used to attract great athletes. Sugar Ray Robinson or Muhammad Ali could have been football players, or great outfielders. Today, kids like that do play football or basketball. Boxing’s a last resort. Are you finding that you’re stealing athletes at this point from basketball, or is it, “Oh, I blew out my knee playing football, I’m going to try UFC”?

No, I think we are. I think the money level is getting to a place where you’re going to see guys who would have played football or basketball getting into the UFC.

Again getting back to best athletes in the world, that doesn’t jibe with college-educated middle-class North Americans. [White had pointed out that many of the sport's athletes, having come from college wrestling or martial arts, are college educated and middle class.] That seems like a small talent pool. Are you getting kids from Europe, Asia, South America?

Yup. All over the world. I agree with you. What’s going to start to happen is you’re going to see some of these guys who, like you said earlier, would have played football and basketball and baseball getting involved in this sport.

That’s the great thing about this, you nailed it right on the head. It’s one of the most exciting sports in the world right now, and it’s only getting better. I’ll give you an example. A guy like Chuck Liddell, he came from a martial-arts background. He was a kickboxer. Then he learned everything else. Matt Hughes was a wrestler. He had to learn everything else.

These kids coming up today are better and better athletes, and they’re learning mixed martial arts. There’s a kid right now who’s like 24 years old, just won the title in the welterweight division, his name is Georges St. Pierre. This kid is a physical specimen, an incredible athlete. He’s incredibly exciting, he blows through everybody. These are the kinds of guys we’re starting to see come up now. Incredible athletes who are mixed martial artists.

Previous column: Key to brawls: Losers whining

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