Not Sweet, and Not a Science
Dan Barry/The New York Times, November 26, 1995
WHAT'S a kick in the head between friends? The question is prompted by the growing popularity of a new sport that caters to those who find boxing too polite. The competition, called extreme or ultimate fighting, pits two bare-knuckled fighters who punch, kick and brawl their way toward an often bloody denouement.
A particular charm of the discipline, its promoters say, is the unfettered and natural expression of human tendencies that takes place on the sweat-and-blood-stained mats. Indeed, participants are required to check their adrenaline surges only long enough to obey the cardinal rule against eye-gouging.
Such loosely controlled brutality has angered politicians, most prominently Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who has persuaded several states to ban the sport. It has also generated introspection. Senator McCain, along with several academics, worries about what the sport's popularity says about Americans.
"It's the whole esthetic of violence that's really disturbing," said Elliott Gorn, a history professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and the author of "The Manly Art," a 1986 study of bare-knuckled prizefighting in early American history. "What's striking to me is the connection between television and pay-per-view and profit. This is mayhem for sale."
But Donald Zuckerman, the executive producer of Battlecade, one of the companies promoting these matches, said the sport is "safer than high school soccer," citing a lack of serious injuries. And he attributed its popularity to its unshackled excitement. "I think a very vocal minority is trying to get votes by acting like they are protecting the public from something that is brutal and animalistic," he said.
The sport resembles video games like "Mortal Kombat" and "Killer Instinct," where the violence is continual and bloody -- only it's real. The scenarios vary depending on the production company, but the goal is the same: to level your opponent by employing techniques culled from boxing, martial arts and street fighting. The rules, of which there are few, allow for Mutt-and-Jeff matchups. A kickboxer might fight a Greco-Roman wrestler; a judo expert might square off against a "no rules fighter" whose training has been decidedly less disciplined.
The formula clearly has appeal. Cable analysts say that since the first match, billed as the "Ultimate Fighting Championship," aired on pay-per-view television in November 1993, a steadily increasing number of people have been plunking down $19.95 to enjoy the sight of men expressing their inner brutality.
Robert Meyrowitz, the creator of "Ultimate Fighting," the most famous of the promotions, said he continues to refine his sport. For example, in a 1994 tournament a fighter was bloodied and knocked unconscious by repeated blows of an opponent's elbow to his temple. "At the time, the referee was not allowed to stop the fight," he said. "Now the referees, the doctors, and in fact the corner, can stop the fight."
Mr. Meyrowitz said the sport is safer than boxing. "The facts don't bear up to the rhetoric," he said. "There has not been one serious injury."
That is a matter of time, said Senator McCain. "Some people may not like boxing, but at least it is supervised and regulated," he said.
Even New York City, a community not unfamiliar with the concepts of free expression and violence, could find neither the heart nor stomach to serve as host for such an event. Denied the use of a state-owned arena in Brooklyn earlier this month, the promoters and fighters regrouped at a sound studio in Wilmington, N.C., where they staged a live tournament Nov. 18 for a pay-per-view audience. And those hoping for bloodletting were not disappointed.
Harold German, a 159-pound amateur boxer from the Bronx, found himself in the ring with Igor Zinoviev, a 190-pound champion kickboxer and former captain of the Russian judo team. The mismatch lasted less than a minute. "He just sat on me and delivered punches," Mr. German said.
Mr. German wisely "tapped out," or surrendered. He said he considers himself lucky. One fighter "got opened up from front to back," he recalled. Another surrendered under a torrent of head butts. "His face was like crushed," Mr. German said, his voice lowered in respect.
Anthony Guccione, the son of the Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, and the president of Battlecade, recently likened the sport to a celebration of "our more natural urges."
"That's frankly stupid," countered Professor Gorn. "I think the contrary is true. People have to be taught to be violent; it's learned behavior. And this sport might be the sort of thing that contributes to that behavior."