Fight club

MARK KEAST -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:48 AM ET

It was likely a much different-looking crowd when Dave Beneteau ventured into the backwoods of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 10 years ago for something called "Iron Gladiator."

Those were the days of hardcore ultimate fighting, "human cockfighting" as someone once called it. Bare-fisted brawling, with few rules to speak of.

"You couldn't bite and you couldn't gouge the eyes out, that was it," Beneteau said.

Today, ultimate fighting, or mixed martial arts (MMA), is heading straight for the mainstream, away from the fringes, and is starting to sell out major U.S. arenas, as it did Saturday at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, Calif., most of those people in the coveted male 18-34 demographic.

Or, maybe it's in the mainstream already. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the sport's No. 1 company, with more in tow. Those who are not into MMA today, who then sit down to watch the brutality in UFC matches -- a mixed bag of punches, elbows, kicks, chokes, submission locks -- might find hard to believe any statement legitimizing what once was lurid spectacle.

Polished? Better? Safer? The roots of today's combat, where two men face each other in a caged, octagonal ring, go back to when people such as Beneteau -- 6-foot-2, 265 pounds and now a Toronto lawyer -- barnstormed for the UFC through North Carolina, Wyoming, Colorado and Michigan until legislators caught up with the promoters and shut it all down, state by state.

Bringing in new rules -- gloves for the fighters, timed rounds, weight classes, medical testing - and getting sanctioned by respected organizations such as the Nevada Athletic Commission in 2001 was the stamp of credibility the UFC and MMA in general needed if promoters were going to more aggressively sell it.

What has followed has been increasingly lucrative pay-per-view bouts and a highly rated reality series on Spike TV (the premiere episode of The Ultimate Fighter earlier this month, also seen in Canada on Spike, beat out the competitors in its time slot for the 18-34 male demo, delivering a 3.71, or 971,000 viewers in the U.S.).

The sellout of the Pond on Saturday for UFC 59 was another measuring stick. More than 17,000 people were there, a $9-million US gate, which UFC president Dana White pointed out in an interview with The Toronto Sun. Those numbers were unheard of five years ago.

These are heady days for the UFC and MMA. Beneteau points to the acquisition of the UFC by Zuffa LLC in 2001, and a superior marketing and packaging strategy that followed, as the reason for growth. MMA is the sport for the X-Games generation, the computer- and video-game crowd, those kids looking for the fast action with a healthy dose of violence and the star power that the UFC offers up. "I think it's more in tune with the younger generation," Beneteau said.

What seems barbaric to 40- and 50-something boxing enthusiasts is new, edgy entertainment among MMA's growing legion of younger fans.

"We're getting desensitized, that's for sure," said Sam Stout, 21, a fighter out of London -- a hot spot for the sport in Ontario. Stout is the lightweight champ in the Montreal-based TKO association and also fights UFC. "A scary movie 15 years ago seems tame now. (The growing popularity of MMA) has more to do with the evolution of fighting sport."

College-educated fighters brought up with the discipline inherent in martial arts, combined with an understanding of marketing and a willingness to nurture intimidating TV screen personnas is resonating with younger people.

Ryan Bennett, an MMA commentator on Canada's The Fight Network, says he estimates that 70% of the fighters at a recent World Extreme Cage fighting bout he worked on in California had college degrees. UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell was an accounting major at California Polytechnic State University. "But he looks like an axe murderer," White said.

On the flip side, the classic boxing stereotype always has been the down-and-out kid from the rough side of town, who got into boxing as a way of staying out of prison. Bennett says people have grown frustrated with boxers who make too much money and don't come to fight, sometimes just surviving until a decision. "Ninety per cent of the time there will be a finish in MMA," he said.

"Boxing is dying. They're losing a lot of their stars," said Mark Hominick, 23, another Londoner and the TKO featherweight champion. "This is new wave, the pinnacle of combat sport."

The Ultimate Fighter in the age of the reality show has been the kicker in this evolution, the "Trojan Horse," as White said.

"People were watching MMA without even realizing they were watching it," he added.

With TV and the weight of the economic forces behind it, and with everyone -- levels of government included -- standing to make a lot of money, athletic commissions have been coming on board. California was the latest U.S. state to legalize it, bringing the total to 20. In Canada, B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia all have sanctioned MMA fights. MMA is illegal in Ontario.

White, 36, knows all of this, of course, and you can bet he is relishing his position. He is pushing for meetings with athletic commissioners, because it is in the best interests of the sport that every state and province abides by the safety rules led by Nevada. He doesn't want an MMA fighter who may have been knocked out in an illegal bout in some midwest U.S. state that he was unaware of, come in to fight UFC without the proper physical. And there are illegal bouts that go on everywhere in the U.S. and Canada, according to a number of the sources The Sun spoke with. "Stupid people," as Stephane Patry, the CEO of Montreal's Groupe TKO MMA Inc., the leading MMA promoter in Canada, describes them, people unwilling to wait for government approval, looking to cash in now.

White says it is the responsibility of athletic commissioners in the U.S. and Canada to license mixed martial arts and sanction events, that it's just a matter of educating them on the rules, helping exorcise the memories of those ugly days. Of course he is going to say that. White is a businessman. More places where he can hold live events means more riches for his company and the people in it. (Canadian MMA star Georges St. Pierre, in Toronto earlier this month for an autograph signing event, will soon pass $1 million in annual earnings through fights and endorsements, according to a report).

Giving Marc Ratner, the respected former executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, a lucrative three-year contract in March to join UFC and lead the way storm-trooping through the athletic commissions in the States not on board with former fighter and UFC superstar Randy Couture along with him further legitimizes the spread of UFC and MMA.

White says he would like to see a UFC event in Toronto in a year.

Ontario athletic commissioner Ken Hayashi says he is there to police the regulations regarding prize fighting that are in place now, enforceable under Section 83 of the Criminal Code. And if promoters want to stage legal, live events here, he recommends that they go to the province, get official status as an amateur sports provincial body, hold amateur events and build up a safety record.

Patry says he worked with the athletic commission in Quebec to have rules drawn up legalizing MMA in 2000. He is eyeing London for live bouts. "Whether Ken likes it or not, it will happen in Ontario one day," he said.

Of course, it is not all blue skies and happy endings. The MMA crowd has a lot of work to do in changing perceptions among a great many people when it comes to the sheer brutality of it, states and provinces that won't regulate it, individuals who remember the dark ages. One publicized fatality and it can all come crashing down.

Then there are the amateurs getting into the sport that comes with higher TV numbers. Paul Minhas, head instructor at Ultimate Martial Arts in Scarborough, says at least 50% of their 800 members are people asking for MMA instruction. But that also raises the concern of youngsters thinking they are the next Chuck Liddell, going into illegal bouts and ending up in a coma.

"This is a fad," says Peter Wylie, the long-time coach at Cabbagetown Boxing Club in Toronto. "The 20-somethings don't even know what they are looking at. What kind of martial arts has a person held down, getting punched in the back of the head while they are virtually unconscious? That isn't sport. I can watch that out on the street if I want to. Say what you want about boxing, but people who follow it always will. They might watch ultimate fighting on TV, but they know boxing is supremely more technical, more athletic."

None of this fazes White and his crew. He says he isn't interested in the 40 and up boxing fan, anyway. Plus, in 20 years, as the younger generation gets older, White says, and with the way his sport is going, where will boxing be?


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