Prime time for a mixed-martial arts sport once banned

Nov 17 2011 - 6:34pm

Mixed-martial arts, the violent combat sport once relegated to the American sporting scene's back alleys, has gone Main Street.

Like it or not.

"The world is ready for us," said Dana White, the brash head of Ultimate Fighting Championship. "And for those of you who aren't, there are a thousand channels out there. Change the channel if you're not ready."

UFC staged its first network event last Saturday night with a live broadcast on Fox from the Honda Center in Anaheim. Cain Velasquez and Brazilian fighter Junior dos Santos fought inside an eight-sided steel cage and pummeled each other with kicks, punches and choke holds.

"This is like 'American Idol' for MMA," said Javier Mendez, a San Jose gym owner who trains Velasquez. "The eyeballs that will be watching are unlike anything we've ever had."

MMA gradually has been courting mainstream acceptance, putting its "no-holds-barred" past behind it by adopting rules that have stemmed some of the ugly excesses. But it remains a brutal spectacle that combines elements of martial arts, boxing and wrestling.

The edgy sport has appeared on network television before as San Jose-based Strikeforce, which this year was bought out by UFC, staged fights on CBS. But Fox struck a seven-year, $100 million deal with UFC in August with a grand plan of expanding MMA beyond its pay-per-view base.

"These are the most media-savvy dudes in sports," Fox sports chairman David Hill recently told the Los Angeles Times. "We will be No. 1 in our time (slot), without a doubt."

MMA has become a fast-growing phenomenon -- supplanting boxing in popularity the last decade. The driving force is the charismatic White, whose personal story is as unlikely as the emergence of the sport itself.

Running a South Boston boxing gym in the early 1990s, White was shaken down for money by underlings of infamous mobster James "Whitey" Bulger. White fled to Las Vegas, where he had lived as a teenager. Bulger, the inspiration for the Jack Nicholson character in the film "The Departed," later went on the lam for 16 years before being apprehended in June.

"It was about six months after I high-tailed it that everything came down in Boston and they started digging up bodies and stuff like that," White said. "All that looks cool in the movies until it starts happening to you."

In Las Vegas, he reconnected with two friends: the casino-owning brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. In 2001, they bought the struggling UFC for $2 million and put White in charge.

He set about cleaning up the anything-goes image of MMA, which was outlawed in California and once described as "human cockfighting" by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

"We agreed with Sen. McCain, and that's why we ran toward getting our fights regulated by athletic commissions," White said. "We have real athletes involved in a real sport. This is not a freak show. These are not some goons who just rolled off a barstool."

By shrewdly embracing social media and staging fights the public wants to see, White has made UFC synonymous with MMA. Forbes recently estimated the company's net worth between $1.3 billion and $1.7 billion.

"Fighting is in our DNA," White said. "We all get it."

"If you really want to grow a sport and fertilize it so that it becomes a major part of the consciousness, you gotta have it on free TV," said Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "And it sure doesn't hurt if it's on one of the major networks."

Thompson said he sees similarities between MMA and another niche sport that used TV to build a wider audience -- NASCAR.

"UFC has serious brand identity, and they have a roster of interesting personalities," he added. "Sport is like any other drama on TV. The cast of characters is crucial to success. The key will be getting people to care about these people."

But while instantly recognizable among fight fans, Velasquez remains largely unknown outside the MMA world. That's about to change.

On Nov. 19, the UFC 139 fight card will be held at HP Pavilion -- just the second time White has brought his traveling show to the Bay Area. But for now, all the focus is on UFC's network debut.

"Fox is putting our athletes on the same level as the NFL, Major League Baseball, NASCAR and all the other major sports in this country," White said. "It's about time."

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