Ultimate Fighting popularity takes hold

BY TRAVIS VARNER | JULY 30, 2009 7:11 AM

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The stopwatch alarm rings. UI student Dmitri Petrov approaches his opponent. He is not huge, hovering around 6 feet. Dark hair. Medium skin. He approaches his opponent, a smaller guy in a white shirt. The two raise their gloved hands, smacking them together in a ritual that begins the fight. Then there’s a flurry of muscle. Hitting. Pounding. Striking. The sounds of the stuffed plastic gloves connecting with flesh. With noses. With cheeks. Eyes. Bare feet kicking, dancing over the multicolored mats beneath. After a minute, the alarm rings again. The action ceases. The men stop and turn toward their trainer breathing heavily. Their sparring is over. But their futures hold many more fights, as mixed martial arts has gained in popularity on both local and national levels.

‘Purity’ of competition

Some call it the fastest growing sport in the world. Petrov’s trainer, Jay Dinsdale, agrees. A mixed martial arts trainer at the S.T.R.I.K.E. Martial Arts gym in Coralville, Dinsdale started fighting competitively nine years ago. The sport caught his attention because of what he calls its purity. The competition is simplistic, yet intriguing.

“The main reason I got into it is I’m just a super competitive guy, and playing checkers just doesn’t do it for me,” he said. “I want to wrestle, or have a contest where two guys put on boxing gloves, punch each other in the face, and kick each other in the ribs or legs and give up.”

Dinsdale, 33, points to the Ultimate Fighting Championship on Spike — a cable network channel geared toward male audiences — as the main factor for the sport’s popularity. The initial programing was a reality show titled “The Ultimate Fighter” that put up-and-coming mixed martial arts fighters in the same household, and they competed each week in exhibition matches. The final fighter left standing gained a Ultimate Fighting Championship contract.

“Years back, it was just video tapes that were passed around the gyms,” Dinsdale said in describing how fans watched the fights. “You could only rent them at some video stores or select pay-per-views, and that was the only way to see it. Now, it’s on TV every night, so it’s definitely blown up.”

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Popularity from the small screen

In fact, mixed martial arts has become a cultural phenomenon. Discussions about the sport are ubiquitous in some quarters. People talk about the fights at home, at work, and even during class.
No wonder. The Ultimate Fighting Championship controls 90 percent of the professional mixed martial arts industry, and it is worth more than an estimated $1 billion in terms of the whole brand. With a cable television deal on Spike and expansion to an estimated 34 countries worldwide, mixed martial arts mania is in full swing.

On July 11, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s 100th event took place and set financial milestones for the sport. ESPN gave it top billing on its website, which essentially announced the sport’s arrival to the mainstream. It was one of the best selling pay-per-views in history, selling more than 1.5 million units. In parts of Iowa City, the streets were barren, and it was a Saturday night.

Buffalo Wild Wings orders every Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view, and it is consistently packed on those nights. Kristin Keimig, the general manager of the Iowa City restaurant, declined to get into financial specifics but said the restaurant loves showing the event because it is always jam-packed.

“We definitely see an increase [in customers],” she said. “We love showing the Ultimate Fighting Championship, we just love to have it.”

Practice and positioning

Mixed martial arts is a combination of many fighting styles. Brazilian jiu-jitzu, kickboxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, Muay Thai, and other fighting styles all play a role. The sport traditionally has three main areas of focus during a match — the standup, clinch, and ground.

The standup is hand-to-hand combat that occurs when the fighters are standing. The clinch is a variation of the standup in which the fighters are grappling, trying to use holds and to control the opponent. The ground aspect is hand-to-hand combat taking place when both competitors are on lying on the mat. Submissions and holds are used frequently in this position.

Mixed martial arts’ surging popularity has led to more enrollment in Dinsdale’s classes. The age group of his students tends to be 19 to 25 — but many don’t last. He thinks he experiences a high turnover rate with his classes because people come in after watching Ultimate Fighting Championship, underestimating the sport’s demands.

“They’ll be looking for a place to do what they saw on TV, but then after three or four months, they quit,” Dinsdale said. “Some folks think because they saw it on TV, they can do it, but it’s definitely not a knitting class. They come in, start hitting the pads, and lose their breath.”

At the UI, mixed martial arts’ sky-rocketing popularity can be felt throughout Recreational Services and club sports, which now offer Brazilian jiu-jitzu, tae kwon do, and karate.

John Gutta, a UI senior and the Brazilian Jiu-Jitzu Club president, has seen the numbers increase in correlation in to the rising prominence of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Although he stresses to everyone that the Iowa Brazilian jiu-jitzu team is not an official mixed martial arts club, people still show eagerness to learn the sport.

“We kind of throw in a disclaimer that this is not an official mixed martial arts club, but despite that, the interest has been spiked,”he said. “I know I started after watching the Ultimate Fighting Championship, because I thought it was cool and really interesting.

“A lot of times that gets you through the door, but the sport of jiu-jitzu keeps them here.”

Politics and venue

But some are not quite sold on the sport. Some politicians believe the Ultimate Fighting Championship is all spectacle and far too brutal. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., once referred to the Ultimate Fighting Championship as “human cockfighting,” and he tried banning the fights in 1997.

Dinsdale disagrees.

He believes the sport has made strides in the last decade. Once labeled as “no holds barred” — which suggested that anything goes — the Ultimate Fighting Championship now has a list of regulations for the competitors to follow. Among them: No kicking when the opponent is down, no spitting, no hair pulling, and no head-butting. Referees stop the fights quicker than in boxing matches, and the fights don’t last as long.

Dinsdale believes the sport of mixed martial arts is actually safer than boxing.

“For people to say it’s brutal — all sports are brutal,” he said. “Football is brutal. Boxing is brutal. Boxing is totally socially acceptable. And when is the last time you heard about an mixed martial arts fighter dying? That happens in boxing … brain aneurysms are pretty common when you’re getting your head bludgeoned by a professional boxer.”

Petrov agreed. He stressed the sport has many positive aspects that people sometimes forget about. He has fought competitively twice at the Union Bar in Iowa City before joining the S.T.R.I.K.E. martial arts gym. He said fighting onstage gives one great self-confidence.

“Mixed martial arts teaches you a lot about defense,” Petrov said. “When you get in the ring and fight, you don’t just pummel each other. You need to know how to defend … a lot of brain use is involved.”

The Iowa City City Council passed a resolution on July 24, 2007 banning all establishments that hold liquor licenses from allowing “amateur fighting or a boxing match” — which includes mixed martial arts events. As a result, local enthusiasts will have to travel a bit farther to witness a live fight.

But given the sport’s popularity, they suggest perhaps one day this will change.

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