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Column: My 'Ultimate' dilemma

By Dan Agabiti
On September 12, 2011

This past weekend, "Warrior," a new sports movie starring Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte premiered and the sport around which the plot hinges is mixed martial arts, or MMA. This has got me thinking, not so much about the movie, but about MMA as a sport.

In the past five or so years, MMA has exploded in popularity. The sport's primary league and biggest moneymaking entity is UFC—Ultimate Fighting Championship—and right now, UFC is what boxing was 15 or 20 years ago. Guys are coming together to watch the title fights on pay-per-view and the main fights draw immense audiences, both on television and in arenas across the nation. This sport has become a very big deal.

Call me soft, but honestly, I have no idea how I feel about UFC. I don't hate it and yet, at the same time I'm not in love with, or even indifferent toward it.

I don't think, like some, that UFC is nothing more than barbaric, mindless violence.

When the sport was in its early stages, it could certainly be said that the brutality was far too excessive and concern for contestants was nonexistent. In a 1999 article in Slate, John McCain is quoted as calling it "human cockfighting." But in the past decade or so, the league has done a very good job of introducing reforms to make the action easier to stomach.

During UFC 12, fish hooking (placing your hands into an opponent's mouth and pulling outward) became illegal and weight classes were introduced to even out the fights. For UFC 14, gloves became mandatory and in UFC 15, the league banned headbutts, strikes to the back of the neck or head, groin shots, kicking an opponent while down and hair pulling. UFC is clearly a league that cares, at least in some capacity, for the well being of its athletes.

The ‘mindless and idiotic' argument crumbles even further, in my opinion, once I consider the demographic behind it and the type of people who are watching and even endorsing these events. The people watching it are, for the most part, 18 to 34-year-old middle class, financially savvy and well educated men. A lot of my friends and a lot of guys on Twitter who I really respect–Mark Cuban, Colin Cowherd and Mark Driscoll to name a few—have really embraced UFC as a legitimate sports league.

When you look at who's in the front row of these fights, the wealthy elite that used to sit front row of boxing matches in three piece suits has given way to the high-tech billionaires in blue jeans and a t-shirt. There are a lot of people into this thing who are really successful and well known, so it leaves me to assume there must be something about it that draws these types of guys.

For those who say, "Well, the pornography industry makes more money than the MLB, NHL, NBA and NFL combined, has a lot of respectable guys behind it and solid demographics. Why don't you just go get wrapped up in that then?" or "There are a lot of stars and decent people with serious drug problems, so why don't you go shoot up some heroin?" Relax, I'm talking about a sports league. These things are apples and oranges.

I don't know if I could go so far as to say that I'm interested in UFC, but I'm definitely not turned off by it. The simple, yet intense formula of one man's strength pitted against another's in an organized and well-thought out manner sounds like it could be awesome, awful or somewhere in between.

UFC has emerged on the sports scene like that stereotypical new guy in high school that moves from Southern California to a small-town high school in Hickville. The kid plays acoustic guitar, claims to have met a few B-list celebrities and talks a big game about his athletic abilities. All the easy girls fawn over him instantly, other girls aren't so easily convinced and guys act like they don't care, but they do. As hard as you try, you can't ignore him.

The only thing is, you can't really know what to make of him just by observing from a distance. He could be making up the celebrity stuff, only know three chords and play the same five songs, depending on who's around, and not know a basketball from a softball. But at the same time, he could be a classically trained musician, be on a first name basis with movie stars, read ancient greek and throw a football 55 yards from his butt. The thing is, you have to hang out with him to find out.

What I'm trying to express is that I guess I have to give this UFC thing a try because I can't ignore it any longer. It's more then a national trend, it's an up-and-coming sport. I might like it, I might hate it, or still yet, I might watch it and decide it's kind of like my relationship with the NHL and I'll only know enough about it to sort of be able to know what's going on. Either way, I'll be tuning in to ‘Spike' September 17 at 9 p.m. eastern time to watch Jake Shields take on Jake Ellenberger a.k.a. the Juggernaut 


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