On Saturday, the UFC will celebrate its twentieth anniversary. The company has come a long way from its beginnings as a frivolous novelty broadcasted on the fringes of American cable television, to a mainstream sport celebrated globally. The UFC and Zuffa have managed to accomplish in twenty years what the NBA and NFL are still striving for. Which begs the question, what does the UFC offer that other American sporting exports lack? Do we really love fighting that much? The UFC’s president Dana White certainly thinks so. Borrowing hyperbole that was originally expressed by UFC commentator and podcast extraordinaire Joe Rogan, White argues that:
"Fighting is in our DNA, we get it and we like it. I don’t care what color you are, what language you speak, or what country you live in, we’re all human beings and fighting is in our DNA."
I am not entirely convinced by this argument, just as I am not convinced by other arguments Joe Rogan has pioneered. Such as his suggestion that the presence of cannabinoid receptors in the brain are somehow linked to cannabis being foreordained for human consumption, which is rather like compelling people to drink hydrochloric acid because we have it in our stomachs.
The whole "fighting is in our DNA" hypothesis is problematic, as most people do not watch MMA or the UFC. Most people outside of North America have never heard of either. Moreover, the majority of the population do not warm to fighting, and our society as a whole is adverse to it. In any other walk of life outside of the octagon or squared circle, fighting is simply not tolerated.
So what exactly is the attraction? I am sure a tweedy bespectacled beardy weirdy labouring away somewhere in a dry monastery for the terminally pedantic, would readily conjure up a plethora of Freudian explanations for why young men are enthused to watch other men roll around on a canvas half naked. But, I feel their explanations are somewhat lazy, and reveal more about them, than they do about the average MMA fan. Maybe there are those out there who do derive a certain voyeuristic pleasure from watching MMA. However, one would have thought that there are other, more satisfactory ways to achieve that kind of gratification.
Much like anything else, one’s interest in something is always going to be subjective, and relatively unique to that individual, I doubt there is a one size that fits all theory out there, that can account for everyone's interest in the sport. My attraction to martial arts is in its craft, the complexities and nuances in techniques, not to mention the anticipation and drama one experiences when watching two world class athletes test their physicality against one another. I’ve always thought of MMA as more akin to dancing than fighting, a sort of ballet for boys, which perhaps accounts for my first love with Hong Kong action cinema, and professional wrestling, before eventually graduating to the "real thing".
But of course, it is not the "real thing", not really. In a real fight there are no rules, no rounds, and no referees. In a real fight, anything goes. Finger jabbing, eye gouging, head stomping, scratching, clawing, stabbing, shooting, and all low blows. I am positive that had the UFC been promoting real fighting, it would not have been nearly as popular, we certainly would not be celebrating it twenty years later.
But why has the UFC succeeded where other organisations have failed? an entire book could be dedicated to this subject, but here's my two cents. A lot of it can be put down to the Chips falling in the right places. In the early naughties, the UFC was struggling. Japanese promotion Pride FC boasted better fighters, more interesting matches, and promised more of a spectacle in regards to production. When Pride fell apart in 2007, due to complications arising from alleged elements of organised crime in the company (the Yakuzas), the UfC managed to buy the promotion, acquiring many of its talent. Pride’s implosion meant that the UFC were now the major players in the market, virtually unencumbered by competition. This is not to say that the UFC were not holding their own prior to Pride’s demise. The UFC had been reinvigorated in 2005 by the enormous success of season one of the Ultimate Fighter, which introduced MMA to a whole new audience.
One aspect of the UFC’s success which I think has been overlooked is the Shamrock factor. Many people, including myself, became vaguely aware of the UFC around the time of the WWE’s attitude era. Around this time, "the World’s Most Dangerous Man" was a prominent feature of the WWE’S (then WWF) weekly flagship show, Raw is War. I do think the presence of Shamrock helped with the UFC’s recognition, and certainly its crossover appeal between fans of pro wrestling, which was later more overtly demonstrated by the arrival of Brock Lesnar.
The UFC’s success is not all based on circumstance and luck. Hard work and perseverance had to come into it somewhere.Nowhere is the embodiment of these virtues more apparent than in UFC president Dana White. This is a man who seemingly never stops. Even after going under the knife for his much publicised manias disease, he was right back into the thick of it a mere fourty eight hours later. White's ’ personality is also a major factor. Love him or hate him, there is a reason why he has significantly more followers on Twitter than most of his fighters, and that some of his video blogs and press scrums receive more views than episodes of the Ultimate Fighter. It is because he is so damn entertaining. Apart from Vince Mcmahon, I can think of no other president or leader of any company that expresses themselves publicly quite like Dana White. Without "uncle Dana" there would be no UFC, no twentieth Anniversary, and really dull Saturday nights in.