’m sat in the 02 Arena a dozen seats deep beside all manner of mothers, brothers, lovers and fans of the sport. When a few of us engage in a game of Celebrity Eye spy, someone spots London rapper Dizzee Rascal, another spies former World Heavyweight boxer David Haye. All off a sudden, a blonde teenager walks by and is yelled at by a rudeboi two rows behind me. The teen then turns to shoot back “wanker” at the general area I’m seated in. As it dawns on everyone just who the teenager is, boos ring around the area and as a camera fixes on him; it’s Niall Horan from One Direction.
Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and Mixed Martial Arts in general (MMA) has come a long way since its early-to-mid 90s days where it was dismissed as “human cock-fighting”. Thanks to the savvy leadership of American businessman and UFC President Dana White, and a band of charismatic and explosive fighters such as Quinton ”Rampage” Jackson, Chuck Lidell and Georges St-Pierre UFC has become the fastest growing sport in the world right now, so when I was offered the chance to watch UFC Fight Night 37 live in the O2 thanks to EA Sports in conjunction with new game EA Sports UFC (coming soon to Playstation 4 and Xbox One), I leapt at the chance to witness the spectacle of the sport up close. With the event being screened live both on BT Sport and on Channel 5 in UFC’s free-to-view debut on UK television, UFC Fight Night 37 was something of a landmark event for the sport in the UK, a time to take stock of how UFC has expanded since arriving on these shores and look where it may end up in the near future.
UFC was first introduced to me by one of my housemates at University; a keen gym goer, my friend Paul would wax lyrical about the fitness perks UFC training offered. Eager to add some presence to my nine stone frame on the rugby field, I found myself signing up to a local Fitness First and trying to make sense of the cleans, squats, creatine and different members of the Gracie Barra conglomerate. Outside of the gym, The Ultimate Fighter reality television show piqued my interest with its combination of “several larger than life personalities in a house” format mixed with often brutal UFC fights at the end of each episode. (Special note: you’ll have to go a long way to top this clip of Rampage Jackson destroying a door in a rage in TUF Heavyweights) UFC was interesting to me because unlike many other combat sports, there is still a lot to be admired and taken away from the sport if you’re are not interested in fighting. UFC’s combined fitness elements make it an attractive sport to pick up in the gym (a lot of gymnasts and dancers are said to train using UFC type regimes, making it apparently a popular sport for women, rugby players such as England and London Wasps flanker James Haskell are also known fans), while its media onslaught make it an easy sport to dip in and out of, even for the most casual sports fans.
It was this that struck me most when I was walking through the 02 – UFC’s growth owes a lot to how nearly everything in the sport is designed for the, casual fan, for the television spectacle. Going through the 02, men, women and even a few children were messing around in fanzones, providing on the fly interviews for the UFC website and pre-ordering the forthcoming EA Sports UFC game and season passes (every self-respecting sports’ must have item – on demand streaming of any match on your computer/tablet/mobile device – the Premier League sorely needs one). When UFC puts on a show, it really puts on a show, and for the most part, I found myself swept along in all the hype, talking to the members of the sizeable Scandinavian contingent there that I fancied London boy Jimi Manuwa to overcome the odds and beat Swedish fighter Alexander Gustafsson in the main event.
I say mostly swept along because as we progressed through the fight card of UFC Fight Night 37, crowd reaction during lulls in the fight made me curious. In between fights I took stock of the crowd, largely a mix between London rudebois and City bankers – former Jack3d meatheads with tribal tattoos sitting next to their mothers – Irish boxing fans shouting why David Haye should have never gone up to heavyweight to their girlfriends working in PR – and I began to worry that UFC may have already missed a trick in the UK. As I said before, nearly everything in UFC is designed for the television spectacle; UFC is probably the biggest sport that has never had a pre-television era, yet perhaps the most interest facet of the sport – the intricate matt based wrestling that earned the sport its new moniker of “kinetic chess” – isn’t particularly television friendly.
The main event fight between Jimi Manuwa and Alexander Gustafsson was billed as a Light Heavyweight number one contenders match (another thing UFC has going for it - having one champion per weight class makes it so much easier to follow), Jimi, the bigger and more explosive fighter was an underdog and risked an early defeat if the more experienced Gustafsson got him on the ground. A classic young slugger vs. more experienced fighter bout. When the fight did go south for Jimi and Gustafsson got the takedown, the crowd quieted down. Bizarrely, Ric Flair “Woo!” chants rang around the place as fans willed Jimi to find a way to get up so they could get the slobberknocker bout they wanted so dearly. A young man behind me drunkenly screamed at Jimi to “Get up” and “F*** the Swede up”, as if breaking free was such a simple task. Thankfully the fight did end on an explosive note, as Alexander Gustafsson caught Jimi in a 2nd round knockout that will go well in confirming UFC as a sport in the hearts and minds of many of the fans watching, but those lulls did make me wonder.
As a sport, UFC’s media coverage is its biggest strength and perhaps its weakness – when it is good, it can be exhilarating, giving fans something they’ve long wished for since boxing entered its current sorry state. However, such is its nature, when a bout is bad, it gets televised around the world and is detrimental to the product. In the co-main event between Americans Michael Johnson and Melvin Guillard, Guillard took a hefty kick to the plums and spent the rest of the bout avoiding contact. Dull fights like these are not the way to entice viewers to spend more of their money on pay per views and merchandise. On the flip side, because the sport can be so explosive and fights can end so quickly, fans could end up feeling short-changed – in the inaugural edition of UFC on FOX Junior dos Santos knocked out Cain Velasquez in just 64 seconds in one of the highest viewed broadcasts in the history of mixed martial arts. Three hours of build up ended in just over a minute. With tickets already in the football ranges (Mine was over £100) and MMA not being taught in schools for at least another generation, I wondered how UFC will bring in young fighters that it’ll need to replace its current generation of stars. Outside YouTube knock out compilation videos, how does a young person find themselves initiated in the sport? Moreso, why would they pick UFC over another combat sport that could be easier to get into, like boxing?
Looking at the numbers however and perhaps I was worrying too much; 14,604 people attended Fight Night, with it taking a little more than 2 million dollars in total gate. In Dana White the sport has one of the most intelligent Presidents in sports around today, and if Rugby Union can change scrums to make the sport more palatable to TV audiences, I suspect Dana would have something up his sleeve if something need be changed.
UFC is a sport well placed in today’s sporting landscape and is well and truly here to stay. If you have even a cursory interest in boxing, I suggest dipping your toe in, be it in the gym or watching a bout, you may find yourself surprised.
This story originally featured on Carl Anka's men's interest website - Sharper Living