While boxing struggles for its very survival, viewers are turning to an even more brutal form of entertainment. Mixed martial arts is violent and gruesome – but it is accessible and unpredictable. A ﬁght game veteran reports from his ﬁrst MMA contest and ﬁnds that, like it or hate it, you can't ignore the rage for the cage
Action from Michael Bisping (r) vs Chris Leben (l), Michael Bisping went on to win after 3 rounds. Photograph: Colin Williams/PA For more than a century, the turbulent business of sanctioned violence has been conducted on a square of stretched, padded canvas between men wearing cushioned gloves who, to appease the squeamish, are constrained by a code of discipline and vaguely civilised behaviour. In time, boxing became an art, albeit a brutal one, and a sanitised business suitable for sale at the box office and in homes. But something strange is happening in the fight game: millions of fans have tired of cleansed combat and are embracing old-style contests closer in mood and execution to the anarchic, caveman excitement of the bare-knuckle days. Welcome to the world of mixed martial arts. Its fans - typically males between 18 and 34, quite a lot of them suburban and white, and accompanied by wives or girlfriends - neither see the artistry of boxing nor care much for the sport's history. The centre of their universe is not the ring but the octagon, where fists (housed in small, fingered gloves), unprotected feet and sharp elbows propel bouts of three five-minute rounds towards dramatic, unscripted conclusion. Heads are bashed. Necks are choked. Arms are twisted. And money is made, most of it under the banner of the UFC, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, an organisation Forbes magazine estimates is already worth more than $1bn. Its army of addicts would not disagree with the words of Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk: "I just don't want to die without a few scars." Or watch someone else getting them, at least. Beaten presidential candidate John McCain, who boxed in the navy, called an early no-holds-barred version of MMA "human cockfighting". Don King, for whom regulations and tradition are mere tools of promotion, says: "All UFC is doing is taking 200 years of rules and throwing them out the window." But the bastard child of boxing and wrestling, with strains of jujitsu, karate and kick boxing thrown in, has made the cover of Sports Illustrated and Time magazine has called it "the fastest growing sports brand in the United States". It is shown in 36 countries, including the UK. Last year, Harley-Davidson and Bud Light, brands that hit the wallet of American male culture, signed sponsorship deals. In America, it is shown on Spike, the adventure-based TV channel belonging to MTV. What nobody is doing anymore is ignoring UFC. Boxing, meanwhile, where King and other promoters have spread confusion for three decades and more, is on unsteady feet. Ricky Hatton's recent fight with Manny Pacquiao did 850,000 pay-per-view (PPV) sales on the HBO channel in the United States, topped up with an undisclosed number in the UK, making it a standout success. But Joe Calzaghe's fight with Roy Jones Jr at Madison Square Garden last November drew around 250,000 PPV customers, and the historic venue fell 6,000 short of a 20,000 sellout. A month earlier, middleweight Kelly Pavlik, a big ticket-seller, and Bernard Hopkins - of whom the same can't be said - drew an embarrassing 190,000 PPV sales. Oscar De La Hoya generated a staggering 14.1m buys and $696m in revenue in 19 of his most glittering fights. He holds the record, still, of 2.4m buys for his loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr in May 2007. But this was the flickering of the light; ESPN revealed in the same year that Americans had fallen out of love with boxing, which did not rate even among their 15 favourite sports. The decline has continued. The lone saviour for now is Pacquiao. Mayweather, who says he is the cash cow, tunes up against Juan Manuel Marquez...
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