Exploring the Sporting World: The UFC
Baseball and the New York Yankees have my heart. They always will. But, maybe it's time for something new.
The world of Mixed Martial Arts (or MMA) has been steadily gaining popularity across younger generations as their access into the combat sports world. For many decades, the sport of boxing was the king of the combat sports, and many of the greatest boxers of all time are names that are widely ingrained into the culture. Obviously we have the likes of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, and Mike Tyson, but other names like James Braddock (the Cinderella Man), Rocky Marciano (not to be confused with Rocky Balboa), and Larry Holmes are also largely remembered. In the modern day, the most popular boxers are pretty much done with the sport with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. (Maybe a case could be made for Tyson Fury too?)
Why the sport of boxing failed could be chalked up to many different factors. To me, the two most prominent would be restriction of fans and oversaturation of achievements. There's been an inability to watch the sport as the sporting directors pushed the pay-per-view (PPV) model, which has driven away casual fans and restricted newer fans from wanting to get into it. There's been far too many belts introduced and it seems as though every fighter was a "champion" at one point or another. So, as the biggest combat sport has been losing its gusto, there was an opening for someone else to take its place.
Enter the UFC. A promotion showcasing the best overall fighters in the world, the history and road to the top was not easy, but through smart marketing of their brand they have become the #1 series to fight in. The UFC noticed the problems with boxing and have created solutions. As the first MMA organization to become big, they are *the* place that a fighter wants to be. A UFC title belt holds more than its smaller, opposing competitors (like the Bellator, Rizin, ONE, and PFL). While fighters will desire to win a belt with any promotion, the UFC knows they are the "major leagues" of MMA to the "minor leagues" of the other organizations. This eliminates the problem of their being 4 different belts and titles to unify at any given time, like what was going on in boxing.
The UFC has also made itself accessible to fans. Of course they still charge an arm and a leg for their numbered pay-per-view events, but they have created a system where almost every week there is some sort of UFC event going on that can be accessed for cheap. If a non-numbered "fight night" is going on, it can be accessed for (almost) free...with an ESPN+ subscription. Additionally, the UFC has contracts with ESPN to show undercards (early prelimination/prelimination) on traditional cable television. This opens up fans to get to know the sport casually.
Now, like all combat sports, it would be unfair to have all fighters to fight in the same weight classes. In the UFC, there are 8 different weight classes (for male fighters) ranging from:
Flyweight (116 to 125 pounds)
Bantamweight (126 to 135 pounds)
Featherweight (136 to 145 pounds)
Lightweight (146 to 155 pounds)
Welterweight (156 to 170 pounds)
Middleweight (171 to 185 pounds)
Light Heavyweight (186 to 205 pounds)
Heavyweight (206 to 265 pounds)
With over 550 fighters under contract over its history, and a wide range of weight classes, there are also many options of fighters to root for. To go quickly by weight class, these are the fighters in each that I tend to enjoy watching:
Flyweight - Tatsuro Taira (Japan)
Bantamweight - Aljamain Sterling (USA)
Featherweight - Chan-sung Jung (South Korea), Alexander Volkanovski (Australia), and Bryce Mitchell (USA)
Lightweight - Michael Chandler (USA)
Welterweight - Kamaru Usman (Nigeria)
Middleweight - Israel Adesanya (Nigeria)
Light Heavyweight - (Nobody, really)
Heavyweight - Tai Tuivasa (Australia) and Hamdy Abdelwahab (Egypt)
The UFC is the pinnacle of combat sports in the modern era. It is where fighters from any background or discipline can attempt to showcase why they are the toughest, strongest, and best fighter in the world. The best fighters tend to come from wrestling or Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) backgrounds, but the sport in its modern iteration requires an advanced knowledge of all types of fighting styles which also includes kickboxing, muay thai, judo, karate, and traditional boxing.
There is also a lot of nuance towards understanding the UFC (and mixed-martial arts as a whole) and how rounds are scored and won. A lot of this can be subjective, but for the most part a more involved fan can correctly assume the scoring decisions of a fight if it makes it to a scorecard decision. Often times the best fights are the ones that make it to a close scorecard decision, whereas the best performances are those where one fighter earns a knock-out during the competition.
Starting in 2020, as a way to continue to sport through the COVID-induced lockdowns, the UFC opened a dedicated arena called the "UFC Apex" in Enterprise, Nevada (just outside of Las Vegas). This has been the main hub for UFC Fight Nights for the past 3 years and looks to continue as such. As it was built to combat the pandemic, seating options have always been limited (and often won as UFC giveaways) as it was set to be a venue "behind closed doors". This hasn't impacted the model either as the sport relies mostly on streams online from ESPN+ instead of having an in-person audience. However, there are plans to expand the arena and open up some limited seating options up to about 1,000 fans.
Outside of the UFC Apex, all numbered UFC events (aka the PPV and often title fight bouts), and some bigger fight nights, will always take place at a bigger arena. With the next 3 numbered events already scheduled, they will be taking place in:
UFC 284 - RAC Arena (Perth, Australia)
UFC 285 - T-Mobile Arena (Las Vegas, Nevada)
UFC 286 - O2 Arena (London, England)
With fighters from all over the world, the UFC does try to make itself a worldwide event even as a promotion mostly based in the USA. Just last year I went to a "Fight Night" that took place at the UBS Arena on Long Island. All told, it was a cool experience to see in person.
As a sport with no dedicated calendar, the UFC goes on all year round. As of right now, there is a UFC numbered event or fight night that will be taking place each weekend through all of February and March.
It's also not necessary to watch all of these events (another nicety to the sport that you can be very relaxed in watching or not watching) to keep up to date with what's going on, but there are plenty of options to watch if you choose to do so.
There's a great documentary called "Fighting in the Age of Loneliness" put together by the YouTube channel "Secret Base" (then SB Nation) which I highly highly recommend anybody who is interested in the sport watches. I will warn you there is some bad language involved, but they do a fantastic job explaining the history of combat sports (mostly martial arts) and how the UFC came to be. I will also warn you that it is nearly 2 hours long. However, it is something I have shown friends in my past who have all come back with positive remarks.
There is an essence of watching combat sports which is exciting. It's why- as much as we tend to keep private to ourselves- we enjoy watching big hits in football or hockey. Or, watching one guy punch another guy so hard he knocks him to the ground. We always hope that the players are okay, but the thrill of the hit is something that brings excitement. To me, if you didn't get an overwhelming rush of adrenaline and excitement from that, you're not a sports fan. It's why in the aftermath of all of those things we rush to watch the replays. And if they aren't available, we rush to rewind the coverage or find a clip of it online.
The UFC is a brutal sport. It's violent. The fighters have personalities that border on the line of psychotic at times. There are rules, but there are always fighters going against the rules of what they can do in the octagon, or during interviews, or just in being. It's a spectacle and it is hard to take your eyes away from it all. This is why I enjoy the UFC.
Would I ever do it? Of course not! I spent one semester in college in the boxing club (which I neglected to tell my parents at the time) and after just a few punches to the face I quickly realized that this was going against my studying neuroscience and the brain. I'm not built to get punched. So, instead, I watch people who are. And are willing and able to throw punches, and kicks, and throw takedowns, and do things I can't. That's also why I enjoy the UFC. And why I enjoy sport.