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Books | Sports

February 2, 2009

Mixed Martial Arts' Meteoric Rise

Jon Wertheim chronicles the surging popularity of an often misunderstood sport.

Tom Flynn

If Jon Wertheim's book, Blood in the Cage: Mixed Martial Arts, Pat Miletich, and the Furious Rise of the UFC, were given voice, it would surely taunt, "Go ahead and judge me by the cover, wimp." It's a sucker's bet, however, as the Sports Illustrated senior writer deftly takes us neck deep into what looks like a river of blood and rage, only to reveal on the far side something that will surely deck the quick-to-judge: that mixed martial arts (MMA) is highly skill-based and less dangerous than boxing. Maybe that's the point.

Jon Wertheim. Photo by David Barry.
"The average, casual fan sees two guys getting into a cage and he immediately thinks of how medieval it is."

Jon Wertheim. Photo by David Barry.

Wertheim gives us an insider's view of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), the pioneering organization that has taken what was once loosely defined as no-holds-barred fighting and refined it into MMA. His lens of choice for following UFC's dizzying ascent is Pat Miletich, the legendary Iowa street-brawler-turned-MMA-fighter who stands in stark and welcome contrast to today's caricature of a pampered athlete.

Miletich is as credible as he is tough, and Wertheim's decision to follow his career in framing the story is crucial when discussing a sport that Senator McCain once mistakenly maintained "…emphasizes injuring or crippling one of the combatants." MMA is, as its name implies, a mixture of fighting disciplines, but a fighter's goal is to subdue rather than injure his foe to take a match. This is done through a requisite mixture of toughness and strength, but also a considerable amount of technique. If a fighter does not have at least some measure of technical mastery of several disciplines (jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and boxing are cited throughout the book), he will most often make a quick and painful exit from this fight game. Miletich himself wasn't able to get on a UFC fight card until he expanded his repertoire of combat skills well beyond street-toughness.

Gelf Magazine recently spoke with Wertheim, age 37, about his view of UFC's past, present, and future as it muscles its way to an increasingly impressive share of an already crowded sports landscape. This interview was conducted by phone and edited for length and clarity. You can hear Wertheim and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, February 5, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: We're going through a recession right now and the sentiment that the system failed us can instill some potent anger in those impacted. Do you think that rough economic times can contribute to the popularity of UFC? During the Depression, boxing had a boon of sorts, both because it was a basic way of expressing anger and because of the allure of the long shot possibly making good.

Jon Wertheim: Interesting. I made the point that MMA started in the 1990s and that it was uniquely ill-suited for the Clinton ethos. I think the bigger issue now is that as these states are getting [fiscally] squeezed, here's a product that can come into any venue in the country and fill it up and bring in fans and bring in tourism and commerce. My take is that the economics help in the sense that states might not have the luxury not to sanction UFC (fighting, like boxing, needs to be sanctioned by each state's respective sports commission), since it is such an easy money maker.
I do think there's a correlation between combat sports and the climate of the times. But I think the practical effects are that if I'm a state that hasn't sanctioned the sport, I'm going to look really closely at it, because it's a pretty clear way to make some money.

Gelf Magazine: Digging further into the sport, you make a point in the book that in MMA, even if a guy is an up and comer he could go out and lose, because UFC is not necessarily going to put him against a guy whom he's better than to pad his record. So that's competitively more pure, so to speak, than boxing because rising stars there are often fed stiffs to beat en route to a title shot.
On the other side of the coin, you talk about steroids and said that they're making some clear inroads into MMA. In terms of big-picture management, having spent so much time with these fighters and UFC, do you think that they're going to manage the integrity of the matchups and also guard against further inroads from steroids?

Jon Wertheim: The approach to matchmaking is part of the appeal of the sport because there are no tomato cans. If you're getting in there, you're good. You see the best fights and you're not waiting for Don King or Bob Arum to unify belts or all the nonsense that goes on in boxing. It's not great from the fighter's perspective. I'm sure there are fighters out there who would love to pad their record and get to 32-0 and get paid and not worry about it. In UFC, every fight is supposed to be a good fight, and if as a fighter I lose a couple of times in a row, then I might be out of the organization.
It's really interesting, because from a fan's perspective, if Georges St-Pierre is the champion and B.J. Penn is the obvious challenger, they're going to fight. And they're going to be told when and they're going to be told how much they're going to be paid. It's great for the fans; we're not waiting for them to fight five tomato cans to build up their records. There's no such thing, really, as a tune-up fight. But the problem for the fighters is, as a fighter you're an independent contractor, and I'm sure B.J. Penn wouldn't mind getting four fat paychecks before he got his belt instead of getting a tough fight scheduled every time.
With steroids, everyone from high-level fighters to amateurs mentions them. I think in UFC they're used mostly to speed up recovery [Wertheim also mentions the use of human growth hormone in the book] and not just for raw muscle mass. I think some of the problem is the structure of the sport itself. You can't test these guys everyday, and as a fighter you know when the tests are coming and they're easy to beat. You have to be an idiot to get caught, basically. I think that's an issue. I'm not sure what can be done. The fighters are all at different stages, there's no union, and they test these guys before they fight but obviously, out-of-competition testing isn't happening too often. So that's an issue.

Gelf Magazine: Also on the future of the sport: You mention early in the book the now-illegal practice of fish-hooking (inserting fingers into the mouth or nostrils with the intent of pulling or tearing the surrounding tissue), which will jolt readers out of the seat; or if it doesn't, nothing in the book will.
Then as you progress, you talk about the evolution of UFC and the sanctioning in various states, and how some of that sanctioning has required regulation that prohibits some of the more dangerous fighting techniques. Taking it forward, you could conceivably get to a point where UFC gets regulated so heavily that it's no longer mixed martial arts. Are there core components that really distinguish MMA that could not be taken out of the sport without costing it its edge?

Jon Wertheim: When New York wanted to sanction it a few years ago, they wanted the fighters to wear headgear. That's probably not going to happen.
I personally have a problem with the cage. I just think that it's unnecessary and it's primarily a marketing feature. I think that anytime that you have two guys doing anything in a cage—they could be playing the cello—it's going to turn people off. To me, it's unnecessary. If this was a ring, we'd probably be talking about this as an Olympic sport. But I think the average, casual fan sees two guys getting into a cage and he immediately thinks of how medieval it is. But the response given to the question as to why to keep the cage is that it wouldn't be mixed martial arts without it.

Gelf Magazine: And it would slow down the action.

Jon Wertheim: Yeah, and the Octagon (the eight-sided cage in which UCF matches are staged) is part of the branding.
As far as the regulating; it seems that most states either say we sanction it or we don't. But I don't think there's a huge movement afoot to change the fundamental rules.
You can't have different rules in State A than in State B. You can't have a UFC card in Minnesota that has different rules than a UFC card in Nevada. My experience is that sanctioning is either going to happen or it's not, but it's no longer at the point where the states are saying that you can have it but you need to wear knee pads or that kind of thing.

Gelf Magazine: Skipping to a perhaps unforeseen aspect of the sport's future, when you're in the gym, how are the older fighters holding up? Do most of them limp or have arthritic fingers or what have you from the fighting? I was wondering what you saw being around these guys. What direction do the veterans go after their career?

Jon Wertheim: I generally tout the safety and how this is really safer than boxing and in my opinion it's safer than football. It will be interesting to see what the medical studies and the MRIs 15 years from now show. But you know, a lot of these early fighters like Mark Coleman and Randy Couture, with a lot of wear and tear, are still getting in there. So I don't know if that speaks to a) the longevity of fighters or b) that we don't know enough yet.

Gelf Magazine: Yeah, we're still early in the curve.

Jon Wertheim: But so many of these fights are won on the ground [a reference to fighters dropping to the canvas and fighting the match in a non-upright or 'ground' position] and nobody's getting brain damage from the ground maneuvers like an ankle lock.

Gelf Magazine: Talking about safety in the book, you mention that a boxer might receive more long-term damaging punishment from the repeated blows to the head than might an MMA fighter. I recently watched a boxing match with that idea in mind. It was a 10-rounder and it went the 10 rounds. The cumulative blows to the head, when you watch within that frame, are incredible. Okay, it's not great getting put in a choke hold like you might in MMA, but the number of blows to the head are far fewer.

Jon Wertheim: I went to a fight here in New York a couple weeks ago. It was one of these cards where a promoter's pumping up his guys. He's fighting a bunch of people at two completely different skill levels, and the lesser boxers are just eating head shot after head shot.
After the first head shot, you wanted to see the guy grab a knee and take the other guy to the ground like he would in UFC. Eat one punch and then take the fight to the ground. But, oh yeah, you can't because this is boxing. You just have to stand there and take it. So, for 10 rounds a guy probably took 500 punches to the head. He lost a unanimous decision and I'm thinking, "God, this is 100 times more brutal than UFC." In UFC, the first time he got punched in the face he would have taken the guy's knees and made the fight a jiu-jitsu match instead of toe to toe.

Gelf Magazine: Guys on the way out of boxing, too, as they are heading towards the exit in their career are taking the most punches and racking up the most damage, whereas UFC fighters may have a steeper decline and hopefully from a health perspective not as damaging of one.

Jon Wertheim: It's one of these things where it's easy to say that, and I'm as guilty as anyone, but let's see some MRIs 15 years from now. Just seeing what these guys go through, the way they spar, and how few of these fights end with massive concussive punches, I have to think this is safer. I saw that Willis McGahee hit in the Ravens/Steelers game and I haven't seen anyone get their bell rung like that in the UFC. I haven't seen all the other fighters on their knees praying that the guy didn't end up paralyzed in a UFC fight.

Gelf Magazine: Yeah, and I thought the announcer's reaction was fairly subdued, which is telling of what is considered normal.

Jon Wertheim: When they wheeled him off, anybody who watches football knows the drill; you know what they're going to do. They strap him down and it's part of the sport and every few games you have an incident like that. You hope it's not a Dennis Byrd case. I never saw anything like that in UFC.

Gelf Magazine: But there are cases where UFC is moving down paths similar to other sports. With Pat Miletich as primarily a trainer now and Monte Cox a promoter, there's a relationship between the two where Cox is making a lot more money than Miletich, but Pat in his way is taking on as much responsibility to develop the fighters. Will the UFC develop a trainer/promoter structure like boxing has? Do you think it will slot out that way?

Jon Wertheim: You have a lot of these camps in MMA. It's almost like teams, and there's maybe half a dozen or a dozen really top teams like Team Quest, Jackson's Gym in New Mexico, Miletich Fighting Systems, and a few others. So it's a little different than boxing in that regard. There are guys there who fighters can spar with and also they bring into the camp, for example, one guy that's a jiu-jitsu expert to teach it. It's a pretty smart way to go about it.
But you still have a lot of the financial sticking points where the managers/promoters are making the fights and the managers are making more money than the trainers and a lot of the unpleasant financials are creeping in a bit. But instead of having these satellites gyms like boxing, you have these [team] pockets so the trainer isn't just responsible for one fighter. For example, if Lennox Lewis wants a new trainer, the old trainer's out of a job. Whereas a lot of these trainers have a couple dozen guys in the gym.

José "Pelé" Landi-Jons vs. Pat Miletich

Gelf Magazine: It sounds like they're going to have different options. A trainer in UFC is more likely to have a camp, so perhaps you're not going to have as many big disparities in income between individuals. I guess it's just a matter of how the sport evolves from here.

Jon Wertheim: Yeah, the financials are very interesting right now.

Gelf Magazine: It seems like it's an outright windfall for certain guys—and I don't know if it's that much different than boxing—and you have other low-level guys stepping into the ring at Iowa bars and fighting for essentially a T-shirt.

Jon Wertheim: And the UFC has no major competition, so their attitude is basically: Until you can prove you're helping our bottom line, you're pretty expendable.

Gelf Magazine: Do you see the splitting of MMA into different groups? Do think the UFC is going to remain the preeminent force, or do you think it's going to splinter from here?

Jon Wertheim: I think that's what everybody's waiting to see. You need competition if you're a fighter and you need another place to go if you don't make it in the UFC. You need another offer to leverage, but it just seems like the UFC keeps getting stronger and stronger and these competing groups are dropping by the wayside.

Related in Gelf

Gelf interviewed Wertheim twice before: once about his NBA novel, and then about his biography of a pool hustler.

Jon Wertheim at Gelf Magazine's Varsity Letters in February 2009 (Part 1 of 3)

Jon Wertheim at Gelf Magazine's Varsity Letters in February 2009 (Part 2 of 3)

Jon Wertheim at Gelf Magazine's Varsity Letters in February 2009 (Part 3 of 3)

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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Article by Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn has written two books, Baseball in Baltimore and Venable Park.

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