Mixed martial arts: Policing a popular product

  • Article by: MYRON P. MEDCALF , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 8, 2008 - 6:34 AM

Safety and salaries are among the hot issues for organizers of the in-your-face brutal Ultimate Fighting, which holds its first program in the state this weekend.

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Brock Lesnar, top,fights Frank Mir during the first round of the Ultimate Fighting Championship 81 heavyweight bout at Mandalay Bay Events Center on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2008. Mir won by tap out in the first round.

Photo: Ronda Churchill, Dml - Las Vegas Review-Journal

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Before his February matchup against Brock Lesnar, Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Frank Mir said he wanted to “rip the skin off of his face” and make him “taste his own blood going down his throat.” Lesnar responded by saying he’d take Mir on the ground to “pound his head into the mat.”

In the final seconds of the fight, a bloodied Mir got hold of Lesnar’s right leg and bent it at an excruciating angle until Lesnar tapped out in submission.

That’s the kind dramatic brutality that is ingrained in the UFC, which is staging its first event in Minnesota on Saturday night at Target Center. The card will feature former University of Minnesota wrestler Lesnar and St. Paul’s Roger Huerta, and promises explosive action as fighters utilize jiu-jitsu, boxing and wrestling skills in an effort to knock out, submit or gain a decision over their opponents.

The violence and sheer ferocity that surrounds the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has spurred controversy as well as impressive TV ratings.

Critics include prominent politicians in several major markets, parents concerned about the violence and medical organizations — including the American Medical Association and the British Medical Association — that have called for a ban on the sport.

But 35 states, including Minnesota, have had sanctioned MMA events. There is no questioning the sport’s popularity, especially among young males.

But critics aren’t the only problem facing the UFC. Like most professional sports, there have been athletes suspended for steroid abuse. UFC officials say their drug-testing program has helped clean up the sport.

The profitability of the UFC has led to several rival promotions from the likes of billionaires Mark Cuban and Donald Trump. And eyeing the lure of new money, several UFC fighters have complained about the lack of prize money that ends up in their hands.

New rules, same look

In the early 1990s, the UFC marketed itself as a no-holds-barred fight club. Competitors had few rules or safeguards, and politicians essentially shut the company down.

Current president Dana White took over in 2001 and quickly imposed new rules designed to make fights safer and added weight classes and time limits. “Rather than running from regulation, we’d run toward regulation,” he said.

But the changes to the UFC rules haven’t been enough for such parents as Dave Lyons, whose 11-year-old son, Courtlandt, takes judo at a north Minneapolis gym. Lyons refuses to allow his son to watch MMA on TV.

“It’s something we don’t even involve him in,” Lyons said. “He doesn’t even have access to even watch any of this. It’s part of being a parent and monitoring what your child’s doing.”

Numerous Minnesota cities prohibit the kind of unlicensed, backyard brawls that have been broadcast on YouTube and linked, by some, to ultimate fighting. Minneapolis City Council member Cam Gordon said he believes Minneapolis should also explore potential restrictions on mixed martial arts.

“I do think that people intentionally hurting one another isn’t our highest form of civilization,” Gordon said.

But UFC supporters contend that perception isn’t necessarily reality when it comes to MMA. A 2006 study conducted by Johns Hopkins University revealed that there’s a greater risk of traumatic brain injury for boxers than mixed martial artists. Last year, Sam Vasquez, a non-UFC fighter from Houston, became the first MMA combatant to die after suffering injuries in a sanctioned bout. In 2005, three boxers died in the United States.

“If you’ve never been to a fight before, you say, 'Boy is that brutal,’ ” said UFC vice president Marc Ratner. “We have to educate the fans, educate the legislators and educate the athletic commissions.”

The UFC was purchased by White and casino owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta for $2 million in 2001. Its current estimated worth is more than $1 billion, according to Forbes Magazine. The UFC made more than $220 million in 2006.

White said that 91 percent of his fighters make more than $50,000 a year and 54 percent are over $100,000. Lesnar, one of the top UFC draws, reportedly makes $250,000 a fight. But some fighters say a competitor can make as a little as $3,000 to $6,000, depending on status.

Huerta, a former Augsburg wrestler, said he made about $40,000 for his last fight. He believes fighters deserve better salaries based on the risks involved.

“We’re definitely in a era where the NFL was back in the day,” he said. “The base salary for the NFL player is at least $250,000 a year. The minimum. Something like that should start happening.”

White said he’s not worried about the competition or the compensation issue. He believes that rival promoters new to the business will soon get a rude awakening about what it takes to thrive, and claims the resulting publicity only helps the UFC.

Lorenzo Fertitta doesn’t seem too fazed by the company’s new rivals. He said, “I’m sure next week somebody else will pop up ... I’m not gonna worry about it too much.”

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