Why MMA was never going to stay caged for long

It came as no surprise to its ardent followers that the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) on Saturday night became the first organisation to stage a major professional sports event in the US since the coronavirus pandemic induced a months-long live sports hiatus.

Its brash president, Dana White, never wanted to cease operations in the first place.

"I wanted to keep right on going; we'll figure this thing out," he told Sports Illustrated. "If this thing is that deadly, it's gonna get us no matter where we hide or what we do."

White has rented an unnamed private island where he is planning to put on fights by late next month, involving international mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters who may have difficulty securing visas to the US.

The territory - which he has crowned "Fight Island" - could stage bouts for the duration of the pandemic, or perhaps beyond.

The MMA fighters he oversees have a similar attitude and so, the athletes have returned to action.

There are two more smaller-scale closed-door fights this week - one on Wednesday and one on Saturday - at the same Jacksonville Arena where UFC 249 was staged.

The road to this return was rocky. The first attempt resulted in a false start, as a planned April 18 card on Native American tribal land in California was scuttled amid objections from state officials and TV partners. The UFC's efforts, however, never stalled, nor did they lack for outlandish ingenuity.

While most in official quarters have excoriated their determination to go ahead with events despite the Covid-19 crisis, many fans on Twitter, Reddit and Instagram have cheered on the UFC's gung-ho attitude to fight on in the face of a tsk-tsk from the powers that be.

That scorn for politesse, the embrace of gritty, defiant independence and the nihilism toward the consequences are all a microcosm of what makes MMA excite so many people.

It is what took the UFC from a ragtag competition held in tents in the 1990s - a sport late Senator John McCain once famously dismissed as "human cockfighting" - to the signature MMA franchise, airing on ESPN, with the network in 2018 penning a US$1.5 billion (S$2.12 billion) deal to gain its TV rights.

There are, of course, countless people who would be happy to watch any live sport right now.

Still, the UFC has a unique and enduring appeal - particularly to a coarsened America that was there before this pandemic - and that will thrive in its aftermath.

Last November, when Covid-19 was on the verge of spreading in China, US President Donald Trump arrived at Madison Square Garden, prompting a raucous reaction from the crowd at UFC 244.

It was a remarkable sight, given that MMA bouts were not even legal in New York until 2016.

For the group of people on the outside looking in at this cultural phenomenon with furrowed brows, the question of its specific appeal - beyond the age-old attraction humans have to combat - is common.

When the UFC was getting its start in the 1990s, it was not inaccurate to describe some of its fights as glorified cage matches, leading to active state bans. So when White took over as president in the early 2000s, he realised "you can't beat" the government.

"You have to work with them, run toward regulation and try to figure out how to make it safer, in order to 'turn it into a real sport'," he said.

The UFC's reputation of being raw, unlike boxing, and real, unlike the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), has allowed it to take advantage of openings and vulnerabilities - like any good fighter.

Mr Trump's embrace of the UFC over both the WWE and boxing, both of whom he patronised in the past, is a signal of who is now on top. Its popularity also appears tied to the very things that made him presidential material.

In an era defined by trolling, economic insecurity, social isolation, shortened attention spans and memes, the UFC has come to the fore, giving its fans the ability to feel and see something real - if only for 10 seconds, one knockout at a time.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2020, with the headline Why MMA was never going to stay caged for long. Subscribe