Crash Course in Mixed Martial Arts: A Viewer's Guide to the World's Fastest-Growing Sport
As mixed martial arts, and especially the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), continues to grow and gain in popularity, many are intrigued by and curious about watching the sport; however, they are understandably overwhelmed regarding where to begin: so many fighters, so many fights, so much to absorb, so many Silva’s. Having once not known the difference between an Anderson and a BigFoot, I became an avid fan of the sport after my sister introduced me to it. Here is a primer for first-time watchers.
What exactly is mixed martial arts (MMA)?
The fastest-growing sport in the world, it combines various striking and grappling disciplines, such as boxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, karate, and judo. The UFC is its largest, most prestigious promotion company.
Names to know:
Dana White, president of the UFC, is the face of mixed martial arts worldwide. Hailing by way of Boston and Vegas, his style is unlike that of any other sports figurehead. Known for his no-nonsense candor, White has earned the admiration and respect of both fighters and fans worldwide, including over 2 million Twitter followers. Yes, he will drop the "F bomb" and argue on Twitter when the mood strikes him – but doing so only humanizes the UFC and makes fans feel like part of the community. He’ll even acknowledge when a particular fight fails to live up to expectations. In a world of filters, his straight-talk is refreshing and, clearly, has only helped the organization.
Lorenzo Fertitta, CEO and majority owner, along with his brother Frank, purchased the struggling UFC in 2001 for roughly $2 million when White, their high-school friend, brought the prospect to their attention. Pouring millions more into it, and involved in every detail, Fertitta grew the UFC into a $2 billion empire.
Joe Rogan: The affable Rogan, who first rose to prominence with “Fear Factor,” serves as a commentator for most UFC pay-per-view and FOX cards. An MMA practitioner himself, it is his voice you will usually hear, guiding you through the action.
Who are the UFC’s biggest stars?
Currently: Canadian Georges St. Pierre (“GSP”), Brazilian Anderson “The Spider” Silva, and American Jon “Bones” Jones.
What are the rules?
Although it is impossible to summarize the rules themselves in a quick nutshell, here are the very basics to get you started. Two fighters and a referee in ‘the Octagon’ (eight-sided cage). Three rounds, five minutes each (unless it is a fight for a title -- i.e., “for the belt”, in which case the fight lasts five rounds). No, a fighter cannot eye-poke, knee or kick a downed opponent in the face, and must avoid a score of other prohibited no-no’s.
In simplified terms, a fighter wins either via:
(a) submission, i.e., "submitting" his opponent, usually in a wrestling or ju-jitsu lock that causes his opponent to "tap out" (tapping his hand on the mat or on his opponent, signaling surrender)
(b) knockout (“KO”) (we all know this one)
(c) technical knockout (“TKO”): the referee calls an end to the fight. Referees are in the cage closely monitoring the action to ensure adherence to the rules and the fighters’ safety. Thus, if a fighter is incapable of intelligently defending himself, the referee will step in and end the fight.
(d) a decision. The fighters went the distance and it thus “goes to the judges.” There are three judges. MMA uses boxing’s 10-point Must scoring system. Each round, each judge scores a 10 to one fighter, and a 9 to the other (or an 8 if a fighter’s performance was particularly poor). So, in a typical three-round fight, the winner might end up with a 30-27, 30-27, and 30-27 overall. (A “unanimous decision” victory means all the judges scored in favor of one fighter; a “split decision” victory means only 2 of the 3 judges scored in favor of one fighter).
How many fights are there on each card?
It varies -- usually about 12 or 13.
How can I watch the events?
Thanks to groundbreaking deals with FOX, FX, and FUEL TV, in addition to pay-per-view events, there are, on average, about three cards per month (nearly always on Saturday nights). The network cards are free to watch.
Then there are the pay-per-views (average cost is about $55) – you can watch those by ordering via your cable or satellite provider, via UFC.com to watch on your computer / tablet, or even finding an authorized local restaurant or bar broadcasting the event.
So a UFC event will either be a: “UFC ON FOX”, “UFC ON FX”, “UFC ON FUEL”, or a pay-per-view event. Got it? (The earlier portion of a pay-per-view is usually shown on network TV but we’ll get to that later.)
Next up: “UFC on FX” on Saturday, January 19th; “UFC on FOX” on Saturday, January 26th; and UFC 156 via pay-per-view on Saturday, February 2nd. So, for those newbies looking to check out a card first without shelling out for a pay-per-view, mark your calendars for those free January cards.
What do the numbers mean? I often see an event referred to as “UFC 148” and such.
Each UFC pay-per-view event has a number, chronologically, starting with the very first UFC. The network (FOX, FX, FUEL) events are not included in the numeral system - only the pay-per-views. (Note on lingo: Events are often referred to as "cards," short for "fight card," e.g., “Are you going to the card in Chicago?”)
How do the pay-per-view events work? And what are ‘prelims’?
The "prelims" (short for preliminaries) or undercard are the first half (roughly) of the night’s fights – they are the fights before the "main card." Take UFC 155 (December 29th, 2012) as an example. There were 12 total fights on the card:
Main card on pay-per-view (starting at 10 pm EST):
Main event: Junior dos Santos vs. Cain Velasquez (heavyweight)
Joe Lauzon vs. Jim Miller (lightweight)
Tim Boetsch vs. Constantinos Philippou (middleweight)
Alan Belcher vs. Yushin Okami (middleweight)
Chris Leben vs. Derek Brunson (middleweight)
‘prelims’ / under card on FX (starting at 8 pm EST) (FREE):
Brad Pickett vs. Eddie Wineland (bantamweight)
Byron Bloodworth vs. Erik Perez (bantamweight)
Melvin Guillard vs. Jamie Varner (lightweight)
Michael Johnson vs. Myles Jury (lightweight)
‘prelims’ / under card on Facebook (starting at 6:30 pm EST) (FREE):
Philip De Fries vs. Todd Duffee (heavyweight)
Chris Cariaso vs. John Moraga (flyweight)
Leonard Garcia vs. Max Holloway (featherweight)
[Rookie mistake: Do not assume the prelims/undercard fights are any less exciting. Sure, the bigger names are on the main card but (a) many times there are big names on the prelims, and (b) often some of the best fights of the night are in the prelims. So tune in for the entire card. Yes, you might have to jump from Facebook, to network TV, to pay-per-view, but that is part of the fun.]
How many weight divisions are there?
Currently, there are eight weight divisions, with a maximum weight (and current title holder) as follows:
Flyweight – 125 lbs – Demetrius Johnson
Bantamweight – 135 lbs – Dominick Cruz
Featherweight – 145 lbs – Jose Aldo
Lightweight – 155 lbs – Benson Henderson
Welterweight – 170 lbs – Georges St. Pierre
Middleweight – 185 lbs – Anderson Silva
Light Heavyweight – 205 lbs – Jon Jones
Heavyweight – 265 lbs – Cain Velasquez
How can I attend a live event?
Check the UFC’s calendar of upcoming events. Each event is in a different city and, naturally, there are only so many events each calendar year and thus only so many cities in which a UFC card will be held. Upcoming event-cities include Sao Paolo, Chicago, Las Vegas, London, and Anaheim. Ticket prices are not inexpensive (the average in 2011 was $245) but worth the experience.
What’s a classic, historic fight to watch as a beginner?
My personal recommendation is UFC 117 (August 2010), Anderson Silva vs. Chael Sonnen (available on iTunes rental for $2.99). Then watch the July 2012 rematch (UFC 148), featured in this “Top UFC Moments of 2012” video. Also, the legendary 2005 Forrest Griffin vs. Stephen Bonnar fight is available for free on YouTube.
Are there additional leagues/promotion companies besides the UFC?
Yes. While Strikeforce, a league whose fights featured on Showtime, was recently purchased and essentially absorbed by the UFC, there is also Bellator featuring solid MMA entertainment. Its style is different from the UFC in that Bellator employs a tournament/bracket format. Founded by lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, Bjorn Rebney, its next event airs on January 17th. MMA World Series of Fighting had its inaugural bout on NBC Sports this past November, while XTreme Fighting Championships has steadily put on cards since 2007 and is now broadcast on Mark Cuban’s AXSTV.
Is MMA family-friendly entertainment? Isn’t it too violent?
In my opinion, it is absolutely family-friendly entertainment. MMA imparts values of honor, hard work, healthy competition, respect for one’s opponent, physical fitness, and mental endurance – values that are beneficial for all, particularly youths. It is no wonder enrollment in MMA gyms across the country is through the roof.
As for the violence, one should not make judgments about the sports based on highlight clips until watching a card. Boxing can be far more cringe-worthy, featuring repeated blows to the head. And the violence depicted in video games and Hollywood films is worse than anything one will see when two world-class athletes engage in age-old combat arts – and usually embrace and congratulate one another afterward.
I’ve heard MMA isn’t legal in the state of New York.
Shockingly, yes, that is correct. Currently, New York is the only state (aside from Connecticut – a technicality, as CT does allow MMA within its Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun reservations) where the sport is not legal. You can thank the Culinary Union and its friends, who have a long-standing campaign against the UFC’s owners regarding a wholly unrelated matter. (For details, see my February 2012 article.) Sources are optimistic, however, that the New York State legislature will finally legalize the sport this year, and the UFC will celebrate its 20th Anniversary with a star-studded card at Madison Square Garden.
Are there any films or shows about MMA you recommend?
a) Shows: “The Ultimate Fighter” (“TUF”) reality show on FX, now entering its 17th season, features a group of aspiring fighters, living together in a Las Vegas house, competing for a coveted UFC contract. Did I mention they are completely cut off from the outside world, without phone and Internet access? Split into two teams, each team is coached by a UFC star, who will then face off after the season’s finale. The upcoming season, debuts January 22nd with Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen as its coaches.
b) Films: Watch 2011’s “Warrior”, a sort of “Rocky” set in the MMA world, starring Tom Hardy (whom you may know from his Bane portrayal in “The Dark Knight Rises”) and Nick Nolte.
c) Documentaries: “Like Water” is an intriguing, fascinating documentary about Anderson Silva, widely considered the greatest fighter in MMA history.
d) Books: NYT best-selling author and Rhodes Scholar Matthew Polly wrote the hilarious “Tapped Out,” chronicling his adventures and grueling two-year journey as a casual MMA fan who decides to train, and ultimately fights, in the cage.
Feel like you know the basics now? Good! Welcome to your next addiction. Throw on a TapOut shirt, grab a beer, order the pay-per-view, and jump on Twitter to live-tweet the card along with the rest of us, because you are now ready to delve into the world of MMA.
As UFC announcer and "Veteran Voice of the Octagon" Bruce Buffer says, “Ladies and gentlemen: It’s TIME!!!”
Follow A.J. Delgado, an avid MMA fan, here on Twitter.