Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Meaning of The Cage

Sometime after the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, a disenfranchised generation of young American males began searching for a new kind of masculine role model. They looked at the superstars of boxing but didn’t like what they saw. They looked elsewhere, until finally they found what they were looking for in mixed martial arts, or more specifically, The Ultimate Fighting Championship.

It’s fitting that UFC seemed to rise out of the ruins of 9/11, for boxing’s own first Golden Age happened after the horrors of the First World War. In both cases, it was as if the insanity of world events begged for a controlled version of violence that could be sold as entertainment.

It’s also fitting that Norman Mailer died during this recent era, for the man who suggested the heavyweight champion of boxing was emblematically the toughest man in the world might have grown ill if he saw former heavyweight contender James Toney lose so easily to UFC favorite Randy Couture. While the bout, which took place in Boston as part of UFC 118, was nothing more than the “freak show” UFC president Dana White deemed it to be, it was still unsettling to see a previous era’s concept of rugged manhood stranded on his back like a beached sea cow, while Couture choked him until his eyes bulged.

It might’ve been depressing if it hadn’t looked so ridiculous.

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There was a time when athletes from other sports tried boxing. Bob Arum likes telling a story about football’s Jim Brown wanting to try Muhammad Ali. Out of curiosity, Arum arranged for the two to spar in a secluded area. Ali slapped Brown three times quickly before Arum called the business off. Football’s Lyle Alzado once boxed an eight-round charity exhibition with a faded and flabby Ali. Nothing much happened, but Alzado said later that getting hit with Ali’s jab was like being lashed across the face with a rope.

Now, since boxing has lost much of its cachet, the arena for athletes wanting to show their toughness is MMA. Even washed up fighters have gravitated to it the way washed up actresses gravitate to porn. “Butterbean” Esch has had mixed success in various MMA leagues, and in 2009 former UFC champion Tim Silvia vanished on the wings of a single punch thrown by veteran boxer Ray Mercer. Most MMA followers dismissed Mercer’s win as a fluke, but we’ll bet Mercer inspired Toney to try his luck in the cage.

Despite Toney’s boasting that he was going “to let everybody know what boxers can do,” he wasn’t in Boston last August to represent boxing. Toney, his career flagging like Esch and Mercer’s, approached UFC to make a little money. When Toney hit the scales at an unflattering 237, it was clear that his game plan wouldn’t involve speed. Coutore, a fit but weathered 47-year-old whose resume included four National Championships in Greco Roman wrestling, needed just a bit over three minutes to dump Toney on his back and make him submit.

After the debacle, Couture encouraged the Boston fans to give Toney some applause. They did so half-heartedly, as if Toney’s fat presence was an insult to the sport they loved. During the travesty they’d chanted “UFC! UFC!” as if Boston’s TD Garden was their home arena and Toney was the visiting team. Dana White concluded that drafting boxers into his little empire was a bad idea.

“It’s unfair to bring a guy in with one discipline, no matter if he’s trained for eight or nine months,” White said after the bout. White, a boxing fan, added, “I wasn't the guy going out there and trying to badmouth boxing and take boxing down and hurt the sport of boxing. James Toney picked a fight, and he got one.” But White gave Toney kudos. “You know what? He stepped up. He wanted to do it, and he did it. He hung in there longer than I thought he would.”

It would be interesting to see someone like UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar put on the big gloves and face Wladimir Klitschko, but UFC fighters know they’d fail under boxing rules. Even Coutore acknowledged that if he met Toney in a boxing ring, “James would probably knock me out in the first round.” If only boxers understood this.

Boosters of MMA conveniently forgot Mercer’s stoppage of Sylvia and crowed that Toney’s loss was evidence of where boxing stands nowadays. Of course, some people enjoy both boxing and MMA, but for the most part there’s a “line in the sand” mentality that exists between advocates of either sport. The rivalry has become tiresome.

For one thing, if this were another era, you might be reading about MMA in the very pages of The Ring. Our magazine’s founder, Nat Fleischer, often showed interest in combat sports other than boxing. Until readers complained, Fleischer filled The Ring with plenty of wrestling coverage. After visiting Thailand, Fleischer wrote a lengthy appreciation of Muay Thai (kick-boxing), and in 1971 The Ring presented a feature on American karate legend Joe Lewis. So who is to say that at some point in The Ring’s past we wouldn’t have backed MMA?

Besides, MMA is more like boxing than many will admit. While some fans delight in the submission holds that can end a match, the loudest cheers of the evening usually come when the fighters stand and trade blows. The UFC style of punching is sloppy, but because the combatants wear small gloves and leave their chins exposed, there are occasional knockouts in the cage that even a hardcore boxing junkie would appreciate.

MMA also resembles boxing in the way it has fought for legitimacy, earning recognition state by state, just as boxing did more than a century ago. Even the shaved heads and cauliflowered ears of the typical MMA fighter harkens back to the days of bareknuckle pugilists.

UFC's healthy squad of white fighters also mirrors a time in boxing’s past. Granted, UFC is made up of fighters from varying backgrounds, but the group’s roster is undeniably stacked with white American fighters, and there is a correspondingly large white audience. UFC supporters don’t like to hear this – they’ll usually shrug and say something along the lines of, “I just like to see people beat each other up,” or as MMA icon Robert Miletech told Sports Illustrated in 2007, “Two guys are stripped down. One wins, one loses. Where else do you get that anymore?” Still, only the na├»ve would deny that UFC’s success is partly due to the group’s whiteness. People enjoy watching their own kind excel, and UFC has plenty of white athletes to tap into white wallets.

The fact that UFC’s stars don’t earn windfalls of cash adds to their appeal; UFC’s fighting men seem like working class warriors in comparison to the millionaires who populate boxing. The paradox is that many UFC fighters have college backgrounds, while the average boxer is still no more educated than Rocky Graziano. Perception is everything, though, and the impression is that Dana White gives UFC fans exactly what they want, and the UFC fighters are ready to throw down at a moment’s notice.

Meanwhile, boxing’s elite are viewed as spoiled rich brats, aided by boxing promoters who seem like doddering patriarchs, content to give us one or two big fights per year. Again, the impression is that boxing is trapped in a spider’s web of its own making, while UFC feels like a runaway freight car. It’s no wonder a lot of fans are drawn to the octagon. The minute they heard WBC,WBA, WBO, IBF, NABO, WBF, interim, super, junior, etc., they ran screaming towards something that made a little more sense.

Where MMA and boxing differ most is that boxing sometimes fails to deliver entirely, while even the worst UFC events offer at least a few moments of sheer, mind-blowing violence. The irony here is almost unbearable. Boxing, derided for decades as being too cruel, and according to some reports still averaging six ring deaths per year worldwide, is simply not vicious enough for some people. In a way, the success of MMA was inevitable, its audience having been conditioned during the 1990s by violent video games, martial arts movies, and the high flying mayhem of professional wrestling.

 “The kids wanted to graduate to something real,” said boxing historian Bert Sugar. “This (MMA) is like a video game come to life.”

And like video games, the specter of annihilation is ever present.

There have been no fatalities in UFC, and several medical experts, including longtime Ring contributor Dr. Margaret Goodman, have said on record that MMA is actually safer than boxing. However, there have been two documented MMA deaths since 2007, and MMA is heavy on what we’ll call “the death tease,” where every choke-out victory is like watching a man lean into the abyss only to be pulled back at the last second. 

Occasionally an MMA fighter refuses to tap out and simply loses consciousness, leading to a few eerie moments as the customers wait for him to regain his senses. Of course, the same could be said about the knockout in boxing, but a boxer knocked unconscious is rare, while MMA fans watch men strangled into near oblivion and revived almost regularly. What it amounts to is a kind of ongoing death and rebirth ritual.
Boxing may not be able to match the show-stopping effect of cutting off an opponent’s oxygen, or for that matter, sitting on a guy’s chest and punching his face in, but boxing can definitely learn a few things from UFC as far as marketing. As White told SI, “I don't care if you're a f------ sheepherder in the middle of nowhere. You better have heard of the UFC!”

The weekend of UFC 118, Boston hosted an impressive UFC Fan Expo where fans could mingle with their favorite stars. Boston’s Back Bay area was teeming with obvious UFC fans hauling shopping bags bursting with UFC toys, games, clothes, and other products. UFC fans get to bring a little of the UFC home with them. Granted, boxing fans are probably not interested in toys, but they might enjoy mixing with the fighters, and they’d probably like to be shown some appreciation.

Unlike most boxing venues that remain empty until the main event, Boston’s TD Garden was packed hours before UFC 118’s first bout. Part of this was because UFC 118 was Massachusetts’ first UFC event, but also because the ceaseless marketing strategy of UFC has created an enviable bond between the group and its fandom. In this regard, UFC fans are not far removed from fans of WWE, or Star Wars, or heavy metal bands. To see a mass of UFC devotees dripping with merchandise is to be reminded of KISS fans dressed out in leather and face paint. And even though there were murmurs along press row that the show was sub-par, the crowd roared with every takedown.

The sound was unusual, though. It wasn’t like the nationalistic fervor of Puerto Rican fans cheering for Felix Trinidad, or of Celtics fans cheering a great performance on the court. It was more like the sound of a political rally, a collective cry of gratitude for promises kept. An age group that constantly reads about its own grim future may be finding inspiration in this underground sport that has crashed the mainstream.

One particular fellow caught our attention during the weekend of UFC 118. He was a burly white man in his early 30s, his arms and neck covered in ink drawings of devils and crows. He came charging into a food court next to the convention center to meet his buddies, his voice shaking with emotion. Under the bill of his Tapout cap, his eyes were moist.

“I just bumped fists with Chuck Liddell,” he said.

He was a kid again, and his heroes walked the earth.

Don Stradley is a freelance writer from Massachusetts and a regular contributor to The Ring.

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