Today, what was once considered the modern blood-sport version of Roman gladiatorial combat, a sport so savage that Arizona senator John McCain referred to it as “human cockfighting” and tried to have it banned in Arizona, has now reached into America’s family rooms. In what must be one of the most stunning turns in sports history, Ultimate Fighting Championship has signed a seven-year, $90 million deal with FOX which will air four live fights per year on FOX, and another 24 live fights on FX in conjunction with UFC’s reality show The Ultimate Fighter.
David Hill, Fox Sports Chairman, told The Atlantic, “We are going to grow this sport. It’s only a decade old, and already has a worldwide mainstream fan base”. Saying it “creates heroes of a new generation”, UFC has masterfully reversed its once decadent public image, and turned itself into the hottest sport going. Maybe running needs full contact zones.
Some of mixed martial arts success has come at the expense of, and due to, boxing’s decline since its heyday in the 1970s and `80s. The epic fights between Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and George Foreman in the heavyweight division have been replaced by the skilled but viscera-challenged victories of the Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali, of Ukraine, scientific giants whose wins, though convincing, unleash none of the passions of their heavyweight predecessors.
And where once the lighter categories featured superstar showdowns between Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Tommy “Hit Man” Hearns, and Roberto Duran, boxing’s inability to finalize a Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao match, the one contest every fight fan would like to see, has allowed UFC to scuttle into the public arena and engage a growing base of young male fans.
As I read The Atlantic story I kept thinking, can running learn anything from the rise of UFC and the decline of boxing? Both man-to-man combat and foot racing are basic sports with mythological beginnings, and modern expressions. Both share a similar goal, try to stop the other guy from doing to you what you are trying to do to him. In fighting it’s using blunt force and submission holds. In racing pace is the hammer, and oxygen deprivation to working muscles is the result. I just came back from the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod where the great showdowns between Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers actually catalyzed our sport.
For answers I called the one man who has had feet planted in both camps. My old friend and broadcast colleague Todd Williams was a two-time Olympian (1992 &`96), finishing top ten in both occasions in the 10,000-meter Olympic final. He also won two U.S. cross country titles, and still holds the U.S. road record at 15K at 42:22. When Todd retired from running he took his legendary training ethic and transferred it to mixed martial arts which he continues to practice as his fitness outlet (bad knee willing).
So Todd, any lessons for running to be found in the UFC cage?
“Leadership,” said Todd without equivocation from his home in Jacksonville, Florida. “Dana White spearheaded the whole thing. He’s the main reason. He promoted it as a sport, and then made sure it was sanctioned in numerous states where originally it was only allowed in Nevada. Then he targeted the 18-35 demographic. He not only put out the product, but he also had a marketing plan. ”
Slowly, instead of being repulsed by the brutality on display, crowds began responding to the constantly improving techniques, training, and art form as Dana White, the president of UFC, instituted rules, like fighters wearing gloves, tap-outs, and referee
stoppages. He also promoted UFC tournaments and their champions, including a growing number of former college wrestlers who helped create a base of real-life heroes who stood in stark contrast to the comic-book, soap-opera characters seen in professional wrestling.
“People starting waiting for the next viewing party,” said Williams. “Every few weeks UFC became appointment TV. Fans began to lock into their favorite fighters, then began wearing Anderson Silva shirts. There were animated action figures, merchandising, and the Tap Out brand.”
The key elements which has abled UFC to rise so quickly:
– UFC fighters are required to fight anyone. “We want to go back to the times when fights were big events,” said UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta.
– UFC created a reality show and sports league, giving form to its fights and fighters.
– UFC is covered extensively by ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and other media outlets.
– Its owners found a way to establish a brand and build a product that has seen explosive growth in the past ten years.
Running’s continued fragmentation remains the single greatest stumbling block to increased interest in the sporting aspect. While an organization like Competitor Group continues to extend it Rock `n` Roll event brand worldwide, it sees little value in promoting or organizing elite racing (ironically, the name of the business they purchased from Tim Murphy in 2007) as a marquee headline act. As is so often noted, running’s base of participation continues to grow, but the connection between the millions of joggers and the crème of the racing crop remains the uncrossed Rubicon. Without a league or tour to give form to its athletic performances, running fails to engage its most potent potential fan base, the millions of runners who run-jog in their wake.
One of running’s most enduring mottos is that it is the only sport where the average person can perform on the same field of play as the best in the world. Yet by not framing the speed of the champions in a coherent fashion, we have witnessed an opposite effect that the UFC signing with Fox illustrates.
“Who would have thought that two guys beating the crap out of one another in the middle of a ring like cavemen on steroids would turn into one of the biggest sports in the world,” concluded Todd Williams.
Maybe only if running can sign a seven-year deal with FOX for $90 million will something crazier have come to pass.