In reference to its ultra-violent and barbaric nature, this was the name given to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) by U.S. Senator John McCain during his 1998 countrywide campaign to ban the sport. Today, UFC remains one of the only stages in the world – other than actual war – where contestants legally engage in hand-to-hand combat. This eight-sided steel-caged battle of survival has gained considerable mainstream media attention since its birth in 1993. It is televised in over 150 countries, and broadcast in 22 different languages.
UFC 158: March 16, 2013
I arrived to a capacity-filled Bell Centre to witness my first-ever mixed martial arts (MMA) event, UFC 158: Georges St-Pierre (GSP) vs. Nick Diaz.
I was seated in the section specially reserved for media, much closer to the action than my graduate student budget could afford. To my right, I introduced myself to a professional photographer specializing in the niche of wrestling. Hanging from his neck was a high-calibre Canon DSLR camera. To my left was a short bald fellow, a sports broadcaster for SIRIUS satellite radio. Throughout the course of the night, they both served as my main source of rules, explanations, and gossip.
At the start of each card (the UFC term for a fight), blasting pump-up music fills the air as the fighters charge into the arena accompanied by an entourage of trainers, medical staff, camera men, and security. Wrestling enthusiasts, UFC fans, and what seemed to be self-declared prospective fighters lined the front row, determinedly extending out their fists toward the fast moving group. An array of sporadic multi-coloured lights, followed by an energetic introduction by “The Voice of the Octagon,” ring announcer Bruce Buffer (who sounded like he could have been hooked up to an IV espresso drip), got the crowd on their feet.
Fighters rip off their advertisement-laden warm-ups, complete a quick medical check, and enter the Octagon.
Cards other than the main event are composed of three five-minute rounds. The two contestants start at opposite corners of the ring. In order to win, one must inflict so much pain onto the other that they either collapse to the floor from a decisive knock-out (often leading to concussion-like symptoms), or tap out (voluntarily quit) due to extreme discomfort. In the event that time expires, the winner of the fight is decided by the judges. The fighter must evidently channel all his anger, will, and hostility towards his enemy, essentially vilifying his foe. It’s a fight for survival.
At the end of each round, the fighters head to their respective blue or red corner and are attended to by their medical staff, who fix up nosebleeds, soothe swellings, and cover lacerations.
I wonder about the possible long-term health risks – traumatic brain injury, dementia, Parkinson’s. Thankfully, eye-gouging and hitting the opponent in the groin is banned under UFC regulations, but the risk for other injuries remains.
After their one minute of allowed recovery time, the blood is wiped away and we’re back – game on.
As the two prize-fighters get back to business, the crowd cheers on their favourite – and the cheers are considerably louder if one is a homegrown Quebecer. That being said, it does not take much to turn things around. If there has not been a sufficiently bloody blow or considerable action within about a minute, the crowd gets impatient.
“What the hell are you doing, dancing?!” screams a particularly aggravated man from the crowd. It is instantly followed by immature giggles and juvenile comments from the spectators in front of me. Then, as if pre-planned, a fierce kick to the face immediately prompts cheering, and the Bell Centre is back on its feet.
As a newcomer to the UFC fan world, I get the impression that, consciously or not, we’re really here to see someone get knocked-the-hell-out.
The only small hint of civility comes after the referee calls the fight. The two bleeding and bruised opponents shake hands or embrace in an odd and somewhat misplaced act of camaraderie. After all the rampage, it seems almost inappropriate to see such a sign of mutual respect.
The victor is crowned, and they both proceed to leave the arena down the same path. First the loser, bloodied and defeated, stumbles slightly dismayed toward the exit to a few hurrahs and consoling chants. Following him, in sharp contrast, the winner parades down the aisle with an arrogantly pumped chest, radiating his macho-man energy while acknowledging a few lucky fans by slapping high fives or tossing away sweaty merchandise. People go bonkers!
Curious to investigate the sort of audience that such an event attracts, I observed a middle-aged man, seated a couple rows from me and likely deep into his night’s beer quota, openly snapping a few shots of the rather un-conservatively dressed ring girls. He then continued to cheer with his bros, laughing over a few sleazy comments.
As I glanced up at one of the dozen overhanging big screens, the message to the audience was further drilled home – “Sports, beer n’ sex.” Broadcast to the entire stadium, and to everyone watching from home, the ring girls – Arianny Celeste and Brittney Palmer – seductively waved and blew kisses in the air. The stadium filled with whistles and cat calls. “Pft, ya, I could tap that,” narrated the same middle-aged man.
I can’t help but notice the irony of the situation. The audience may have been one of the most unathletic, Bud Light-drinking and Pizza-Pizza gorging group of people I have come across. The contestants, on the other hand, have probably spent the better part of the last year enduring the toughest of training programs and following a diet consisting of something like lean chicken breast, broccoli, and whey protein shakes. It is rumoured that some even abstain from sex for up to six weeks before their fight.
Furthermore, in between the overweight and drunk members of the audience, I could see little kids decked out in Georges St.-Pierre robes and headbands inscribed with “must win” in Japanese. They chased each other around, screaming and boasting their championship belt replicas, only briefly pausing to quench their thirst with sugar-concentrated and caffeine- infused beverages served in gulp sized, 1.5 litre cups. And if they got hungry, they scuffled down some buttery popcorn or a slice of oil-dripping cheese and pepperoni pizza. One day, they, too will have a chance to share seven or eight beers with their ‘bros.’ Shouldn’t this event be R-rated?
The Main Event
The start of the pay-per-view main event was like an alarm clock sounding off. The crowd in the sold out Bell Centre was on its feet, cheering, yelling, and all fired up. This was Quebec’s very own golden boy, Georges St-Pierre, against the audaciously cocky American fighter, Nick Diaz. Chants of “Fuck you Diaz!” filled the Bell Centre, followed by a chorus of “GSP, GSP, GSP.”
The main event consists of five rounds lasting a maximum of 25 minutes total.
Aside from my spiteful rant, I will admit, I was actually enjoying this egocentric, testosterone-filled environment. Press are prohibited from ordering alcoholic beverages, but I would have killed for a beer. Neither can the press be openly biased towards a particular fighter – but seriously, “Fuck Diaz!” The machismo atmosphere was a bit too much for me to deny; I was sold.
In the prelude to the fight, Diaz aggressively paced back and forth in the Octagon. One could literally feel his flowing arrogance as he stared down his opponent like an anxious killer, ready to pounce.
GSP held up his cool. He portrayed the shining image of a knight defending Quebec from an onslaught of loud-mouthed American bigotry. He could be Captain Quebec. Each time GSP took Diaz to the ground, the crowd roared with enthusiasm.
Despite the lack of blood and a conclusive knock-out punch, the fight lived up to its hype. After five rounds of a mostly one-sided assault, the pride of Quebec was left untarnished. GSP was re-crowned champion.
In the post-game interview, GSP thanked Diaz for his competitive spirit and further insisted that he is, in fact, a nice guy. Diaz, oddly, admitted to tax evasion, and contemplated retiring.
The UFC experience defines all that is stereotypically manly. Its violent nature and beer-drinking culture may make for the ultimate bros-night-out, but our society should seriously consider asking the question: Do we want our kids watching this?