How sports media fell back in love with fighting

Kimbo Slice (right) battles Houston Alexander in The Ultimate Fighter 10 Finale on December 5, 2009, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

When my high school friends and I saw the May 2008 issue of ESPN The Magazine at our hometown supermarket, reading about Kimbo Slice felt like we were ogling one of the plastic-wrapped publications in the back row. We had been mesmerized by YouTube clips of Kimbo pulling up bare-chested to Florida backyards and, for a few thousand dollars, fighting bare-knuckle until his opponents were left unconscious on the grass or holding out a hand and pleading Chill! Chill! The thrill of watching—primally satisfying, morally unselfconscious—was, in a way, intensely pornographic. Now “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” had sent 2 million subscribers an issue with Kimbo staring stoically on the cover.

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The then-34-year-old wanted to graduate from backyard brawling to professional fighting. An even more dramatic transition was major media’s sudden embrace of a sport it had previously shunned. Kimbo’s third pro bout would be broadcast on CBS later that month, marking the network television debut of mixed martial arts. That experiment had explosive consequences for the revival of pro fighting and its appeal among sports journalists, to the point that earlier this month, an MMA title fight sold out Madison Square Garden.

Kimbo Slice appears on the June 2, 2008 cover of ESPN The Magazine (Image courtesy of ESPN The Magazine)

“Kimbo’s and MMA’s stories are exactly the same,” ESPN explained. “Up from the gutter. Secretly popular. Misunderstood. Violent. Criticized. Dangerous. Fun. Cool. Bloody. Viral.” Professional MMA was still illegal in 18 states, and this was just the third magazine cover to feature an MMA fighter. A year earlier, Sports Illustrated had asked, “TOO BRUTAL OR THE FUTURE?” In the piece, L. Jon Wertheim, now SI’s executive editor, described typical action inside an Octagon cage: “elbow shots,” “a roundhouse kick to the head,” “whooomphs and craaaacks,” “a flurry of haymakers,” and “rivulets of blood running down fighters’ faces.”

MMA and its premier brand, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, had already “applied a chokehold” to the coveted 18-to-34 male demographic, as Wertheim put it. Seeking to civilize the sport and thus broaden its appeal, the UFC banned such moves as pulling hair and kneeing downed opponents in the head. (Actual chokeholds, of course, remained acceptable.) Although MMA events regularly outsold boxing and professional wrestling on pay-per-view, coverage was dominated by fan-operated blogs. A post on mmafighter.com celebrated those early magazine stories as “[yet] another sign that the sports media are finally recognizing the Ultimate Fighting Championship as a legitimate sport.”

Kimbo’s TV premiere attracted unprecedented media interest, including a profile in The New York Times. The reporter, R.M. Schneiderman, says he got an instant green light after editors learned of the fighter’s enormous YouTube following. CBS had invested in the league that was hosting Kimbo’s bout against the lumbering British fighter James “The Colossus” Thompson, though its willingness to embrace a form of entertainment frequently referred to as “human cockfighting” was limited to the ultimate graveyard time slot: 2am on a Sunday morning. “It is a sport, and it has violent elements. So does football, so does hockey,” a network exec told Reuters. “If an injury does happen, we’ll try to treat it as tactfully and tastefully as we can. But it’s not something we’re going to hype.”

The broadcasting team was led by Gus Johnson, the excitable play-by-play announcer who reacts to an important touchdown pass or three-pointer as if he’s seen a dormant volcano erupt. Some early color commentary: “If I were Slice, I’d pinpoint that alien life form that used to be Thompson’s left ear. Very bad cauliflower.” At the start of the final round, Kimbo hammered it with a right hook. As the Times later reported, the swollen ear “exploded in a shower of blood and pus.”

“That ear popped! That ear popped! It popped!” one announcer exclaimed. Kimbo battered his dazed opponent and Johnson, along with the crowd, went nuts. “Kimbo Slice, swinging for the fences!”

The referee stepped in to call the fight. “Terrible stoppage! Terrible! Terrible!” Johnson shrieked. While Kimbo seemed to consider taking a celebratory nap on the bloody canvas, Johnson wouldn’t let up. “James Thompson was not ready to go down. Horrendous!”   

The Times sports media critic Richard Sandomir offered this review: “The announcers could not mask the reality that these fights are ugly, sanguinary events or that the multiple disciplines in mixed martial arts render each bout a laboratory in brutality.”   

 

The desire to pick fights has proven far easier to tame than our overpowering urge to watch them.

 

Two months later, MMA made its debut on the Times front page, under the headline, “Mangled Ear a Badge of Honor For the New Breed of Fighter.” The article also supplied the paper’s Quotation of the Day, by a “mixed martial arts trainee who hopes to get cauliflower ear.” As the 15-year-old explained, “It’s man’s ear. When you get cauliflower ear, you’re really a man.”

Kimbo’s MMA career proved brief, and the man born Kevin Ferguson died last year of an apparently unrelated heart ailment. Dana White, the UFC part-owner and master promoter, called the Slice vs. Thompson fight “a circus.” Yet the publicity it generated marked a turning point in the sport’s mainstream acceptance.

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In the decade since, major media has given MMA the stamp of legitimacy:  Coverage is no longer about fans, but for them. The question is whether outlets have ceded to demand or accelerated it—“whether the media is a mirror or a magnifying glass,” as ESPN The Magazine’s Wright Thompson told me. Some of the most prominent journalists who cover MMA offered nuanced defenses of the sport’s editorial merit, while conceding that some forms of fighting would be too gruesome for mainstream coverage. At first, MMA failed that test. It’s never been clear whether those initial objections were resolved or repressed.   

“The desire to punch other boys in the nose will survive in our culture,” A. J. Liebling wrote in The Sweet Science, a collection of his midcentury boxing reporting for The New Yorker. The desire to pick fights, however, has proven far easier to tame than our overpowering urge to watch them.

 

Even in Liebling’s day, when hardly anything in sports aroused more national excitement than the opening bell of a heavyweight title fight, boxing was increasingly deemed a “brutal, degrading spectacle,” as a New York Times editorial put it in 1963. After Muhammad Ali defended his title two years later, the Times predicted: “A sport as sick as this one surely cannot survive much longer.”

The paper sent Robert Lipsyte to cover the first Ali title bout, where 46 sportswriters sat ringside in Miami Beach. “It was totally hypocritical,” says Lipsyte, just 26 when he got the assignment. “They would send you all over the country, and then there would be an editorial calling for boxing to be banned. If you want to make a statement, don’t cover it. They certainly didn’t need to cover it so extensively. But as soon as the next fight came and there was the opportunity for a big payday—for the fighters and the paper—on we went.”  

 

I’ve been to several boxing cards where a fighter has died. One of them fell in my lap. I sometimes cry thinking about it.”

 

After three boxers died from fight-inflicted injuries within two years, Arthur Daley, the Times’s Pulitzer-winning sports columnist, was compelled in 1963 to write, “Boxing’s apologists proclaim that the ring produces fewer deaths than football, auto racing and even slipping in the bathtub. Maybe so. But the flaw in that argument is that death is always accidental elsewhere. Only boxing deliberately aims at inflicting injury; it is the lone sport where men are licensed to batter each other into insensibility.”  

When the American, Canadian, and British medical associations called for bans on MMA, fans complained that serious injury is more common in other sports. They point out that boxing gloves do more to protect fists than faces, and that the ropes around a boxing ring are more hazardous than a cage. The concern that ultimate fighting can be gratuitously violent, however, doesn’t hinge on the odds of lasting injury. In 1995, Tank Abbott, one of the UFC’s first stars, punched John Matua in the head enough times to leave him on his back with blood bubbling out of his mouth, his arms and legs erect like a dead beetle’s. Some spectators might have felt ashamed calling that entertainment, even after seeing Matua walk out of the ring.

Chuck Liddell is featured on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s May 21, 2007 issue (Image courtesy of ESPN The Magazine)

From Norman Mailer and Gay Talese to Joyce Carol Oates and James Baldwin, writers have been drawn to fighting for the same reason boxing movies remain so abundant. “There is beauty in it—there is a terrible beauty in battle, too, particularly for the noncombatant,” David Remnick wrote in King of the World, his acclaimed biography of Muhammad Ali. Remnick was a boxing correspondent early in his career at The Washington Post, and a profile of Mike Tyson was among his best as a New Yorker staff writer. (Years later, he wrote about a couple approaching him in Las Vegas while he reported that piece. “We’ve been reading The New Yorker for years,” a woman told him, “but we never thought the magazine would stoop so low as to cover something so vulgar!”) King of the World came out a year after Remnick became editor of the magazine, and although he wrote lovingly of Ali, he stressed that his taste for the sport had soured.

“The history of fighters is the history of men who end up damaged,” he wrote. “With time, the common sight of brain-wrecked fighters is impossible to square with any lingering enthusiasm for ‘the sweet science.’”

In the epilogue, Remnick made passing reference to an emerging “brand of organized mayhem,” ultimate fighting. The promotional slogan for the first UFC tournament was There are no rules! (in truth, gouging eyes and biting were discouraged). A press release for UFC 2 promised that fights would end only by surrender, doctor’s intervention, knockout, or death. In UFC 4, one fighter, pinned on the ground with his legs spread apart, took six punches to the groin. “Oh…,” an announcer offered.

Senator John McCain coined the phrase “human cockfighting” in 1996 after watching a tape of the UFC. He sent letters urging all 50 governors to ban the sport, and New York was among those that did a year later. Major cable companies stopped offering MMA on pay-per-view, and the average PPV buys for an event fell from 300,000 to 15,000.  

“UFC’s flameout from national sensation to total irrelevance is a tragedy of American sports, a cautionary tale of prudishness, heavy-handed politics, and cultural myopia,” David Plotz lamented for Slate. Among the UFC’s cowardly capitulations, he argued, had been enforcing weight classes, “ending the David-and-Goliath mismatches that made early fights so compelling.” Plotz, the site’s editor from 2008 to 2014, reminisced about the early days, when “Four-hundred-pound men were sent into the Octagon to maul guys half their size.”

 

I think MMA is best enjoyed as an experience of ecstatic violence. We’ve removed experiences of mass ecstasy in the public sphere, and I don’t think any other sports event would be able to convey that emotion.”

 

One of the first newspaper reporters to cover MMA was the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Kevin Iole. When the Nevada Athletic Commission debated legalizing MMA in the 1990s, Iole hadn’t considered it a viable sport. After Dana White and two childhood friends bought the UFC in 2001 and began gently toning it down, the longtime combat sportswriter had a change of heart. He struggled to convince editors that interest in the sport extended beyond “a traveling roadshow of 10,000 fans.”

“I think the safety rules are very important,” says Iole, now of Yahoo Sports, whose view of MMA is informed by decades covering boxing. “I’ve been to several boxing cards where a fighter has died. One of them fell in my lap. I sometimes cry thinking about it.”

Josh Gross, a California-based freelancer who was also among the earliest to offer probing MMA coverage, says, “The sport would be nowhere near where it is had the rules not changed and the fighters not come to see themselves as athletes instead of hulking warriors.” That change also made it easier in 2005 for Spike TV to introduce The Ultimate Fighter, a hit reality show culminating in live UFC bouts. For the first fight after the Season One finale, the UFC refused to credential reporters. As Gross saw it, Dana White had sent a clear message: “We’re going to control what coverage looks like.”

“Pay-per-view returned,” Sports Illustrated reported, “forgetting its queasiness now that there was the potential for big bucks.” (The military took interest, too. “Many of those viewers are eligible recruits,” an Army major told The New York Times. “The UFC provides a great venue to get the Army name into the minds of millions of young Americans.”)

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The Washington Post columnist George Will had condemned MMA in its infancy. As the sport becomes massively more popular, is it entitled to a place in the sports section? “No,” he told me.   

“Mixed martial arts is not just symptomatic of, it’s part of, the general coarsening of American life,” he says. “The fact that there was an admirable initial reluctance to be drawn into this has, with remarkable speed, given way to tapping into the commercial opportunities of this audience.”

“Look at the crowds. It’s a kind of bloodlust,” he adds. “There have been audiences for such spectacles documented throughout human history. This looks like a regression, to borrow a phrase from the Supreme Court, from where our evolving standards of decency were going.”

In a strained attempt to humanize fighters, an ESPN The Magazine profile of Chuck Liddell in 2007 explained that although the UFC star “is not afraid of dying,” “there’s more to this man than fighting.” For example, the piece noted, he also loves The Sound of Music.

Criticism like Will’s was brushed off as the product of a generation gap, a kind of kids-these-days crankiness. MMA may still have been ultraviolent, but its fans didn’t need someone older and wiser telling them what to do.

 

The Times denounced “The Disturbing Rise of Ultimate Fighting” in a 2009 editorial, reviving the mixed signals Robert Lipsyte observed in boxing coverage 40 years earlier. “You’re not buying news when you buy The New York Times,” the paper’s late publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger once said. “You’re buying judgment.” While the wall of separation between news and opinion is sacred, it can be conspicuous when that judgment varies from page to page.

Many of the journalists who cover MMA describe something similar to The New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh, who says he started watching the sport and “gradually became somewhat addicted.” “I am supposed to be repelled by Ultimate Fighting,” Wertheim, the Sports Illustrated editor, wrote in his book Blood in the Cage. Yet “men who took the warrior ideal to a new level” proved irresistible. (Women compete, too.) Of MMA’s success, he concluded, “It’s a sport for Hemingways in a culture of Dr. Phils.”

One of the more philosophical takes on MMA comes from Kerry Howley, who spent three years shadowing fighters in Iowa while reporting her widely praised book, Thrown. Howley came across a fight on TV and initially “felt like I couldn’t watch it,” but she also couldn’t look away. “I was interested in that reaction,” she says, and she came to find the in-person spectacle even more enthralling.

“I think MMA is best enjoyed as an experience of ecstatic violence,” she told me. “We’ve removed experiences of mass ecstasy in the public sphere, and I don’t think any other sports event would be able to convey that emotion.”  

Adweek named Dana White “Brand Genius” for sports in 2014. Two years later, Ariel Helwani, one of the most prominent MMA writers online, was removed from UFC 199 after reporting a top fighter’s next matchup before the company could announce it. White gloated that Helwani would never again be credentialed for a UFC event. Eventually he bowed to blowback and lifted the ban.

Over time, Gannett, Vox Media, and ESPN acquired or formed partnerships with MMA-only sites. A newly formed MMA Journalists Association already has more than 50 paying members. In 2011, the UFC inked a seven-year deal with Fox Sports, and last year White’s company was sold for $4 billion to William Morris Endeavor after drawing interest from Time Warner, ESPN, and Fox.

In March of last year, New York became the final state to legalize MMA. “It’s a terrible, nasty, violent sport,” the Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benedetto told the Times after voting “yes” on legalization. “But it is everywhere else.” Governor Andrew Cuomo explained that “football is violent, boxing is violent, politics can be violent, right? So I do support mixed martial arts, because it’s also an economic generator.” In other words, financial opportunity trumped moral reservations, especially if others were already cashing in.  

It’s an equation familiar to media.

 

Toward the end of Blood in the Cage, Wertheim describes searching for next-day recaps of a UFC fight in 2008. “Oddly, the New York Times I was reading—purportedly the country’s newspaper of record—didn’t print a single mention of the card….No mention of an event that drew 16,000 fans and 500,000 pay-per-view buys….No results in agate type. Nothing.” That year, the Times reported on MMA’s rise from obscurity, its popularity among high schoolers, its TV deals, its legalization efforts, its appeal to advertisers, even its clothing partnerships. But yes, the paper was reluctant to give MMA traditional sports coverage.

This July, as Daniel Cormier trained to challenge Jon Jones for the UFC’s light-heavyweight title, the Times ran a profile of Cormier on the front page of the sports section, with the headline, “A Champion’s Latest Battle.” In the third round of the fight, Jones sent Cormier wobbling backward with a left kick to the side of the head, then knocked him to the ground and delivered 15 seconds of punches before the fight was called. “It was the perfect ending,” the Times reported the next day.

In late August, the dullest period on the American sports calendar, the UFC star Conor McGregor faced Floyd Mayweather in a ridiculously uneven boxing match that generated hundreds of millions of dollars and nonstop media attention. Ahead of the fight, ESPN The Magazine published an entire “Fighting Issue,” which included a “gritty” two-page photo spread of mixed martial artists’ battered faces post-fight. Another article extolled boxing as “the poetry of the working class.” According to ESPN’s annual rankings of the world’s 100 most famous athletes, three, led by the former women’s champion Ronda Rousey, are now UFC fighters.

Conor McGregor serves as coverboy of ESPN The Magazine’s Fighting issue from August 21, 2017 (Image courtesy of ESPN The Magazine)

MMA is a sport. That designation, however, doesn’t settle the question of whether fights deserve enthusiastic engagement from mainstream media. (Even more beside the point is arguing that mixed martial arts “are not the arts,” as Meryl Streep awkwardly did at this year’s Golden Globes.) When a newspaper elects not to review porn films, it isn’t because the performers aren’t acting, or because the subject is insufficiently popular.

“Human cockfighting,” John McCain’s notorious slur, was a poor analogy—MMA competitors, unlike chickens, volunteer to fight. I asked Kerry Howley if any form of consensual fighting would push “ecstatic violence” too far for the mainstream. Nothing came to mind. A line must somewhere exist: Outlets would publish box scores for fencing if the sport developed a following, but probably wouldn’t do the same for knife fighting.

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Interest in fighting is hardly a mark of moral ignorance; Plato, after all, was a lifelong wrestler. To make things more complicated, a generation’s ethical priorities are often a bewildering scramble. In The Sweet Science, Liebling describes a bar in Midtown Manhattan where the boxing community would hang out. One slow afternoon in the 1950s, a man was told to leave, and nearly incited a brawl, after saying a dirty word.

In its early days, MMA provoked a compelling debate over whether fighting provides edifying entertainment. It reinvigorated a controversy that’s existed in boxing for decades, and comes at a time when sportswriters are increasingly disturbed by football’s crippling effects. Today’s football fans, after following years of impassioned reporting on concussions, might feel guilty supporting the NFL out of concern for the wellbeing of its workforce: We can’t ask athletes to wreck their brains for our amusement, no matter how much we’ll spend for it. Being titillated by graphic violence, on the other hand, raises concerns for the wellbeing of consumers, but that’s a more vexing territory for journalistic self-censorship. MMA’s popularity reached a point where media went along and any debate faded away.

A decade ago, the cover of Sports Illustrated asked, “TOO BRUTAL OR THE FUTURE?” As it turned out, there was no need to settle the first question for the second to prove true.

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Danny Funt is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt