By Brian MacIver
The spinning backfist connected and the crowd jumped. His opponent was dazed. The soon-to-be-victor continued the onslaught. He threw wide, powerful hooks at his opponent’s head as he backed him into the cage.
The final seconds ticked away, the cheering grew louder and it was clear what these 100 or so people were here for: blood, bruises and beatings.
The fact that a small-time promotion company like the International Fighting Organization, or IFO, could attract 100 people at $30 per ticket to its debut Mixed Martial Arts show earlier this month in Irving Park, was a testament to the growing popularity of mixed martial arts.
“I don’t want to offend no boxers or nothing like that, but to me boxing is one-dimensional,” said Jabari Dill, a 22-year-old MMA fighter from Chicago. “You’re working your speed and everything, but it’s just your hands. Sometimes you got to think of scenarios where you can’t use your hands.”
“When it comes to MMA, it’s more physical, it’s more bloody, there are more lumps,” said Charley Jones, a partner at the IFO who was previously active in the Chicago boxing community.“[In boxing,] you’re not just getting hit with hands. You’re also getting hit with elbows, you’re getting hit with knees. To me, it’s more exciting than boxing.”
The sport of MMA found a hardcore North American following in the early 1990s, when the Gracie family of Brazil brought their style of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to the U.S. and founded the Ultimate Fighting Championship. While it was first marketed as a championship to find the most efficient martial art in hand-to-hand combat, fighters quickly mixed styles to be more competitive.
The Fertitta brothers, Frank and Lorenzo, bought the UFC in 2003 for $2 million and created Zuffa LLC, the parent company that controls the franchise. Their work has allowed the UFC to expand through pay-per-view and TV deals, and the bloody business is now valued at $1.65 billion by Forbes.
The rising popularity of the sport has opened up business opportunities, including Ultimate Fighting Championship-branded gyms. In Chicago, three of these gyms have opened within the last three years. And memberships for these facilities have been growing exponentially.
“Three people join for every one person that leaves,” said Brandon Washington, the general manager of the UFC gym in River North, which opened in February of 2013. “We used to do about 20 memberships per month, now we’re up to about 50, 60, 70 per month.”
Washington said what attracts people to the gym is the fact that members can practice the punches and kicks without the risk of getting beat up.
“The bags don’t hit back,” he said.
Washington also said that the number of sign-ups for private training is “through the roof”, but could not disclose the exact numbers.
The sport of mixed martial arts has not only been reshaping the training landscape, but has also been making waves in mainstream media.
The UFC signed a seven-year TV contract with Fox Sports in 2011 with an estimated value of $100 million per year, according to the Los Angeles Times, citing officials within the organization. The UFC did not return phone calls or emails seeking to confirm these figures.
The first UFC pay-per-view event of 2015 (Jon “Bones” Jones vs. Daniel “DC” Cormier) attracted more than 800,000 viewers in North America, according to Dave Meltzer, the editor and publisher of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. In 2014, Meltzer estimated that 3.2 million North American fans paid to watch 12 events presented by the UFC.
These UFC figures were actually down from 2013 as injuries to some of the sport’s biggest stars decimated lineups. Meltzer assessed that more than 6 million individuals watched at least one of the 13 pay-per-view shows that year, an average of over 467,000 per show.
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These numbers have been on the rise. Meltzer estimated that in 2007, 4.9 million viewers paid to watch one of 12 UFC events for an average of 411,250 viewers per show. By comparison, in 2003, when the first of the Randy Couture v. Chuck Liddell fights took place, 278,000 fans paid to view one or more of the five UFC events, an average of 55,560 per show.
Mike Vale, a ring announcer and strength and conditioning coach who worked with renowned boxing coach Freddie Roach for two years, said he believes the UFC’s success comes down to marketing.
“I think that the marketing has been genius,” said Vale. “‘The Ultimate Fighter’ show really put them on the map a few years ago and MMA is very popular with the right demographics, the 18- to 24-year-old males.”
Thanks to TV deals with Spike, a specialty cable network that caters almost exclusively to the young male demographic and the home of “The Ultimate Fighter,” as well as their contract with Fox Sports, UFC is hitting its target like never before.