Words: Mathew Scott Photography: Nicky Almasy
Israel Adesanya marked his UFC debut with a win at UFC 221 in Perth in February, but in the lead up to the event, the New Zealander had waxed lyrical about how he’d attended a UFC event (219) in Las Vegas last December for the very first time as a fan and how the experience had affected him.
“I got a close-up look and I knew I just wanted more,” said the man who labels himself “The Last Stylebender”. “In the sport of mixed martial arts there is nothing else like it on the planet. You get to the UFC … and you just want to be part of it.”
Experience has shown us that first-timers always seem to feel exactly the same – even more so when it comes to those watching on from the safety of the stands. But if you’re still a little unsure what all the fuss is about, or you are preparing for your own UFC debut, we’ve prepared a short guide to what you should know, written by a dummy for like-minded individuals.
OK, so what’s the background to the UFC?
The Ultimate Fighting Championship was created way back in 1993 by a group that included Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ) legend Rorion Gracie who started putting on what were perceived as rough and ready bouts between fighters from various codes of combat sports. Come 2001 and the organisation was bought for around US$2 million and legitimized by a partnership forged between Las Vegas businessmen Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White. Over the next 15 years they cleaned the sport up, laid down some strictly enforced rules about behaviour both in and outside the Octagon, and the UFC quite simply took off. In 2016 the organisation was purchased by the WME-IMG group for US$4.2 billion – yes, you read that right.
And the fighters?
Mixed martial arts has attracted fighters with backgrounds in the likes of kick-boxing, BJJ, Muay Thai, karate, judo and Greco-Roman wrestling – and the sport simply seems to attract big personalities. The likes of Anderson Silva, Rich Franklin and Georges St-Pierre set the scene. Nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone anywhere who has not heard of the likes of Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, while there are bona fide superstars still active such as flyweight Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and featherweight Cris Cyborg hold world championship belts in their respective divisions.
What about out here in the Asia-Pacific region?
Glad you asked. The UFC has an ever-growing roster of fighters here. As mentioned, UFC 213 in Perth showcased the talents of middleweight hopeful Adesanya, as well as Australian heavyweight prospect Tai “Bam Bam” Tuivasa, while we saw in action arguably China’s best fighter in welterweight Li “The Leech” Jingliang. South Korea is talent-heavy with featherweights “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung and Choi “The Korean Superboy” Doo-ho also looking to establish themselves as title contenders, while there is a constant stream of fighters emerging from Japan and increasing numbers from the likes of the Philippines. The future looks very bright indeed.
So the UFC is Las Vegas-based but has global ambitions?
Less ambition, more reality as the organisation has now held events in 140 cities in 22 countries. The Asia-Region features heavily in its plans, with six events held out this way in the past 12 months (being hosted by Perth, Shanghai, Sydney, Tokyo, Singapore and Auckland) – and more expected to be announced soon. In pure terms of numbers, the UFC estimates there are now 93 million fans in Asia alone.
How do people win?
Non-title fights (three rounds over five minutes each) have three judges awarding a maximum of 10 points per round for such factors as effective striking, effective grappling and control of the ring/fighting area. Title fights go five rounds. But fans go nuts for a knockout – which can be delivered via punch, kick, knee or elbow but not by headbutt or knee to a grounded opponent – among the moves which are all illegal. There are also submission holds such as the rear-naked choke and the referees can – and do – intervene if one fighter is taking too much heat.
Whoa. Back up a little. They get naked?
Easy, tiger. The rear-naked choke is among the most common submission holds and it involves getting on your opponents back and choking them from their blind spot. Nothing more.
Others moves include the arm bar (a single or double joint lock that hyperextends the elbow joint or shoulder joint) while the more exotic include our favourite, the anaconda (arm triangle from the front headlock position).
Should I be talking trash?
No need. Mostly that’s for show. MMA is that rarest of sports where the respect for opponents is paramount (it’s part of the moral code of all martial arts) and with the very fewest of exceptions you’ll see fighters embrace and pay tribute to each other afterwards – and to the courage it takes to enter the cage.
Anything else I should know before I sign on?
Prepare yourself for unbridled action – and plenty of impressive body art. It’s almost impossible to watch UFC fighters and not wonder whether your clean patches of skin might be put to better use. But whether or not you dabble is entirely a personal decision. And if you really want a taste for it, most gyms these days include some form of MMA in their offerings. The easiest way to learn is to try it yourself. Who knows, the next UFC champion might be staring back at you from the mirror each morning.