Over the course of 20-plus years, mixed martial arts has been a tough sell to an older generation.
The landscape has changed.
The industry boasts more than $1 billion in estimated gross revenue, with Ultimate Fighting Championships garnering $250 million of that, according to Forbes.
The popularity has also triggered an avalanche of interest among those seeking new workout routines.
MMA’s new prominence can be directly linked to the emergence of kickboxing classes, an explosion of interest in the martial arts and an increase of amateur MMA tournaments throughout the country.
The image of the sport has changed since the days when Arizona Sen. John McCain described it as “human cockfighting” in the late 1990s.
Whereas the early days of UFC fighting were dark, or at the very least sketchy, UFC president Dana White insists that MMA has turned a corner with a bright future. UFC events are broadcast in 145 countries to almost 800 million homes.
Two blockbuster events are on the horizon, beginning with Saturday night’s UFC 162 fight between Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman. On Nov. 16, Midlothian resident and former Oklahoma State wrestler Johny Hendricks takes on Georges St-Pierre as part of UFC’s 20th anniversary show. Both fights are in Las Vegas.
“It’s only getting bigger and we’re continuing our mission to make this the biggest sport in the world,” said White said.
While not quite bare-knuckle brawling, MMA fighting has roots in an ancient Olympic combat sport called pankration. Its emergence in the U.S. during the mid-1980s and early ’90s wasn’t well received.
While trying to gain traction, MMA fighting was defined by unsanctioned events.
McCain, a Vietnam War POW, former boxer at the Naval Academy and then chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, led a boycott of UFC in the late ’90s while convincing cable operators to pull pay-per-view access.
Will Florence, the headmaster of Arlington MMA and Ultimate Fitness, said the “underground,” as it was called, was where he got started improving various disciplines.
“Honestly, the entire idea was probably a little scary,” he said. “I can certainly understand why someone like Sen. McCain would say something like that because there is a generation gap and at that time, there weren’t any rules.
“Studying the martial arts, you’re always wanting to get better, and then eventually, you just naturally would have ended up doing some underground fighting. Now, I’d say there’s 90 percent more opportunity to fight legitimately and much, much less opportunity or need to fight underground. In fact, I can’t really think of a place someone would go. It’s certainly not here.”
In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the industry and opportunity has increased. Ten years ago, just a handful of instructors taught various disciplines. Now the Internet lists numerous locations with too many disciplines to count.
Various martial art forms emerged throughout history, including various forms of kung fu, jiujitsu or taekwondo.
But Florence pointed to the first discipline on his list, boxing, as a cornerstone to building success.
He said his gym’s philosophy focuses on just three other disciplines for a fighter to become a championship-caliber mixed martial artist.
The term “mixed martial artist” is exactly that: a fighter with expertise in multiple martial disciplines.
Matthew Masucci, an assistant professor of kinesiology at San Jose State, has studied the development of mixed martial arts and UFC fighting over the course of his career.
He said, like any sport, MMA has had to grow with the kind of fighters it could produce.
“A great MMA fighter cannot be a barroom brawler,” Masucci said. “Sure, we’ve seen street brawlers get in the octagon and maybe win a couple of fights, but the most successful fighters are the ones that are first and foremost athletes and then part scientist and philosopher.”
Successful UFC fighters use various disciplines and anchor themselves in a foundation of experience.
In 2007, Hendricks walked off the wrestling mat for the final time after a runner-up finish at the NCAA championships.
He had already won individual titles his sophomore and junior seasons and was on the 2006 Cowboys squad that captured the team title, the 34th in the school’s history.
But whereas football, basketball or baseball players at OSU had successful professional leagues to move on to, Hendricks was left with few options other than a degree and a job.
“I was asked about fighting and I told my managers I didn’t really care for it,” Hendricks said. “I’d been in one fight my whole life and that was with my best friend.
“I told them I’d give it a go and started the training, but I didn’t like it the first time around. They asked me to give it another go and I got knocked down. It was a couple of more days before I came to the gym and told them I was in.”
Hendricks — who is 15-1 as he prepares for a welterweight title shot in against reigning champion St-Pierre — said he thought he could at least use the skills to protect his family.
Hendricks has become a rising star within UFC with a style that is born of American combat disciplines. His wrestling expertise, coupled with the ability to box and kickbox, led him to study muay thai and jiujitsu.
“A lot of us out here have college degrees,” he said. “This is combat training, it’s strategic and it’s fun. You can apply this to really anything, getting a job, doing your job or other sports even.
“I can’t think of anything more American than working as hard as we do toward a goal. At the end of the day, you don’t know how things are going to turn out, but at least you give it a go. That’s American in my book.”
Alex Russ spent his early post-Fort Worth Trimble Tech career as a graphics artist at the Star-Telegram. Described by co-workers as quiet and unassuming, Russ is a monster in the octagon, and he knows it.
“For me personally, I just couldn’t see myself at a desk the rest of my life with no athletic endeavors,” he said. “I was always good at wrestling, so I figured I needed to really take a look at this. I used to get in trouble at school for drawing and fighting and now I get paid for it.”
Russ, who has a 4-2 career record, said he developed an interest after a successful high school wrestling career and he thinks the reason for the MMA boom is simple.
“You can call us human all day long, but what got us to the top of the food chain was fighting for it,” Russ said. “We’ve constantly been in combat situations, so it’s in our nature. They’re training police and soldiers in MMA to handle these kinds of combat situations, so it makes sense that it’s growing in popularity.”
So why hasn’t the mainstream media embraced MMA?
Masucci, the college professor, and Ted Butryn looked at newspaper coverage of 320 papers from 1993 to 2006 in a paper titled Writing About Fighting, A Critical Content Analysis of Newspaper Coverage of The Ultimate Fighting Championship from 1993-2006.
In it, they discovered a host of interesting history and some possible predictions of UFC’s future.
“We saw leaps in coverage as UFC stuff went from the lifestyle sections one day, to appearing in the sports section the next,” Masucci said. “And that’s not by accident either. In a shifting landscape, you can go right to the advertising dollars to see the success. Early on, UFC fights were getting ads from something like Tom’s Local Pool Hall.
“All of the sudden, Anheuser-Busch, which had a vested interest in sanctioned boxing, had Bud Light as a UFC sponsor. Next thing you know, Harley-Davidson was on board and so on. After that, UFC results started appearing in the sports section.”
Masucci said UFC’s coup d’etat was a marketing strategy to shake the early messages and legitimize the sport in the eyes of the mainstream.
“UFC did a great job of sanitizing the original versions and turning it into a legitimate sport working with sanctioning bodies to develop rules and medical testing,” he said.
Will Florence said at the local level, fitness and training has given the art a boost.
He’s worked with several individuals already that have lost 200 pounds or more.
“I’ve had people that had only one goal of getting healthy and others with just a small interest in what it was,” he said. “And some of those just looked up one day and said they wanted to fight. Perhaps it was getting over a fear or just wanted to mix it up, but every one of them gained another level of confidence.”
Florence said female fighter Madison Dodd of Arlington started in his kickboxing class with the idea of getting fit.
“Over time she just got better and better before finally just coming to me and asking about the possibility of getting in the octagon,” he said. “It wasn’t long before she was a part of our team and travels with us to tournaments. It’s remarkable, but she’s put in the work to make that so.”
Florence said people from all walks of life wander into his gym and the countless other gyms throughout the area.
But the common denominator is doing something fun to stay fit.
Is it a sport?
It’s simple to determine how far MMA has come when evaluating the elite fighters.
Many are considered experts at the various disciplines. So much so, that they could step into a boxing ring or Olympic wrestling mat and compete.
“Someone like Johny [Hendricks] being successful makes a lot of sense,” Florence said. “He’s an NCAA wrestling champion and you have to be a good grappler to fight in the UFC.
“The days of unsanctioned events are over. We have rules now and good commissions that oversee our events.”