Punters have shelled out their cash; let the violence begin

UFC was once on its knees, now it’s a show worth billions

Is it possible to not know who Conor McGregor is? The diminutive Crumlin centaur with that Pan-goatee and kick-like-a-mule is unavoidable. In the media cage, there’s no running and no hiding from the man who puts celtic corn on the ‘Ultimate Fighting Champion’ cob.

Apparently it can be tricky taking a pop at Mixed Martial Arts. “Be prepared,” the Sports Department Gauleiter has warned, “a very large and vocal pubescent lobby.” Maybe that should be a cue to go all ‘lets-be-having-you’ but I can’t be arsed. This is clearly a ‘yoof’ thing, and a male-‘yoof’ thing at that: and since there’s nothing more boring, or enviable, or immune to flak, than male-‘yoof,’ then why bother.

You can see, though, how the UFC appeals to adolescent minds. It's got that whole Game Of Thrones vibe, muscles and bad clothes with lots of throbs and bad acting, coated in a veneer of special effects that doesn't come close to covering up what's basically a big wet-dream with knobs on.

UFC is very butch. Even a cursory glance reveals the combatants spend most of the time wrapped in plucked oily embraces, from which McGregor for one usually emerges resplendent in tighty-whitey splendour, flexing and preening to masses of beery blokes blissfully unaware of just how camp the whole thing looks.


Except of course, during the violence: that’s the thing with UFC: a lot of panto - apart from when one guy beats the living snot out of the other. Gore is gore, no matter how it’s dressed up, and gore sells. But the fascination of UFC is not so much in the primal impulse to look at fighting, rather in how that impulse has been sold.

On its knees

This was a sport on its knees. Launched as a no rules and no mercy spectacle, the resulting popularity perversely looked to spell its doom. American senator, and former presidential candidate, John McCain, famously decried it as “human cock-fighting”, maybe inadvertently pinpointing its repressed appeal. That was a couple of decades ago. UFC couldn’t get a licence in Nevada, sin’s very own state.

Now, it’s a show worth billions, expanding worldwide and making professional boxing look even more jaded than it actually is.

The knee-jerk response is to dismiss it as some WWE irrelevance, a triumph of ‘morkoting’ over sporting substance. And there’s a synchronicity to that which fits in with traditional prejudices as well as a conspiratorial belief that all anything needs to achieve popularity is that enough publicity gets thrown at it.

Right now there are PR suits profitably riding such a wave, pandering to any number of sports whose top-brass suspect that all that’s preventing them from world-domination is a failure of profile: worthy sports that the world would be better for clasping to its bosom, sports we know we should like, but don’t, really.

MMA is certainly being pointed to in the USA as a triumph of salesmanship. If you think McGregor is ubiquitous here, then you’ve no idea how high-profile some of his UFC colleagues are in America. And it would really be tempting to dismiss it all as hard-sell flim-flam, were it not for how far it has come, and how quickly.

This was a franchise bought for just $2 million at the turn of the millennium. It’s less than a decade since it first appeared on a cable channel. Now the UFC features on ESPN and Fox. These are not evangelical organisations. They don’t create demand, but cater to it.

Satellite badlands

And that demand can’t be just showmanship and the hard-sell. Just a few years ago it was sidelined in the satellite badlands. It can’t be just TV either. If it only took telly and column inches to bull up a sport, then League of Ireland football wouldn’t be the irrelevance it is here, populated mostly by those determined to define themselves by what they aren’t. And it isn’t just about gurning celebrity puffs, even though Arnold Schwarzenegger was clearly up all night with a recent congratulatory tweet to the “McGregor-nator”.

All the sniffiness in the world can’t disguise how there’s a basic demand for this stuff. Those who know better might mournfully shake their heads at what’s being ignored as a result but it’s usually best to ignore those who’re convinced they know what’s best for everyone. Despite blizzards of ‘morkoting,’ it is remarkable how people still cling to the rather quaint notion of deciding for themselves what they’re interested in, even hormonal 15 to 30-year-olds with pots of disposable income.

Clearly what they’re interested in here is violence. And once the camped-up bells and whistles are closeted away, that’s what UFC gives them because there’s no faking a kick in the head.

The ethics of whether or not kicks in the head should be televised for amusement is another day’s work although it’s hard to get too worked up about the consequences to consenting adults of freely entered-into activities, just as it’s difficult to lose much sleep over complaints from some of those same adults that they’re not getting paid enough to have their heads kicked.

Bottom-line, anyone who doesn’t want to take part can drop out. And anyone believing the whole thing is ridiculous can tune out. But the scale of numbers turned on by this stuff is remarkable enough to dismiss ideas that it’s all just a massive PR stunt. If it was, it’d work for everyone else, and we know it doesn’t.