Russias Rustam Khabilov throws Norman Parke of Northern Ireland at the O2 Arena event.
Outside the Octagon, Zuffa dont just regulate, they overregulate. It was their route to being sanctioned and, ultimately, to being back on cable TV. These days theyre even on BBC3. Its as if, having come so close to being banned, they have resolved to be one better than they need to be ever since. As Elliott explains: The way we set up the medical provision for instance is that we go above and beyond that which we are required to do, and certainly that which the boxing authorities would have in place. Their health and safety record is excellent, especially when set next to other combat and collision sports. There have been
several deaths in the wider sport of MMA, but the worst injury anyone has suffered in the UFC is a broken bone.
The UFC was quick to understand the growing concerns about the long-term effects of concussion and the way the issue had been mishandled by other sports. In 2012, it entered a partnership with the Cleveland Clinic to understand better what the sport was doing to their fighters brains. They send dozens of their fighters for brain scans and cognitive testing. We want, Elliott says, to understand and get in front of any issues before they arise.
Most UFC fighters and fans argue that the risk of long-term brain damage is considerably smaller in their sport than it is in boxing, even though the gloves they use are so slight that some call them sleeping pills. I want to be able chew my food when Im older, Hardy says, and the MMA rule set is the safest place for me to test myself in a controlled environment.
UFC vice-president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky on setting up the sport’s anti-doping programme. UFC vice-president of athlete health and performance Jeff Novitzky on setting up the sports anti-doping programme.
The best example of Zuffas approach, though, is their anti-doping policy. Theres no doubt that the sport of MMA has a doping problem. Jack The Stone Mason, who has fought 47 professional MMA fights, tells me that he dreads to think how many of them were against fighters who had taken steroids. In the UFC, Silvas was only one of the more high-profile cases.
The UFCs solution was to hire the best anti-doping expert it could find, Jeff Novitzky. He has joined the UFC from a 22-year career in federal law enforcement, the last 12 of them spent in anti-doping. Novitzky worked on the Balco laboratories case that brought down Marion Jones and Barry Bonds. Then, in the words of the cyclist Tyler Hamilton, he drove a bulldozer into the bike-racing world and busted Lance Armstrong. The UFC asked Novitzky to draw up its anti-doping program. It wasnt lip service, Novitzky says. They were looking to clean up their sport, they were dead serious about it. Novitzky has designed what he describes as the best anti-doping programme in professional sports. And frankly, he says, there is not really a close second. All UFC athletes are now subject to random testing, every day of the year.
UFC on social media UFC on social media
The programme is being eased in. Right now, Novitzky says, its running at about 60-70% of what it will be. In the meantime, fans have fun spotting the fighters who once had ripped bodies but whose physiques seem to have mysteriously softened in recent months.
Novitzky says that what drew him to the UFC was the opportunity to build a programme from the foundation up, as if hed been given a blank piece of paper to work on. That touches on another key reason for the UFCs success. It was in such a mess when the Fertittas took it over they were able to rebuild it as it liked, applying lessons they had learned from other sports. Lorenzo Fertitta says: Boxing provided a tremendous roadmap, from a case study standpoint, as far as what to do and what not to do. It felt boxing had become too fragmented, included too many titles at too many weights. When we bought the company we sat down and I said, Somebody buy me a Ring magazine from the 1950s. I want to go back to when boxing was simple and I want to see what the weight classes were. The UFC has eight weight classes. Boxing has 17, multiplied by the many different governing bodies.
On top of that, he says, boxing came to the point where it was really only about the main event, it wasnt about the show. At a UFC event the card is stacked and at UFC London the O
2 was packed from the first fight, at 5.45pm, to the finish five hours later. But the single most important point is this, according to Fertitta. Boxing had failed the fans because they had been unable to put on the fights the fans wanted to see. We waited, what, six or seven years to see Mayweather v Pacquiao? There is, he says, no running, there is no hiding in the UFC. Hes right because the UFC has something close to a monopoly on the sport. For the top fighters, the UFC is pretty much the only option in MMA. At the end of 2015, it had 573 fighters under contract and its the UFCs matchmakers who decide who fights who, where and when.
UFC total revenue
That control extends into all areas. The UFC is a thoroughly modern model of a sports business and where it once borrowed from other sports, other sports would now love to be able to copy it. It controls promotion and production, some aspects of regulation and, increasingly, distribution. It realised early on, as Fertitta says, that the best way to reposition the brand and reposition the sport, really comes through our athletes. The athletes are its best advocates. At first, people think: Gosh, these guys are just a bunch of bar room brawlers, Fertitta says. But when they get to meet them they see that they are martial artists. They are intelligent. It is about the competition. It is about the sport. It is not about, in any way, the violence.
So in 2005, it launched its own reality TV show, Ultimate Fighter, so that viewers could get to know the athletes and their backstories. It gathered a group of fighters, had them live and train together and then compete for a UFC contract. In the next two years, UFC had a 1,258% increase in revenue, including a 1,700% increase in PPV sales.
Since then, the UFC has turned down broadcast deals with HBO and ESPN because it didnt want to give up control of production. Off the record conversations with some of its broadcast partners reveal that the UFC has a reputation for being notoriously demanding to work with. Its move into distribution meant UFC London was available only on Fight Pass, its online streaming service.
Add it all up and UFC has become so prominent that its name has almost synonymous with the wider sport of MMA. That, says Fertitta, is one of the biggest misunderstandings. MMA, he says, is a vibrant industry, that happens every weekend, all around the world. He estimates that there are 3,000-4,000 fights every year. The UFC stages 42 of them. Its in those smaller promotions that the megastars such as
Conor McGregor cut their teeth. Thats how he got his experience, how he got his name and his following, and eventually our talent scouts find somebody like that and bring them into the UFC. At these lower levels, MMA feels very different indeed.
We used to put a couple of mats down on my friends garage floor
Englands Joe Harding waits to restart his fight with Geir Kare Nyland of Norway in their BCMMA fight at the Charter Hall in Colchester on 20 February 2016. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian
A week before Silva fought Bisping at UFC London, one of those smaller events was taking place in a leisure centre just outside Colchester. It was called BCMMA and it was run by Jack Mason, a fighter, promoter and trainer who, like Hardy and Bisping, is an old hand in that hes been on the scene for a decade or so. Hardy says his second professional fight was on the end of the pier in Portsmouth. He was paid 100 for it. I didnt know anything about my opponent. I didnt do any kind of medical testing and everybody was smoking. MMA is evolving so quickly that Hardy, 33, says he is part of the last generation that will remember the sport before it was a sport.
It is the same with Mason. When he started, there werent any gyms to train in. We used to put a couple of mats down on my friends garage floor, he says. When Mason wanted to study new techniques, he would either look them up on YouTube or buy or borrow a VHS tape. Now there are MMA gyms across the country. Mason runs two, BKK Fighters, one in Colchester, the other in Chelmsford. One of BKKs fighters, Arnold Allen, has just made it to the UFC. He fought, and won, on the undercard at UFC London. Allen is 22 and baby-faced. He wears a moustache that somehow makes him look even younger.
Last year Allen was called up as a late replacement for his first fight in the UFC. He had a weeks notice, but won so well that he earned a $50,000 bonus. He used the money to move to Montreal so he could train at the famous Tristar gym. Mason sees Allen as a member of the new generation. They have been training since they were children, and their level is just crazy compared to mine when I started, he says.
When he was 16, Allen decided to leave school and become a professional MMA fighter. He even wrote the goal down in his notebook. His ambition was more specific still: he wanted to become a UFC world champion. Whereas Mason and Hardy fell into MMA, Allen grew up with it.
Belgian welterweight Brian Bouland hits Jamie Pritchard, a featherweight from Newquay, England, in their professional catchweight BCMMA fight. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian
Every fighter at Masons event in Colchester wants the very same thing Allen does. A couple of fighters on the top of the bill, Luke Barnatt and John Maguire, have been to the UFC and are trying to find their way back. Others are pros on the lower levels hoping to be picked up by the UFCs talent spotters. Still more are amateurs, hoping to make the switch to the professional sport. Allen is living their dream, but it isnt easy. After his victory at the O
2, Allen pleads: Somebody sponsor me, please. Hes shocked by how expensive life is in Montreal. While the UFCs top fighters are making plenty, money is tight lower down the ranks and while the UFC helps arrange medical insurance for its fighters, Allen is struggling to pay for his meals.
The best estimate is that between 2005 and 2011, 13.6% of the UFCs revenue went on the fighters wages. In many American sports, the split is nearer 50-50. In 2015, when its revenue was around $600m, Zuffa spent over $100m on athlete costs including compensation, insurance, medical, and travel. The former UFC champion Griffin says that the UFCs formula is simple: If you sell tickets, you make money. Theres pressure on the fighters to entertain, as well to win, and Allen is annoyed that he let his last fight go to a decision and missed out on a finishing bonus.
At BCMMA in Colchester, no one is getting rich. Not even Mason, the promoter, who ended up with a profit of around 100. But then, like so many of the MMA community at this level, Mason isnt in it for the money. BCMMA was a sell-out, but a lot was spent bringing in fighters from overseas, from Portugal, Poland, and, in particular, Norway and France.
Competitive MMA is banned in the latter two countries. In France, MMA is struggling to be recognised by the Ministry of Sport, largely, it says, because of opposition from the judo federation. Our only option in France at the moment to hold an event is to apply as an entertainment, says Elliott. And we refuse to do that. Because this is a sport. MMA is a sport.
It sometimes seems a fine line. While the 17,000 at the O
2 were well-educated in the intricacies of MMA and so knew where that line lay, many of the hundreds in Colchester didnt. At one point, the referee had to ask two ladies to stop screaming elbow him in the face. It was, he explained, an amateur bout and so that move wasnt allowed.
Most of the audience were there to see a Polish heavyweight named Rafal Cejrowski. Plenty had flown over especially to watch him. He was fighting Joo Mimoso, who is, no joke, a Portuguese university professor.
A young boy watches fighters warm up before their BCMMA fight.
Their fight was especially brutal. Less human chess, more like two big men belting each other in the face. Before it started, the security guards closed in around the Octagon. Cejrowskis fans have a reputation for storming the fencing and, indeed, as soon as he had won, they started hurling themselves over the judges tables to reach the Octagon.
Despite that, BCMMA is one of the bigger and better-run events on the domestic circuit. It works with the
UK Mixed Martial Arts Federation, which was formed three years ago to try to bring more