'Kinetic Chess': Ultimate Fighting Is About to Hit Europe

By Maik Grossekathöfer

The sport of Ultimate Fighting has become more popular than boxing in the United States. Now the controversial spectacle, which has projected sales of around $250 million (€200 million) this year, is about to go global.

There are still two hours left before the fight to determine the world champion in Ultimate Fighting. Randy Couture is sitting on a leather couch in his dressing room in the belly of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, eating nuts and chatting with his wife about the kids. He is the picture of calm, and yet his pale face and the beads of sweat on his forehead betray his inner unrest. Couture, his head shaved, has scars all over his body, on his chin, shoulders and calves. His cauliflower ears are the result of hematomas caused by the many blows and contusions already inflicted on his body.

The cutman walks in and starts massaging Couture's hands, starting with the fingers and moving up the back of the hand. Then he wraps Couture's hands in gauze bandages and secures the bandages with adhesive strips and two rolls of tape. Finally, he asks Couture to make a fist so that he can check the bandages one last time. The cutman is pleased. He has transformed Couture's hands into two weapons.

"The rest is up to you, brother," says the cutman as he leaves the room.

Couture puts on a jockstrap, a mouth guard and lightweight, fingerless gloves and begins to warm up. He boxes his shadow, takes a few jabs at the protective gloves his assistant holds up, wrestles on a mat with one of his sparring partners and throws another man over his shoulders. Loud rock music is already booming from the loudspeakers outside.

There is a full house waiting in the arena, 14,272 fans who have paid an average of $336 (€270) apiece, amounting to $4.8 million (€3.8 million) in total ticket sales, for the privilege of being there, surrounded by six video walls and the bluish glow of floodlights. While the fans include young men in pinstripe suits and well-dressed women who look like they work in PR, the crowd is mostly made up of tattooed men and buxom women.

The celebrities, sitting in front-row seats, include Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, actress Mandy Moore and New York gangsta rapper 50 Cent, who visited Couture in his dressing room before the fight. "Champ, kill him," 50 Cent told Couture. They are here to watch Couture defend his heavy-weight title in no more than five rounds against Brock Lesnar, in an eight-sided ring -- the Octagon -- surrounded by a black, wire-mesh fence 9.75 meters (32 feet) in diameter and 1.75 meters (5'9") tall. Running away is not an option.

"As real as it gets," the slogan of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), is a reflection of the reality of the blood that flows when the men combine various fighting disciplines: judo and Thai boxing, boxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu. At each fight, there are four doctors stationed around the ring and two ambulances waiting outside the arena, and the nearest emergency room and neurology department are always notified in advance.

Blood, in the case of the UFC, is anything but a deterrent. In fact, blood and gore are part of the reason that UFC television viewership has been growing so rapidly. Today's fight is also being broadcast live on Spike TV, a pay-per-view channel, and 1.2 million Americans have paid $44.95, before taxes, to watch the event. Boxing promoters can only dream of numbers like these.

The UFC has spread across the United States like a flu virus. Condemned as "human cockfighting" by Senator John McCain 12 years ago and banned at the time throughout much of the country, the UFC is expected to bring in $250 million (€200 million) in revenues this year. Experts estimate the value of the operation at $1 billion (€800 million).

Now that Ultimate Fighting has become established in the American market, the rest of the world is next. The UFC has already held six evening fighting events in Great Britain, all of them sold out, and championship fights are scheduled for Dublin in January and the Philippines in April. UFC comes to Germany for the first time in mid-June with an event in Cologne, and fights are also planned for China, India and Dubai.

The 'Legendary Warrior'

It is shortly before 9 p.m. when Couture steps onto the stage, to the music of Aerosmith, a gladiator entering the arena at a modern-day Circus Maximus in Las Vegas, lost in thought, oblivious of his fans shouting "Randy! Randy!" Standing in the Octagon, in the blue corner, his mouth guard visible between his lips, Couture is now a human pit bull about to attack his opponent. The announcer pronounces his name in a singsong voice, calling him "a legendary warrior."

Couture is the reigning world champion, but on this evening his chances of winning are not good. His opponent is three centimeters taller, 20 kilograms heavier and 14 years younger. Couture is already 45. Anyone betting $140 (€112) on Brock Lesnar can win only $100 (€80), and all it takes is one look at the man to realize why. Lesnar, a former wrestler from Minnesota, has the neck of a bull and arms as thick as trees. A tattoo of a sword with drops of blood clinging to its tip bisects his massive chest.

The referee blows the starting whistle, and Couture and Lesnar begin dancing around each other in the Octagon. There are two men in the midst of the screaming crowd who can hardly believe their good fortune: Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta.

White, a short, round-headed man wearing a skin-tight shirt and belt with a skull-shaped buckle, is the president of the UFC. He is 39, a former bouncer and a bellhop at a Boston hotel. He was found guilty of assault and, because he refused to pay the fine, wound up in prison. He became a boxing trainer and fled from the Mafia to Las Vegas, where he had grown up, and opened a boxing gym. White now owns a Range Rover, a Ferrari and two Mercedes, but he still has difficulty saying three sentences without the word "fuck" in at least one of them.

White is in charge of day-to-day business operations for the UFC, managing press conferences and fleshing out contracts with the fighters. He loves giving autographs, and a video blogger follows him around, filming him wherever he goes. The strategist in the background, the man who handles long-term planning, is Lorenzo Fertitta, the owner of the UFC. He and his brother Frank bought the organization seven years ago.

Fertitta, 39, is worth $1.3 billion (€1.04 billion) and was ranked 377th on the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans. He made his fortune -- where else? -- in Las Vegas, in the gambling business.

Fertitta's office is in a building across the street from the Red Rock Casino Resort on South Pavilion Center Drive in the western part of Las Vegas, where the city gradually gives way to the desert. It takes a numerical code and fingerprint to gain access to the third-floor office, where a Warhol hangs behind Fertitta's desk, and the rest of the room is decorated with paintings and sculpture by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Damien Hirst -- originals, not copies.

Fertitta is a boxing fan. He has seen Larry Holmes, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson fight. Every morning from 7 a.m. he spends an hour working out in a gym in the basement. The gym comes complete with a boxing ring, six treadmills, five rowing machines, spinning machines, various strength training machines and four big-screen TVs that are always kept switched on. The gym can easily accommodate 10 people. Who else uses the room?

"Frank."

Fertitta, smelling of expensive cologne, speaks quietly and with a pleasantly deep voice. He is wearing a black knit shirt, jeans and wingtips without shoelaces. "What makes Ultimate Fighting so brilliant is the fact that everyone gets what it's about immediately: two guys beating each other up," he says, rubbing his hands together and cracking his knuckles. "But I would never have thought that it could be this successful."

The UFC was created in 1993 by three men: a martial artist, a film director and an advertising executive. Their idea was to pit martial artists from various disciplines -- sumo wrestling, kick-boxing, karate and boxing -- against each other to see who would win. There were no gloves and no referees, and only biting or poking one's opponent in the eyes were off-limits, the idea being that two men would step into the ring and only one would step out again. They borrowed the concept of the octagon from "Conan the Barbarian." In the film, the protagonist is forced to fight in an octagon, because there are no corners in which to hide in an octagon. The wire-mesh fence was a typically American touch.

The first fight, held in Denver, was so brutal that the fighters' knocked-out teeth went flying into the front-row seats. The fans loved it but politicians were horrified. One athletic commission after another banned the fights.

Fertitta and White are old friends. They attended Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas together, but fell out of touch after graduation. In late 2000, they ran into each other at a wedding. Fertitta visited White's gym, where he met two UFC fighters White was managing. They took jiu-jitsu classes together, and at some point White suggested to his old school buddy that he consider buying the UFC, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. Fertitta signed the contract a month later -- for a purchase price of $2 million (€1.6 million).

Why did he do it?

"No idea," says Fertitta. "I probably thought it would be a nice hobby."

The first three years cost him $40 million (€32 million). He introduced five weight classes, referees, drug tests, HIV and hepatitis testing, and brain scans. And he introduced 31 prohibitions. Prohibition number 29 is called: Fear.

A TV show was responsible for cementing the popularity of Ultimate Fighting. Four years ago, White and Fertitta hit upon the idea of locking 16 fighters into a house, where, isolated from the outside world, they could focus on training. Fights were held once a week, and in the end the winner was awarded a contract with the UFC. The reality show, called "The Ultimate Fighter," is now in its eighth season.

"The show is our Trojan horse," says Fertitta. "People were surprised to find out that the fighters work hard, that they're not crude thugs but great athletes, intelligent and with good manners." The show is broadcast in more than 100 countries, including Japan, Brazil, Canada and Germany, where the UFC is in talks with the ProSieben and Dmax television stations.

World champion Couture, a former Greco-Roman wrestler, was a three-time US college division champion and three-time Olympic alternate. He served in the US Army for six years, and for three of those years he was stationed with the 58th Aviation Regiment in Hanau, Germany, where he wrestled on a local German team, the TG Langendiebach, in the State of Hesse league. "What I liked about Germany was the woods," he says, "and the fact that you have three generations of a family living under one roof." Couture studied German in college. A friend introduced him to Ultimate Fighting.

He owns a gym in Las Vegas, where he trains and meditates. The gym is a dark, bunker-like building on West Sunset Road where the smell of sweat is in the air. A framed, blood-spattered T-shirt hangs on one of the walls.

Couture says that fighting is part of human DNA, and that Ultimate Fighting is "kinetic chess," with a defensive move to counter every offensive move. No one who spends more than five minutes in conversation with Couture can picture this eloquent, even gentle man as a fighting machine.

Men like Couture are what make Ultimate Fighting so unusual and set it apart from boxing. For many fighters, boxing is an opportunity to do something with their lives besides working as a bouncer or winding up in prison. But of the 202 athletes in the UFC, 164 are either college-educated or have learned a trade. They include an attorney, a psychologist, an IT expert, a math teacher and a former member of the Croatian parliament.

Many regard boxing as a corrupt sport but the UFC is different. "Our sport is honest," says Dana White. And Ultimate Fighting, he adds, is safer than boxing. The most serious injury to date was a broken forearm. The sport is now allowed in 48 of the 50 states.

A boxer doesn't get very far once he has given up the sport, and boxers feel betrayed when their trainers throw in the towel. But an Ultimate Fighter who gives up, which he can do at any time, earns respect. Randy Couture is considered one of the best fighters the UFC has produced. He has 16 wins -- and eight losses -- under his belt.

Seventeen Blows to the Head in 10 Seconds

Things do not go well for Couture in his fight against Lesnar at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The two fighters spend much of the first round wrestling up against the fence, two bodies locked together in a standoff, each of them trying to throw the other to the ground. Lesnar manages to knock his opponent down first, but Couture frees himself and the crowd yells: "Randy! Randy!" The fans' allegiances are obvious. Like in "Rocky IV," Couture is Balboa and Lesnar the evil Russian, Ivan Drago. The bell rings after five minutes, and the first round goes to Lesnar.

The Octagon Girl, a beauty in a blue bikini, announces the second round. Couture charges Lesnar, slugs him from the outside left and scores a direct hit, producing a laceration over Lesnar's right eye, which will require four stitches after the fight.

Then Couture makes a mistake. He is the smaller of the two men, but instead of keeping his distance he allows himself to become a target. Lesnar puts his full weight behind the blow, hitting Couture on his left ear and knocking him to the ground. The ensuing scene is something that raises doubts about Ultimate Fighting's right to exist.

Lesnar pounces on Couture, kneels over him and starts punching him in the head, doling out 17 blows in a seemingly endless 10 seconds, until the referee finally intervenes. After three minutes and seven seconds, Lesnar wins the fight by technical knockout. He climbs up onto the fence to reap his applause as the new world champion, but the audience boos him instead. Couture is lying on the floor, motionless, looking dead.

Seventeen blows to the head in 10 seconds, blows coming from a barely padded fist -- it sounds brutal. In fact, it is brutal, and it raises the question of whether Ultimate Fighting is a sport or simply assault.

A fight breaks out in the stands. Couture gets up, shakes himself and grins broadly, as if to prove that he still has all his teeth -- to howls of approval from his fans.

Two hours later, Couture is at an after-fight party in Studio 54. He has a split lower lip and swelling over his cheekbones. Drinking a beer, he says that he wasn't worried about his health. Dana White, standing next to him, admits that he was nervous.

But only for a moment. The two men are partners in a business that is supposed to look dangerous, that has to look dangerous to succeed. Looking dangerous is the whole idea.

Of course Ultimate Fighting is a sport, says White, and what a sport it is. "If you're on a field and they're playing football in one corner, basketball in the second corner and baseball in the third corner, and there's a fight going on in the fourth corner, what do you think people are watching?"

Exactly.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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