It's not all fun and games

Early edition

Published December 28, 2006

A walk through just about any airport in the country presents Ultimate Fighting Championships legend Randy Couture with the perfect dichotomy of the sport he has helped make famous. 

Now more than ever, he is recognized, respected and revered. He is asked to pose for photographs, to sign autographs. People wave as he passes. 

And then there’s the occasional look. 

The unsure eyes. The moment of hesitation. A nervous twitch. 

“The most common thing is people thinking I’m one of those cage fighters, like I’m going to jump up and choke or punch them at any minute,’’ he said.

But this is a new day in the UFC, where fighters are shedding the image of  barroom brawlers and being recognized as technical, disciplined and, yes, even educated fighters.

School teachers such as Rich Franklin have become stars. Chuck Liddell, the sport’s biggest star, has a business degree.

Former champion Matt Hughes has been an articulate spokesman for a sport that for years was marketed as no-holds-barred fighting.“Look at Matt Hughes. He’s not an idiot,’’ Couture said. “He doesn’t drool on himself, and he’s probably not going to jump up and punch you for no reason.’’Probably not?

Couture just laughs. After all, it’s not all fun and games in the UFC, which has maintained its tough-guy edge while taking an unprecedented leap into the mainstream.

The UFC, the most famous of the many Mixed Martial Arts cage-fighting circuits taking hold in America, is the new NASCAR, a sport with a cult-like following that has emerged from the shadows — or in this case, a dark alley — thanks to the sharp marketing of its stars, corporate sponsorships and a television deal made in heaven.

“This is going to just keep getting bigger and bigger,’’ said Tito Ortiz, one of the sport’s biggest and most enduring stars. “I remember fighting in front of 1,500 fans who just wanted to see blood. Now it’s just so different.

“The more people start watching and understanding what it is we do, the bigger the sport will get. ’’

Overtaking boxing

Saturday at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Ortiz is scheduled to meet Liddell in a rematch of their 2004 fight that ended shortly after Ortiz was raked across his eye.  A sellout crowd of more than 12,000 is expected to scoop  up tickets priced from $100 to $1,000.

Even more impressive, more than a million pay-per-views are expected to be bought, which would triple just about any boxing show from this year.

The UFC doesn’t officially release its numbers, but mmaweekly.com, one of the top Web sites for Mixed Martial Arts, says UFC has sold 600,000 and 775,000 pay-per-views for shows this year. Only Oscar De La Hoya can attract those numbers in boxing.

And you would have to go back to 2002 to find the last boxing pay-per-view to get 1-million busy: 2002’s heavyweight clash between Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis.

“It will be the biggest Mixed Martial Arts event in the history of North America,’’ UFC president Dana White said.

If it reaches expectations, Saturday’s card will cap a banner year.

 Television ratings reached new heights, challenging, and sometimes surpassing, cable offerings by NASCAR, Major League Baseball, NBA and NHL while  a rabid following continued to sell out arenas.

In October, the first UFC event in Florida, featuring  Ortiz and Ken Shamrock, sold  out the 5,600-seat Seminole Hard Rock and Casino in Hollywood in 30 minutes.

UFC 61 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas in July was a sellout with 12,400 seats ranging from $100 to $400. A week later, a rematch between junior middleweights Shane Mosley and Fernando Vargas drew 9,722 to the MGM Grand.

And celebrity watchers will notice the likes of Paris Hilton, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin James, Nicolas Cage and Adam Sandler at events.

Finding its way

The UFC began with a simple premise: Who would win a fight between a boxer and a wrestler?

In 1993, an eight-man Mixed Martial Arts  tournament was set up featuring kickboxers, black belts and karate experts, a shoot fighter, sumo wrestler, professional boxer and Royce Gracie,  an expert in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the discipline that has had the most influence on the sport.

UFC 1 was a pay-per-view success with roughly 80,000 buys, and it quickly gained popularity. But politicians such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., were appalled by the UFC’s offerings, calling it “human cockfighting” and urging states  to ban the sport.

The UFC responded by adding weight classes, gloves and more rules. But cable companies backed off and refused to air pay-per-views, pushing the sport underground and to outposts far from the major media centers.

Couture, a former collegiate wrestler and Olympic hopeful, remembers fighting before 1,500 wondering, “What the hell did I get myself into?’’

White had the same thought in January 2001, when he and Frank and Lorenzo Zuffa bought the UFC for $2-million.

They planned to start a boxing promotion. But while attending a UFC event in New Orleans, they were hooked.

“We thought, God, if we owned this thing, it would be so cool if we did this or that. We had a lot of ideas,’’ said White, a former boxer and driving force behind the growth of the sport.

White’s plan? Invade the country’s major markets. Instead of running from regulation, run toward it. Shortly after buying the UFC, it was sanctioned by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, a huge boost. (It is now sanctioned by more than 20 states, including Florida.)

Fox Sports Net’s Best Damn Sports Show Period showed the first UFC fight on cable and aired occasional highlight shows.

But it took a marriage between Spike, a fledgling cable network, and the UFC to give birth to a stunning rise in its popularity.

Taking off

In January 2005, Ultimate Fighter debuted on Spike TV. The concept, 16 aspiring fighters in a house on two teams coached by UFC legends Couture and Liddell, was a huge hit.

The show made UFC’s fighters human. It spawned new stars and stoked old rivalries, building suspense for its pay-per-views. It was great theater.

“It was our Trojan horse,’’ said White, who dreamed up the  concept.

The numbers have been better than even he could have dreamed.

 In June, the Ultimate Fighter season finale drew 2.8-million viewers while the  Busch AT&T 250 on FX drew 1.4-million.

The Ortiz-Shamrock match from Hollywood, Fla.,  was the biggest TV night ever for the UFC, drawing 4.2-million viewers. Going head-to-head with  the American League Championship Series opener, it drew 400,000 more men ages 18-34 to its broadcast (1.6-million to 1.2-million).

And growing crowds and pay-per-view sales are leaving boxing in the dust. UFC was even able to lure Marc Ratner,  former executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, away from the sport, seen as a major coup.

Ratner, who had to handle a number of boxing deaths during his tenure with the athletic commission, believes he is with the safer sport. (UFC hasn’t had any fatalities.)

But he believes both can co-exist, and White agrees. To a point.

Though the fighters’ salaries don’t approach those of boxers (St. Petersburg’s Winky Wright made roughly $3-million for his recent fight at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa while Liddell made $250,000 for beating Couture on a February PPV), White is confident his sport will be the one attracting the next generation of pugilists.

“I would agree that boxing and the UFC can co-exist, but boxing has lost its younger generation,’’ White said.

“Boxing has really become your father’s sport. They have their audience. We’ll grab their audience’s kids.’’

John C. Cotey can be reached at (727) 869-6261 or cotey@sptimes.com.