It's been 20 years since the Ultimate Fighting Championship first offered the world a voyeuristic glimpse of some future dystopia's favorite sport. This vaudevillian sideshow of societal collapse found an easy hook by selling a vulgar fantasy of consequence-free violence that came heightened by the tacitly acknowledged possibility of witnessing death live on pay-per-view. It was a thought so appealing that 86,000 people paid for the priviledge of watching. One of the taglines was "THERE ARE NO RULES!" -- because of course that was one of the taglines. It was not the first inhumane business enterprise, but it was overtly proud of that inhumanity. It's been 20 years since this happened, and what went on to become mixed martial arts has thankfully evolved. The UFC has not.
What made the UFC's original incarnation disturbing wasn't that there were 10 people willing to fight in an unregulated, open-weight tournament contested under roughly the same rules as ancient Greek pankration -- a sport in which defeat via death was an accepted occurrence. No, that wasn't it, because the $50,000 winner's purse made certain that the UFC would find 10 such individuals with ease. Anything that is a necessity for survival -- money in a capitalist society for example - -will make people do the unthinkable to gain it. What really made this all so disturbing is that enough people came together to make such a plainly monstrous business profitable. Then again, the hook remains a good one.
It's the hook that current UFC President Dana White still uses, most recently this past weekend when UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre announced a vague hiatus while under obvious emotional distress. St-Pierre made broad references to personal problems, sleepless nights, blurred vision and "going crazy." White's initial response was attempted rhetorical emasculation and then segued into soulless insistence that "his problems aren't as bad as he thinks they are." This open workforce coercion is White's specialty, and he finds it best used on star fighters who forget that the UFC has zero interest in them as anything but a resource to be exhausted and then discarded. It's part of the business. It is the business.
This model is a recurring source of disgust for a devalued minority of the sport's fans -- the ones who make a distinction between the sport of MMA and the business of the UFC. Viewed solely in the lens of its matches, MMA is now the purest expression of sport there is, a competition stripped down to its most basic elements. While the UFC's opening night roster was a hodgepodge of pseudo martial arts masters, mid-grade sociopaths and non-athletes, comprehensive rule changes and the natural evolution brought about by a collision of previously isolated fighting styles have produced an infinitely complex yet conceptually simple sport. Its best practitioners are masters of restraint with a monastic devotion to strategy. This is what keeps the uncommon UFC fan on board despite having every reason to jack the emergency raft and just go. Then there are the fans that made the UFC a multi-billion dollar business.
These are the fans for whom the UFC's inhumanity serves as an extension of the sport itself. Fighters are not so much professional athletes as individuals who have entered into an ironclad moral contract to sacrifice themselves for whatever the UFC deems maximum entertainment. This perception goes back to the bizarre cult of personality surrounding White, the face of the system, and it has produced an unprecedented sympathy for the businessman over the fighter. Fans are conditioned to believe that this is normal, healthy even, that rooting for the UFC's bottom line is somehow the truest measure of allegiance to the sport. With this allegiance comes a false feeling of mastery over the fighters -- what other feeling could come of believing them to be mere entertainment products? The stereotypical hardcore UFC fan wants to feel powerful and no one knows this better than the UFC.
This state is to be taken as progress because the UFC is now profitable, vastly so. How vast is an open question since the UFC keeps its financial information secret, but a $700 million contract with Fox Sports and millions of annual pay-per-view buys paint a picture of success that the UFC trumpets at every turn. This success functions as a self-administered indulgence that justifies all actions taken in its pursuit, including a ban on fighter unionization and ongoing suppression of fighter pay by keeping the company's profits secret. Put most plainly, the UFC is employing corporate strategies one would expect in an oligarchy and this is perceived to be success by both the UFC and many of its fans.
One of the few good things to be said for the UFC on its 20th anniversary is that it has finally hit the steel ceiling of its own creation. This conception of the business won't grow into any sort of mainstream force because not enough of the public is willing to celebrate the testosterone-drunk fiasco that the UFC packages around the sport it only somewhat sells. It's the same lesson that the WWE learned during its multiple boom eras, which never quite translated to it becoming much more than a mainstream punchline. Being a fan of either comes with facing down awkward conversations and justified assumptions. Most won't choose that for themselves, especially when the product that accompanies the choice is so soaked in retrograde, braindead notions of masculinity and servitude. The UFC has miscalculated just how far outright inhumanity can take them.
Twenty years from now, it would be nice to talk about how the UFC finally grew the hell up.