Mixed martial arts competitions are a developing phenomenon in AC
Mixed martial arts first surfaced on my radar in the late '80s thanks to a couple of movies starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Bloodsport and Kickboxer. Both climaxed with an underground Asian mixed martial arts competition referred to in one film as the "Kumite." The fights, featuring men of different weights and different martial arts styles, were fascinating, despite being staged for a film. Van Damme's martial arts movies have been a guilty pleasure ever since.
Mixed martial arts fight programs have exploded in the United States in the last decade, and Atlantic City has been a major venue in the development of the sport.
Mixed Fighting Championship: USA vs. Russia, takes place this Saturday, May 14, at the Trump Taj Mahal. Coming up on June 4 at Boardwalk Hall is the UFC 53: Heavy Hitters (Ultimate Fighting Championship), hosted by the Trump properties, and available as a Pay Per View Event. These cards are part of an ongoing marketing push to gain wider mainstream recognition for mixed martial arts.
Linda Powers, vice president of marketing for the Taj says their participation in mixed fighting is simple economics. "These events typically sell-out, and the arena has 5,000 seats." Tickets run from $35 to $250.
The June 4 UFC event at the Hall has tickets from $35 to $350, and the number of seats there is around 11,500. A UFC event in February 2003 at the Hall was a sellout, and Reality Fighting events in the Adrian Phillips Ballroom have also done very well. Valarie McGonigal, marketing director for Boardwalk Hall, says, "The promoters of these mixed fighting events have been pleased with the local patronage. Mixed martial arts requires a lot of discipline and training, and the bouts are pretty entertaining."
Chris Houston, head of public relations for the UFC, agrees that Atlantic City is a prime location. "It's a city that has a great fight tradition. We've been there many times, and the fourth largest crowd in UFC history was a February 2003 event at Boardwalk Hall when 12,000 fans showed up."
Back in the mid-'90s when the fights first started coming to town, they were championed as no-holds barred and without rules. Some fight cards took place in ring-sized cages. During that time Arizona senator John McCain called for banning the sport, upset by the lack of safety rules and the promotion of the mixed martial arts as no-holds barred.
While no-holds barred and cage battles are still part of the vocabulary of some MMA organizations - and there are plenty of them - most mixed martial arts fight cards have toned down the mortal combat aspect, adding rules, judges, weight classes and rounds with time limits. Explains Houston, "Our events are sanctioned by several states. We have state athletic commission approval in New Jersey, Nevada, Florida, Louisiana and pending in California. We have vigorous safety and medical testing procedures, more than any other MMA organization in the world. We have commission-approved gloves, weight classes, time limits on rounds, mandatory drug testing, all the things a legitimate sport has." He adds, "We see ourselves [UFC] as the top organization because we've gone through the vetting process. We consider ourselves the clearing house for the legitimate MMA fan."
In today's MMA events, the athleticism of the combatants is heralded, rather than a desire to destroy a competitor, although rivalries between fighters are always promoted and encouraged. The Cold War is long gone, but the Russia vs. USA angle adds some spice to the event Saturday. A poll on the MFC Web site has the Russians favored 53 percent to 47 percent.
The passion of the fans, many of them aligned to a particular fight club, dojo, or fighting technique, is very similar to the fans of professional wrestling - loud and frenetic. However, that's where the similarity ends. These fights are for real. According to Houston, his sport draws fans. "From boxing, it draws from martial arts, it draws from wrestling," he says. "It is a great outlet for college wrestling fans." Additionally, the individual proponents of the various disciplines root for their favorite sport to reign supreme in the ring. The Internet is flooded with fans arguing about which style is the most dominant. Grapplers champion the art of submission; kickboxers feel their lightning legs will carry the day; while jiu-jitsu proponents think their style provides the best of both.
If you have never seen a mixed martial arts event, you are in for a trip to another world. Fans of professional prize fighting, even of professional kickboxing, might be shocked by the look of MMA fights the first time. Because of the different disciplines - wrestling/grappling, judo, Muay Tai boxing, sambo, kung fu, freestyle, jiu-jitsu and Brazilian jiu-jitsu - fighters can be punching each other while in wrestling holds on the mat. "It's a more primal form of combat [than boxing]," says Houston. Use of the knees is also permissible, although both MFC and UFC ban the use of elbow strikes. While a kickboxer might go for a knockout, a wrestler is looking to lock an opponent in a submission hold. If his opponent cries uncle (tapping three times on the mat or announcing his defeat verbally), the fight is over.
Whatever your martial arts passion, mixed martial arts presents a smorgasbord of styles in an exciting atmosphere with plenty of action.
Mixed Fighting Championship: USA vs. Russia, May 14, 7pm, Taj Mahal Arena; tickets are $35 to $250, available from Ticketmaster, 1-800-736-1420. UFC Heavy Hitters, Saturday, June 4, 8pm, Boardwalk Hall; tickets are $35 to $350 available in person at the Boardwalk box office or from Ticketmaster, 1-800-736-1420.
“There’s a lot of sports fans and fight fans in Atlantic City, which is awesome for me,” Gray Maynard tells Atlantic City Weekly. “We’re pumped to be here.”