Fight Club

Mixed martial arts goes from rebel sport to money maker

September, 2007

Ultimate fighter Kendall Grove earned the nickname “Da Spyder,” mainly because of his long, lanky 6-foot-6-inch frame and his nimbleness in the ring. But the 24-year-old Maui native’s nickname could have just as easily been derived from his rough-and-tumble career, which, until recently, resembled a tangled web of frustration and disappointment.

Grove, a onetime Baldwin High School wrestler, moved to Las Vegas in 2000 hoping to develop his jiu-jitsu skills and eventually make it big as a mixed martial arts fighter. To pay for his gym fees, the young fighter cleaned the workout mats every night after class. To pay for everything else, he got a full-time job at a hotel, but it wasn’t enough. Eventually, Grove was eating room-service scraps. Later, his car was stolen, his pay cut and he was forced to return home to Maui and move in with his mother.

Grove continued to train and fight in Hawaii and, in early 2006, at the urging of a fellow fighter, he auditioned for “The Ultimate Fighter,” a reality television show on Spike TV. On the show, 16 fighters live in a house together, and each week, two of the fighters match up in a win-or-go-home battle to remain on the program. The final two contestants meet in the season finale, and the winner earns a contract to fight with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)—the world’s largest and most popular mixed martial arts organization.

Not only did Grove go on to be a cast member, but he won season three’s finale with a unanimous decision over Ed “Short Fuse” Herman. The victory earned Grove a three-year, nine-fight contract with the UFC, which guarantees him three fights a year.

With his new contract, Grove now earns $12,000 for a fight, and gets another $12,000 in prize money if he wins. It’s a far cry from the $500 he used to pull in appearing in small shows anywhere from Maui to Tijuana. His rate will grow incrementally until his contract expires; in the final year, a UFC win could net him nearly $50,000. Not bad for a guy who was dining on room-service leftovers six years ago.

Grove is riding high on a sport that is suddenly very popular—and very profitable. Take his television stint alone. According to the UFC, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 3 premiere defeated USA Network’s coverage of The Masters, in average audience, 2.4 to 2.2 million. Then on June 24, 2006, 2.8 million people watched Grove’s climactic triumph in the series finale. All in all, “The Ultimate Fighter” episodes regularly beat out major sporting events like NBA and Major League Baseball games.

In Hawaii, the sport has even more cachet. Here, viewership rates for regular episodes of “The Ultimate Fighter” are nearly double those on the Mainland, but season five’s finale—which featured Hilo native B.J. Penn—pulled in a 20.8 rating, 10 times the national rate. “That’s huge, there’s no prime time shows that do that,” says local mixed martial arts promoter Patrick Freitas. “Maybe ‘American Idol’ with Jasmine Trias does that well, and [‘The Ultimate Fighter’] was on cable. Anybody who advertised in that got their money’s worth.”

People are watching, and not just on reality television. Mixed martial arts, or MMA, as it is commonly referred to, is, according to a July 15, 2007, article in the Washington Post, “the fastest-rising sport since NASCAR.” However, the sport is still in its infancy, with more than 100 MMA organizations across the country, so definitive statistics are hard to pin down.

But if television ratings and rising ticket sales are any measure, MMA is kicking butt, especially here in the Islands. While Grove and fellow UFC star Penn have won the support of fans across the nation, local promoters have been working to put Hawaii on the map, and their efforts are paying off.

TOUGH ENOUGH

MMA combines an eclectic collection of fighting disciplines, such as Greco-Roman wrestling, jiu-jitsu, judo, muay-thai (kick boxing), karate and numerous others. Competitors also create their own unique style of fighting, whether it is predominantly “stand-up,” in which punching and kicking are the main plan of attack, or “going to ground” and delivering blows or forcing a submission (something that can be done standing up as well) by a plethora of choke holds, arm and leg locks, and other intolerably painful moves.

Bouts, held in either boxing rings or large octagonal, chain-link cages, can end in a knockout, submission or judge’s decision.

When it’s good, fights are raw and electric.

“I tell you what, I’ve been to a lot of sporting events in my time, and if you’ve never been to a UFC event, it’s the most exciting sporting event you’ll ever see—and I’m not just saying that because I own it, it really is,” says Dana White, president of the UFC and the sport’s most prominent and successful business figure. “The only thing you can even compare it to is the old Mike Tyson fights when Tyson was on top: the energy, buzz and the excitement.”

FOUL PLAYS
A partial list the fouls in a UFC match. These violations result in point deductions or disqualification.

  • Eye gouging of any kind.
    • Biting.
    • Fish hooking.
    • Groin attacks of any kind.
    • Putting a finger into any orifice or into any cut or laceration on an opponent.
    • Striking to the spine or the back of the head.
    • Throat strikes of any kind, including, without limitation, grabbing the trachea.
    • Clawing, pinching or twisting the flesh.
    • Butting with the head.
    • Stomping a grounded opponent.
    • Kicking to the kidney with the heel.

source: Ultimate Fighting Championship

The UFC started when a handful of television executives got together and devised a concept to answer a simple question: which fighting style is the best? They put together the first Ultimate Fighting Championship. It was supposed to be a one-time-only, pay-per-view experiment, however the event proved so popular, it rivaled boxing and the World Wrestling Entertainment in pay-per-view buys.

The UFC draws roughly 2 million to 4.5 million in arena attendance annually for about 30 fights. The company put on 10 pay-per-view events last year alone, which is more than typical pay-per-view powerhouses, HBO Boxing and the World Wrestling Entertainment organization. After an investment of about $2 million six years ago, the company is conservatively estimated to be worth $100 million. “It’s big money,” says White. “Time Magazine just said it’s estimated at more than $100 million; and it’s worth more than $100 million.

“I think that it’s only going to get bigger,” White adds. “We just opened an office in the UK and we’re doing four fights there this year and next year we’re starting to head out into Europe. We’re going to Canada, Mexico; this thing is going to be global over the next five years. We’re already in, like, 175 countries on some form of television, but now we’re going to take the live events all over the world.”

GOING LEGIT

Patrick Freitas makes his living in Hawaii as the promoter in charge of operations for ICON Sport (formerly known as Superbrawl), and he, along with president T. Jay Thompson, head up Hawaii’s oldest and arguably most successful mixed martial arts organization. The company got its start in 1995, putting on underground, no-holds-barred shows at local bars. But ICON—the second-oldest MMA organization in the U.S., and third-oldest in the world—has since cleaned up its act, enforcing a strict set of rules that allows fighters to punish their opponents without causing severe injury.

Further legitimizing the sport is a new law that charges the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs to regulate fights. Act 279—a piece of legislation that was passed last session, which provides standards and regulations for MMA events—goes into effect in July 2009. It essentially gives the DCCA the same power and control of a typical state athletic commission, which tests fighters for drugs and disease in addition to requiring proper insurance and medical clearance prior to fights.

And ICON isn’t the only organization that will be affected by the new legislation. Any of Hawaii’s thriving mixed martial arts organizations—including other prominent local entities like Rumble on the Rock, X-1, and Punishment in Paradise—will fall under the uniform regulations.

“It’s going to cost us a lot more, but it ends up protecting the sport forever; it makes us a legitimate sport,” Freitas says.

Promoters like Freitas are finding it easier to gain sponsorships for events, since the sport is a favorite with the coveted young, male audience, ages 18 to 34 —freer spenders, who are more apt to make impulse purchases. Another trend exciting MMA promoters in the state is the emergence of a young, female audience, which Freitas estimates comprises about a third of his crowds.

Advertisements for beer, car detailing, vitamins and supplements and even businesses such as The 808 Lingerie Shop are the norm at a typical fight in Hawaii.

“If you want young sports fans in Hawaii, mixed martial arts: that’s where they are,” says Freitas. “The comparison I always draw is that [UH quarterback] Colt Brennan is a huge star. But if I would walk B.J. Penn down the street right next to him, who gets more attention? It would be interesting and it’d probably be close, but in my mind, I think B.J. might get more attention.”

The profitability of ICON Sport events is further proof that the industry in Hawaii is thriving and continuing to gain momentum. According to Freitas, the organization puts on four or five events per year at the Blaisdell Arena. While he declined to disclose precise revenue figures, Freitas says that ICON events draw an average of 5,000 paid customers at a median ticket price of $50, which equates to an estimated $250,000 in ticket sales. After paying all the fees associated with such a production—arena rental fees, insurance, production and promotion costs and fighter payroll—Freitas estimates that if ICON can keep at least one-third of the revenue ($83,000) as net profit, the event is a success.

ICON’s recent success has allowed the organization to position itself as a legitimate player in the national MMA scene. Pro Elite is a national MMA promotion company that puts on events for the premium television channel, Showtime. According to Freitas, Pro Elite’s goal has been to create a network of small to mid-size shows internationally from Japan to Korea to England. Pro Elite had already partnered with ICON in March when the show was broadcast on Pro Elite’s Web site. Then, in June, after Pro Elite made it clear that Hawaii is a key market, the two formed a partnership which transferred ownership of ICON to Pro Elite, while Freitas and Thompson will stay on to run the organization as contractors.

Starting with the ICON fight card at the Blaisdell Arena on Sept. 15, selected ICON events at will be held under Pro Elite’s fighting brand: EliteXC (Extreme Combat). So while the ICON brand won’t go away, this month’s fight card will be a banner event for Pro Elite in Hawaii. This deal will increase the operating budget and allow for a heftier fighter payroll. Plus, the Sept. 15 event will air live on Showtime. It will be the first ever nationally-televised, live broadcast of a Hawaii MMA event.

“If you’re talking about doing business in the state of Hawaii as a mixed martial arts promoter, in some ways it’s very easy to promote here. I truly believe that, having promoted all across the country, doing shows in Chicago, Texas, California, that Hawaii per capita, we’re the No. 1 mixed martial arts state,” says Freitas. “In New York they have theater; in Hawaii, we have MMA.”

NEXT STOP: HAWAII

The immense popularity of the sport, and UFC in Hawaii has caught White’s eye. While he is still working on details, White plans on staging a UFC pay-per-view event sometime next year at Aloha Stadium. For White, the Islands are the perfect platform on which to showcase his product to both national and international audiences. This is especially important since the UFC acquired the Pride Fighting Championships, a Japan-based organization, in late March of this year.

“No doubt about it, I’m coming to Hawaii no matter what,” White says. “We’ll be there as soon as it’s sanctioned. Hawaii is that place where people will fly from Japan and [Mainland] America to go to the fight. And then you have the whole Hawaiian fan base too.”

Aloha Stadium will no doubt be the UFC’s venue of choice, as the 50,000-seat, open-air stadium could theoretically play host to the country’s largest mixed martial arts audiences ever. In 2005, K-1—a mixed martial arts organization based in Japan—held its World Grand Prix in Hawaii, and 14,800 fans attended the star-studded event at Aloha Stadium. That number would likely be dwarfed with any UFC event headlined by local boys Penn and Grove.

As Grove continues to enjoy life in Las Vegas and settles in to a home of his own, he hopes that White can deliver on his promise.

Says Grove, “Dana was like, ‘If the UFC goes to Hawaii, would you want to fight there?’ I was like, ‘What are you talkin’ about, of course I want to fight there.’ That would be my dream to fight in Hawaii again. I think I’d die in that cage, being in front of the people I’ve lived my whole life with.”

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