The rise of UFC in a world tapped out by Covid-19

Sport was crippled and the planet locked down, but Fight Island gave MMA a chance, writes Gareth A Davies

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 23: In this handout image provided by the UFC, (L-R) Conor McGregor of Ireland punches Dustin Poirier in a lightweight fight during the UFC 257 event inside Etihad Arena on UFC Fight Island on January 23, 2021 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
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What is it about the spectacle of two protagonists in a steel cage wearing 4oz gloves in a fight involving punches, kicks, knees, elbows and grappling that can turn it into a billion-dollar entertainment industry? Narrative. Storylines. The humanisation of struggle. And surviving.

There was a 15-year battle before mixed martial arts bouts could be held legally in every US state; MMA was deemed "human cock-fighting".

Not anymore.

Whisper it, but the inexorable rise of the Ultimate Fighting Championship across the world, its burgeoning popularity and mainstream media acceptance of late, might just have made the fight league one of the biggest players on the sporting landscape in the past year.

The UFC went into the Covid-19 pandemic strong, and arguably came out even stronger. Its recent “Fight Island” events in Abu Dhabi – including the return of its biggest star, the swaggering Conor McGregor – fit neatly into the sporting diet being consumed worldwide during the “new normal” imposed by pandemic lockdowns.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. May 24, 2015///

Abu Dhabi skyline, view from Fairmont construction site near Marina Mall, for stock. Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The  Burj Mohammed Bin Rashid Tower is the tall pointed tower on the left. Mona Al Marzooqi/ The National 

Section: National  *** Local Caption ***  150524-MM-Fairmont-ADskyline-007.JPG
Abu Dhabi has hosted all of the major UFC events in the past year, safeguarded by the emirate's strict Covid-19 protocols. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

It all began as an experiment to pitch diverse martial arts against one another.

When the UFC came about in 1993, it created the term "mixed martial arts" to legitimise the fighting style – a hybrid of forms from boxing to taekwondo, karate, Muay Thai, wrestling and jiu jitsu in a single sport. Throughout the 1990s, while the UFC was young, it and other early MMA competitions like the Pride Fighting Championships in Tokyo were considered a niche subculture in sport.

MMA continues to be the generic name for the sport itself, with the UFC now its leading fight league, although there are many other leagues, such as Bellator MMA in the US.

In 2001, the "Unified Rules of MMA" were created regarding weight classes, attire, rounds, judging criteria and comportment. The rules provide a list of 28 fouls, including no headbutting, groin strikes, hair pulling, biting or eye gouging.

Now, the fighting art as sports entertainment has morphed and erupted quite unexpectedly into a global phenomenon.

Given the shrinking nature of the world, lived out through our screens and our incessant zoom calls, and given the fact that most professional sports are now on an enforced hiatus, there is the real sense that the UFC and its fighters are enjoying a greater spotlight than ever. MMA has been even rawer – more visceral – with no crowds as the pandemic has forced us into our homes, into masks, behind walls.

Yet inside the caged Octagon, fighting athletes carry on as normal. What it has offered us as we are asked to shield from the virus is a snapshot of working men and women breaking quarantine, leaving their families and going out to make a living the only way they know how: by fighting.

In that respect, amid the silence of empty arenas, we witnessed a microcosm of the battle so many of us are unfortunately facing right now. For whether inside or outside, whether jobless or working in the most hazardous of environments, it’s a fight. Every day it’s a fight.

And part of the beauty of MMA has always been the appeal of watching others fight, shaking hands afterwards and pushing on. Thus, we forget about – or we are inspired for – our own fights.

MMA has been even rawer – more visceral – with no crowds

MMA increasingly finds itself a greater hit with television companies, for its dramatic theatre and propensity for going viral on social media. And in 2020, as the planet was slowly grinding to a halt, the UFC won hands down. The Middle East, and Abu Dhabi in particular, was one of its safe havens. The UFC – which, again, began as an experiment – has become a multi-billion dollar industry.

2020 might have brought an imperfect storm to our societies, but “timing” happens to be everything in business, sport and, indeed, life.

The evolution of the UFC and the sport of mixed martial arts into a global phenomenon contains a narrative for these very bizarre modern times through the marriage of an endless appetite for sports entertainment, the growth of social media and a willingness by the sport’s architects to forge on through the Covid-19 crisis.

MMA has a loyal fan base who follow its every detail, many of whom have little interest in other sports. The fans are avid – even rabid, at times – and as opinionated as some of its smack-talking fighters.

The blueprint remains global. Slick, polished, shiny, modern, loud – the UFC’s pure product. It doesn't hold with everyone in every region. It has its abolitionists, and plenty of vocal opposition. But it has certainly captured and converted a generation in recent times.

It is now as much a lifestyle sport as it is a pure fight. Heroes can be created overnight, highlight knockout reels becoming the staple for a hungry social media audience, with which it has grown exponentially.

They play it up, not play it down, the UFC, augmented by their beefcake, larger-than-life president Dana White, as famous himself as any fighter in the sport's history has been, from Randy Couture, Brock Lesnar, Anderson Silva, Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones, Khabib Nurmagomedov or the aforementioned McGregor, seen now as the sport’s bestseller.

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 21:  UFC President Dana White interacts with media during the UFC 257 Press Conference inside Etihad Arena on UFC Fight Island on January 20, 2021 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
The UFC's 'beefcake' boss, Dana White. Getty

Mr White, like MMA itself, refused to be buckled by the pandemic, and in doing so, found allies around the world who wanted to signal that it is truly a global sport that could survive the worst crisis. It is almost a mirror of what the fighters themselves go through – in battle, after losses, after challenging themselves.

Go back in the history of society, and hand-to-hand combat was always there – a staple, gladiators showing human survival instincts, in a ritual test of strength, as much mental as physical. And when it comes to the sport's burgeoning desire to be among the biggest performers, the UFC has always chosen fight over flight. Call them Machiavellian, even. They listen closely to the digital noise that now surrounds us, the many millions of voices that take to social media every hour. They listen to what people want... and then give it to them. The most marketable, or the best, matched up for the delight of the audience.

It will never be for everyone, mind you, and the UFC has fought tooth and nail for acceptance.

But the Middle East is the sport's sleeping giant, and with royal patronage, one of its most notable martial arts, jiu jitsu, enjoys a place on the school curriculum in parts of the UAE. It clearly helps that the likes of Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed, the UAE’s National Security Adviser, created the Abu Dhabi Combat Club and its Submission Fighting World Championship – what the British filmmaker Bobby Razak once told me was "the Olympics of grappling" – which takes place every two years in the UAE.

Little wonder other fight leagues such as Cage Warriors, Desert Force and Abu Dhabi Warriors have made their sojourns to the Middle East.

The UFC first ventured to Abu Dhabi just over a decade ago, bringing one of the all-time greats, Anderson Silva, to headline there. Back they have come again and again, to a fertile field of allies. In these times, that has provided sports entertainment to millions of fans who have run out of Netflix boxsets to binge on. Like it or not, the fighting arts of MMA are here to stay.

Gareth A Davies is the combat sports correspondent for The Daily Telegraph in London