It was probably the first time that Sachin Tendulkar was a topic of discussion at the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm. The Globe, with its larger-than-life dome, stands apart in the south Stockholm landscape, which mostly has three-to-five storey, typically Swedish, rectangular apartments and office complexes. The indoor arena hosts ice-hockey matches, rock concerts and mixed martial arts (MMA) fights among other events, but cricket is definitely not on the menu, and the God of cricket isn’t a chit-chat item there either.
On April 5, the Globe was sprucing up for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fight-night scheduled for the following evening. But as things would have it, Tendulkar was dragged into a conversation. And like any true-blooded Indian, I was trying to educate a maverick American, for whom cricket is a sport that needs five days to churn out a result, on the country’s biggest sporting icon.
“Who is Sachin Tendulkar?” asks UFC president Dana White, as talks turn to the biggest star of cricket. He is God in India, I retort, adding, a tad indignantly, that he was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. But the ringmaster of the UFC is clueless. “I have never ever heard of him… ever,” says White, before making a swift move to corner me. “Do you know who Larry Fitzgerald is?” he asks, sporting a knowing smile, as if he expected the answer to be no. “I don’t have a clue who he is,” I oblige, happy at being able to give one back to the co-owner of the biggest mixed martial arts fights promotion organisation in the world. “Well, Larry is a great football (NFL) player in the US,” explains White. “But you have never heard of him before, right? But I am sure you know who Mike Tyson is, who Muhammad Ali and Manny Pacquiao are? How about Bruce Lee, ever heard of him?”
White quickly gets to the point. “You know Ali, Tyson and Lee. What did they all have in common? They were all fighters,” he says. “Fighters are known the world over. All those guys I just mentioned, there is not a f***ing guy in the world who wouldn’t know them. Because as human beings we are fascinated by who the toughest man in the world is. I, in America, wouldn’t care who the best cricketer in the world is; while you in India won’t give a f**k who the best NFL player is. But for some reason, we all know and care about who the best fighters in the world are. It’s the one thing that’s universal. Pacquiao is this little dude from the Philippines and I am one of his biggest fans. I know you love him too, he is tough, a great fighter. Now why would an Indian, who adores his cricket, love and follow Pacquiao? That’s the appeal of fighting, and that’s why UFC has become so big across the world.”
Big, surely… Except in India, where the UFC and MMA are relatively new. Perhaps that’s why White, while talking to an Indian sportswriter, didn’t mention the legends from the UFC. Instead, he used the examples of Ali, Pacquiao, and Lee, who, by the way, is considered the father of MMA after the movie star founded Jeet Kune Do, his own fighting style combining the best of many arts.
MMA is yet to find a mass following in India and its stars—hall-of-famers such as Randy Couture and Royce Gracie, or current champs such as Anderson Silva—have a long way to go before they become household names in the country. But White is right about the appeal of fighting, and India has a rich history in the fighting arts. It is also a lucrative destination as far as the business of sport in general is concerned. The UFC understands all that and, so, is planning an entry into India by next year (UFC’s Ready To Mix It Up In India, page xx), though White was reluctant to commit to an exact time frame. Understandably so, as UFC is a business, and you have to get all the fine prints right before jumping in.
However, despite India’s rich martial tradition—be it wrestling, boxing or the ancient art of kalaripayattu, which should provide a good talent pool for local fighters—White and the UFC realise that the market could be a tricky proposition. And their biggest worry is how well the Indian fans will receive this new and potentially bloody sport.
But then, when White and partners, the Fertitta brothers—Frank and Lorenzo—began their journey after taking over the UFC back in 1993, MMA was not that popular even on their home turf—the show town of Las Vegas and the US. Forget prime-time TV, forget pay-per-view, which the UFC enjoys now in many countries. Those days, the authorities were up in arms against the “violent sport”.
“Porn was pay-per-view those days but the politicians were against the UFC,” says White. “They yanked it out of cable television and our goal was to bring it on free TV. People first thought we were nuts. But we did it, and, long story short, it all worked out. We had to get out there and educate people on what the sport was all about. There were a lot of misconceptions and stigma attached to it.”
Intriguingly, the rise of UFC and MMA coincided with the decline in boxing’s popularity, brought about by a dearth of colourful champions in the sport, be it any division. It is a fact that after the best days of Tyson, no champ has been able to capture the imagination of the fans. And the boring, mechanical efficiency of the Klitschko brothers—Vitali and Wladimir—who rule the top division in boxing now, has seen an exodus of fans from the square ring to the octagon of the UFC.
“Boxing was bound to die in the US. Why? In the US the amateur level fell apart,” says White. “And without a strong amateur supply chain, the talent in the pro circuit dried up. Boxing started to become a European sport. No offence to anyone, but English fighters and the two Germans started holding titles. Back in the days when boxing was right up there, fighters from Mexico and the US ruled the ring. There were no European or English champs. Now it has started to decline in Europe too. There is no real talent over there. And the younger generation, they started realising they didn’t have to confine themselves to just one fighting form when they could learn everything. This is where MMA picked up. Now everyone wants to learn MMA—be it to become a pro fighter, for self-defence or for fitness. And the sport grew.”
It is ironic that White had started off in the fight business as a boxing promoter. He shifted to MMA after meeting a couple of fighters and getting fascinated by their way of life. “In boxing, almost all boxers have the same old story to tell you—of how they were born and brought up as a tough guy in the mean streets of so and so city, and how he would have ended up dead or in jail if it wasn’t for the sport,” he says. “Then I met a couple of MMA fighters and I was straight away surprised by the contrasting image. They had university degrees. They had families. It was a whole different feel—the vibe, attitude and I fell in love with it.”
White then took that love to another level, when he started managing a couple of fighters, and voilà, his life changed, and so did the profile of MMA.
“I knew that if MMA was done the right way, promoted as a sport, sanctioned by athletic commissions, this could be big,” he says. “I started by managing a couple of fighters—Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz (both of whom are retired now after becoming UFC world light heavyweight champions). Then I got into this huge contract battle with the old owners of the UFC and I realised the company was going under. So I called up my partners in Miami and told them that if we can buy it then we could turn its fortunes around. A month later we owned the UFC.”
Now, the UFC is a billion-dollar fight promotion business based out of Las Vegas, with events happening across the globe. Just the gate revenues run into millions, while the pay-per-view and TV rights, the online merchandise sales and internet rights take the UFC into the hallowed realms of some of the biggest sporting leagues in the world.
What fascinates a first-timer in an UFC fight the most is the arena—the octagon cage—which seems to have come right out of a Hollywood action flick, where the hero fights his way out of trouble with brutal force. But, that is where the similarity ends. The UFC octagon is not just about two hard-headed blokes trying to beat the life out of each other. It is a professional arena, where some holds are barred: The fight has to be clean—clear precise jabs, punches, kicks, knee and elbow strikes (emplying techniques from boxing, karate, Muay Thai, taekwondo and wushu) are used to score points and knockouts; wrestling throws are applied for takedowns; judo and jiu-jitsu chokes and locks are used to win by submission (tap out).
Then there is the showbiz quotient. If MMA is a sport, the UFC takes it to another level, with their jazz and glitz, which combines pro boxing’s raw appeal, with the entertainment quotient of the staged bouts of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), in true Las Vegas style. But unlike the WWE, the UFC is the real deal, and each fight could be a make-or-break affair for the martial artists.
The UFC in that way is ruthless. If a fighter, no matter how reputed, loses a couple of bouts in a row, he may not even get a recall into the octagon, as younger contenders are knocking at the doors, after making a mark in one of the proving grounds—in championships such as the Strikeforce (owned by UFC), K1 (a fighting championship which doesn’t involve grappling or choking techniques), the King of the Cage (KOTC), Pancrase (Japan), and England’s Ultimate Challenge MMA.
And for the upcoming fighters, UFC is the Shangri-La, where they will get their due—the best opponents in the world, good money and fame… A career in the business they are good at.
The UFC has the occasional Cinderella tale to tell too. During the fight night at the Globe in Stockholm, Irish featherweight fighter Conor McGregor, who was making his UFC debut, knocked out his American opponent Marcus Brimage in the first round, earning not just his fight prize, but also a $60,000 bonus for the “knockout of the night”. The bonuses—fight of the night, submission of the night and knockout of the night—are what fighters aim for when they step into the ring. Of course the fight prize is quite substantial too.
“The prize on offer is usually the same as the appearance fee of a fighter as per his contract,” says an UFC official. “The beginners usually get around $8,000 as appearance fee and if he wins the bout he will get $8,000 extra. The bigger fighters earn more and then there are the bonuses. Some big fighters have known to earn up to a million dollars per fight.”
The UFC doesn’t reveal the prize earnings unless it is mandatory by the law of Athletic Commissions when it is staged in some American states. “It is to avoid problems for the fighters,” says White. “Imagine if the papers are printing the salaries you earn every month. You will be in a lot of trouble. You can’t imagine how these fighters’ lives are as they earn considerably more. They will have all sorts of people running around them, acting as well wishers. We want to avoid that, so the UFC keeps the earnings under wraps. Of course, we don’t hide things from the taxman. Everything goes into the book that way.”
The $60,000 bonus that McGregor earned for his knockout kept him smiling right through the post-bout interactions at the Globe on April 6.
“Till last week, I was queuing up for the €280 welfare money that the government gives for the needy back home in Dublin,” says McGregor. “Now I can go back and tell them that I have made it and I can probably give something back too. Frankly speaking, I don’t know what I am going to do with the money now… It is a lot of money you know. I will probably buy a few nice suits.”
The media contingent from Ireland and a small group of fans, who followed McGregor from Dublin, were already talking about beer. Typically Irish!
But the wiry and diminutive McGregor had no feel of a debutant attached to him when he was inside the octagon. It was all-clinical. Of course, the 24-year-old former boxer has had his fair share of action on various platforms and is by no means a novice in the fighting business. But still, the UFC is a big stage and the Irishman was not overawed.
“Fighting is my job,” says McGregor. “I train day in and day out preparing myself to fight. And I make sure that I don’t get emotional about fights. I know what I have to do in there and I execute it. I don’t get angry or upset. If I lose I know I have to fight another day after overcoming the shortcomings.”
A no-nonsense fighting philosophy, plus the harsh lessons of life has prepared McGregor well, while his time in the gym has given him the tools. There is already talk of the Irishman becoming the next big thing in the featherweight division. McGregor’s boxing background clearly helped him outpunch his opponent. He moved in with quick footwork, before unleashing a flurry of jab-punch-hook combos to which the American had no answer. He knew his strengths and stuck by it, and is keen now to get more fights and climb up the rankings to a title.
But not all fighters in the UFC keep emotions out of the loop. Some need their heart in the fray to come out on top. Sweden’s Reza “Mad Dog” Madadi, an Iranian immigrant based in Stockholm, walked into the octagon soaking in the roar from the crowd and tunes of a fast Arabic song. He was talking to himself too, “reminding” himself to “be angry”. That’s the way the former Iran and Sweden freestyle wrestling champion fights.
But outside the octagon Madadi greets everyone with a smile, and, as he sits down to talk about his career in the UFC, it becomes clear that there is nothing maddening about the man they call the Mad Dog. The fight in Stockholm, which Madadi won after making Michael Johnson of the US tap out in the third round, was the third of his UFC career. The 34-year-old now has a 2-1 record, his loss coming in Brazil last year, due to an unfair decision by the judges.
“After that bout, I decided I would never leave things to the judges. I have to be angry enough to go there and finish the bout and that’s it,” says Madadi, who understands the subjectivity involved in judging an MMA fight and has no complaints about it. “I was a wrestler and then I picked up boxing and jiu-jitsu techniques after I started training MMA in Stockholm. Of course, I started my journey in the MMA pretty late, after my wrestling career, but my experience on the mat holds me in good stead over here. I have a few more fights to win before I get a title shot but I am well on my way.”
Madadi’s fighting style was centred around his grappling moves, but, at the Globe, he also showed he had the chin to take a few blows. In the first round, he got caught by a Johnson punch and was almost knocked out. The wrestler held on to see off the final seconds of the round. He came back strongly into the bout with takedowns in the second round, and in the third, he locked his opponent for a submission victory, which earned him the “submission of the night” bonus of $60,000.
“I don’t remember anything from the first round,” jokes Madadi, referring to the hit he took that almost knocked him out. “It was very blurry. But since I don’t have brains inside my head it helps, you see.”
Jokes apart, the fighters do have brains inside their tough skulls and one of the biggest criticism the UFC has faced recently is the potential for long-term damage to the fighters. “But, brain damage is a serious threat not just in MMA. It also affects NFL players and other sports also have their injury issues,” explains Gegard Mousasi, a former Strikeforce light-heavyweight world champion. The 27-year-old hails from Tehran and is currently based in the Netherlands. He was supposed to make his UFC debut in Stockholm against local sensation Alexander Gustafsson. But the Swede was deemed unfit to fight after a cut above the eye, suffered during training, refused to heal.
The Mousasi-Gustaffson fight was the main event of the night and the UFC went on overdrive to find a suitable replacement. In White’s world, the show must go on, and unheralded Stockholm-based fighter Ilir Latifi replaced Gustafsson. The bout was one-sided as expected, with Mousasi winning quite comfortably in three rounds.
But, had Mousasi fought Gustaffson on April 6, the fight would have been much tighter. It would perhaps have ended the Netherlands fighter’s career too as Mousasi carried a serious knee injury into the octagon. “My doctors said it was a risk to fight. I will be undergoing a surgery now,” he says. “I don’t want to talk much about the injury but it is a pretty serious one and I will be out of action for many months.”
But, in fight sport, a competitor’s injury needn’t always be the talking point. It was the same during the whole Mousasi-Gustafsson-Latifi affair. There was a social-networking war being waged on Twitter and other forums, debating on Latifi’s right to fight Mousasi. The UFC fighters, by contract, are required to tweet and interact with the fans. And the likes of Mousasi, who are so much at ease in the octagon, have a torrid time handling the “online fight experts”. A controversy erupted after a Mousasi tweet and the 27-year-old says he would rather fight every day, than tweet.
“We have to do it being UFC fighters,” says Mousasi. “We have to interact with the fans. I don’t find it bad. But the internet and Twitter can get to you and affect you badly. I am just not used to it. I am happy fighting. But tweeting and social networking is something I will have to get more used to now, I guess.”
But Mousasi, or any other UFC fighter for that matter, owes his career to social networking. The MMA’s biggest platform for publicity is the internet and the UFC’s online presence rivals any other sport in the world. It is one of the pillars on which its business model in built on. And it will be one of the platforms which the UFC will use to build its presence in India. Television and the internet will be used extensively while marketing the event. The UFC already has a tie-up with Sony 6, which airs the fights in India. This will be followed by the reality show, the Ultimate Fighter, which is one of the main reasons for UFC’s rise in popularity and increase in TV viewership. The Ultimate Fighter also supplies the UFC with fresh talent.
Then it will boil down to how the average Indian receives the tough sport. White knows things will be much easier if a few Indian champions emerge. And the Super Fight League (SFL), launched in India last year by actor Shilpa Shetty and her husband, Raj Kundra, could be more of a help rather than a competition, believes the UFC president.
The current crop of fighters in the UFC is also excited about having Indians in the fray. Madadi, who had taken on a few Indian wrestlers during his days on the mat, would love to have a fight in “Mumbai or Delhi”. “I know Indian wrestlers. They are very good, they fight with great heart,” he says. “If they could pick up the other martial forms, they can do well in the UFC just like I am doing.”
Mousasi agrees: “Wrestlers generally have strong upper bodies. They can pin down opponents and take them into submission. It’s hard to fight their strength. So, Indian wrestlers, if they are trained well, can become a force to reckon with in the world of MMA.”
The UFC would love to have someone like Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar on the roster when the event hits India. But realistically, it is unlikely to lure the elite wrestlers as the sport is practiced with a lot of purist tradition in India. Having said that, the sheer number of wrestlers or boxers in the country who don’t make it to the Olympics or the big stage is huge. The UFC, in all likelihood, won’t have to look too hard for muscle and talent.
And, the job might yet become easier if White does some homework about India’s greatest sporting icon. If he can, perhaps, get Tendulkar on board as a brand ambassador, then the UFC will be able to tap into the country’s endless cricket fan base. Tendulkar may not be in the league of Ali, but he is still God in this part of the world.