Thursday, August 14, 2014

Is UFC Really a Sport?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Consider two fighting Irishmen, in fair Las Vegas where we set our scene. But these men are not alike in dignity, and are viewed differently despite their very similar pursuits.

Conor McGregor, the Ultimate Fighter, is hailed on all sides as an athlete and hero while poor Sheamus O’Shaunessy, being a professional wrestler, is considered some sort of circus act.

It’s hard to make a case for professional wrestling being a sport, chiefly because it’s not. Wrestling is not a sport the same way Coronation Street isn’t a sport. But it entertains the children and can’t really be said to do any harm.

But since when did we decide to take Mixed Martial Arts seriously? Is there really that big a difference between these two wild and whiskery Irishmen?

Is the Ultimate Fighting Championship an evolutionary leap from boxing, as its adherents would attest, or is just an offshoot of wrestling, sold in the global marketplace like so many pounds of lard and with just about the same nutritional value?

Men have always fought, and probably always will. It’s too deep in the genes to ever go away. Fighting is certainly in the Irish genes – we had the faction fights of the 18th and 19th centuries and even today some families, for better or for worse, still settle disputes in the old-fashioned way, with their bare knuckles.

John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensbury, was the man whose twelve rules codified fighting into boxing, the sweet science, and it was boxing that was the pre-eminent fighting sport of the 20th Century. Mike Tyson once said that the Heavyweight Champion of the World was the “baddest man on the planet,” by which Tyson meant that being Heavyweight Champion made you the hardest man alive. It’s not hard to understand the attraction of that.

But that was twenty or more years ago. Boxing is a dying sport now, killed by its own greed. Being the “baddest man on the planet” ceased to mean anything when there were four or five baddest men on the planet at any one time, as different associations named different Champions in the hope of getting a slice of the lucrative American TV pie.

The increased money available in the other professional sports attracted men who might otherwise have been boxers. The sanitisation of society and real fears over the long-term damage that boxing can do haven’t done anything for the sport either. Amateur boxing is popular but it’s nearly unrecognisable from the pro sport in its terrible glory.

Boxing’s slow death has opened a vacuum in the market, and it’s that market that the discipline of Mixed Martial Arts, through its primary exponent, the Unified Fighting Championship (UFC), is trying to fill. As a marketable product, UFC is inspired, a perfect fit for its throwaway age. As a sport – well. Ultimate Fighting isn’t quite, as the young people, all that.

The idea of the Ultimate Fighting Championship is that a Champion is just that – ultimate. He would win a streetfight as quickly as he would win a boxing match. It is boxing without the science or, indeed, the sweetness. Raw, visceral, primal stuff.

Except that it’s not, is it? The UFC is as far removed from streetfighting – or brawling, or causing public nuisance, as streetfighting is also described – as boxing is. Barefoot streetfighting might not be the best tactic, not least as some Rommel of the backstreets may be wearing bovver boots himself, and take an ungallant advantage.

There is something counter-evolutionary in seeing a barefoot person wearing gloves. It’s as if he or she got mixed up somewhere in the process of evolution. But kicking has to be part of this Ultimate Fighting, not because it’s a fully-rounded martial art, but because some sort of kicking motion is essential for audience appeal.

A lot of people who like UFC grew up watching video games, and fighting video games always feature kicking. Therefore, the UFC had to have some sort of kicking action in the show, so the lads in the audience would know when to cheer.

They couldn’t have booted kicks though, because there’s a big difference between a kick from a bare foot and a kick from a booted foot. Real life isn’t a video game. Therefore, UFC’s tough guys fight barefoot. In their tootsies, like little girls.

You don’t read that on the posters.

It’s a pity that boxing has gone into its terminal decline. The Marquess of Queensbury brought a kind of nobility to fighting. Before its corruption, there was an honesty to boxing that is not so obvious in UFC.

Domhnall Mac Amhlaigh, a Galwayman with Kilkenny roots, wrote an excellent memoir of his life as a navvy in England after the Second World War called Dialann Deoraí – “Diary of an Exile.” At that time, socialising was done by attending dances run by the local Catholic parish. The dances themselves were dry, but the pubs nearby did a roaring trade as men reacted as they always do in times in drought. They loaded up, and arrived at the hall steaming.

Naturally, fights broke out as a consequence. However, there was one priest who ran a particular dance and didn’t care for the Irish letting their nation down in pagan England. He broke up the fights himself, and held the combatants back until the dance was over.

Then, when there was no-one in the hall but themselves, the priest marked out a ring, handed out boxing gloves and had the boys settle their disputes like gentlemen.

There is no real trace of the gentleman about UFC and how it markets itself. Certainly, gentlemen were few and far between among some of the men who climbed through professional ropes over the years, but the sport always had that aura, that layer of discipline and self-control running through the violence and holding it in check. This counts for nothing in UFC. It’s all about the shaping.

Shaping, because it would be interesting to know just how tough these lads really are, when they have their shoes on and aren’t oiled up for the cameras. We have seen some robust exchanges in Croke Park recently – would any of the Ultimate Fighters fancy seventy minutes of that?

A friend of the column was fascinated by WWE Wrestling when he was a child. One day, his father came in as he was watching some fight, with some guy posing in the ring. “He might look tough now,” said the old man, “but I wonder how tough he’d be after digging twelve ridges of potatoes?”

Not very, is this column’s guess.