To the Dogs


What would it take for states to allow high-stakes, televised dog fighting?

The very question is repugnant, yet the blueprint has been drawn with remarkable clarity by promoters of so-called mixed martial arts (MMA), or "human dog-fighting" as the New York State Catholic Conference called it in a recent letter to lawmakers.

Legislators in Massachusetts and New York are inching closer to sanctioning MMA, joining 40 other states that have abandoned their moral stands against the bloody events in which choking, kicking, and pummeling opponents while they're on their backs are not only routine, they are the essence of the spectacle. What ten years ago was an almost invisible "sport," barred in most states, forbidden on broadcast television, and struggling without sponsors, this summer conducted its biggest event yet - a championship in Las Vegas with a $5.1 million gate and many millions more in revenue via pay-television.

It's been less than a decade since Senator John McCain called these fights "barbaric." MMA is "not a sport" he argued in letters to all 50 governors, urging a total ban. What changed in so little time to move this brutal activity troublingly closer to the mainstream?

Supporters say tighter rules - such as eliminating head butts and groin kicks, while adding a requirement that fighters wear small, fingerless gloves - were sufficient to quiet critics. Yet, at the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, a Los Angeles Times writer observed: "The blood is gushing out...just a beautiful sight for the UFC 100 crowd, the folks here in Mandalay Bay screaming with hunger for even more." Another reporter noted that the eventual winner "used at least 17 unanswered blows" while his opponent was flat on the canvas.

The UFC circuit was purchased in 2001 for $2 million by Nevada casino owner Lorenzo Fertitta and his brother Frank. Seven years later Forbes magazine valued the business at $1.1 billion. Financiers, marketers, politicians and sociologists should all take note.

The brothers hired a former Nevada athletic commissioner to lobby in state capitals; made unabashed political contributions - to, among others, Sen. McCain, who has since changed his tune about MMA; created and funded a reality TV series that glamorizes fighters; used aggressive promotion on the Internet; developed video games based on MMA fighting, and signed Bud Light as a sponsor.

Louisiana was the first state to officially sanction the events, followed by California where it has proved particularly appealing to the state Athletic Commission, populated by Gov. Schwarzenegger's appointees with ties to the entertainment industry.

For each state legislature the arguments became more simplistic: other states are allowing it; there is much tax revenue to be had; by sanctioning it, regulations can perhaps be implemented to protect the fighters.

But the biggest boost to mixed martial arts was delivered by media. Last year CBS broke an informal industry agreement by carrying MMA bouts on national broadcast television, a move later labeled a "mistake" by the CBS chairman, Sumner Redstone. "It's probably good for [our] bottom line," he noted, "but I don't think it's socially responsible."

Newspapers and magazines, torn between ignoring a genuine phenomenon or further legitimizing it through coverage, soon fell in line. Sports Illustrated was among the first to yield to what its editor described as "an ironically ethical alternative to boxing." In the tortured reasoning of Terry McDonell, "[Boxers] take so many head shots that they can end life with permanent brain damage. MMA may look more brutal, but the many ways fighters can strike, grab, punch and kick an opponent tends to mean less overall permanent damage."

In March, USA Today proudly announced on its sports pages that it would print voluminous rankings of MMA fighters based on information compiled by the Internet blog known as "Bloody Elbow."

The New York Times recently declared mixed martial arts a "mainstream sport." The point was made within a truly bizarre account detailing how MMA fighters are turning to plastic surgery to alter bones and tissue so that when hit in the face they will be less likely to bleed.

In his book, "Blood in the Cage," whose title refers to the chained enclosure, or cage, in which MMA events are staged, sportswriter L. Jon Wertheim suggests, "MMA is a stiff jab to overprotective social engineers…a sport for Hemingways in a culture of Dr. Phils."

Such thinking only goes so far. If dog fighting were to be sanctioned and televised there would undoubtedly be a sizeable audience, consisting of the eager, the curious and even the repulsed. Presumably that would lead to expensive ring-side seats, video games, and a beer sponsorship.

But lawmakers, media and business people would never condone it. Why they are willing to view "human dog-fighting" differently is something the culture of Dr. Phils ought to consider.

© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Boston Globe.

Index of Previous Columns