Mixed Martial Arts Hits a Speed Bump

by Irvin Muchnick on April 6, 2009

The seemingly unstoppable mixed martial arts industry hit a major bump last week when the head honcho of Ultimate Fighting Championship, Dana White, unwisely picked a fight with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation in a rant on his video blog. What we will find out in the coming weeks is whether White has stubbed the toe of MMA or seriously maimed its long-term prospects.

Before Muhammad Ali fought Japanese pro wrestler (and later senator) Antonio Inoki in 1976 in a precursor of the MMA phenomenon, fellow grappler Gorilla Monsoon sneered that Ali didn’t know “a wrist lock from a wrist watch.” The late Gorilla, better known to his family as Gino Marella, always had a way with words.

These days you don’t need to know a rear naked choke from Rear Naked Ladies in order to appreciate that MMA is the new template of late-empire divertissement. David Mamet made a movie about it. Mark Cuban’s HDNet is investing heavily in it. MMA, once derided by that ultimate out-of-touch troglodyte, John McCain, as “human cockfighting,” combines the multi-disciplinary fantasy spectacle of wrestling with the intentionally inflicted brain damage of boxing. It’s that big-screen car wreck you just can’t turn away from.

But now UFC, by far MMA’s biggest brand and the hottest commodity on pay-per-view, is on the defensive over (of all things) bad taste. For some time, White, a slickly crude proto-skinhead who happens to be a master promoter, has regaled an adoring audience of young males with his F-bomb-laced vlog. This week, though, he went too far, so crudely attacking a female MMA journalist with whom he was feuding, Loretta Hunt, as well as her supporters, that White incurred the wrath of GLAAD. (See the original tirade and White’s apology all over YouTube.)

The immediate upshot is that White has lowered his public profile – canceling his vlog, abandoning a reality TV series about his life that was about to go into production, and losing his position as the public face of UFC.

Though the marketing genius behind UFC, White was never really the boss; unlike World Wrestling Entertainment’s Vince McMahon, he’s not the guy with the equity. The Daddy Warbucks of the MMA revolution are the Las Vegas casino moguls Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who last spring made the cover of Forbes. The Fertittas invested $2 million in UFC in 2001 and watched it explode. There are some who think the UFC franchise on PPV will prove recession-proof through emerging superstars such as Brock Lesnar (a former collegiate wrestling champion and defector from pro wrestling).

The UFC juggernaut is all the more remarkable when you consider that it has the tiniest footprint in traditional media; the main vehicle driving PPV traffic is a program called “The Ultimate Fighter” on the Spike cable network. Many others are trying, and so far failing, to duplicate that success – CBS most recently via a bad-ass carnival act named Kimbo Slice, who got exposed as a mediocre fighter in his first match on national TV, and knocked out in less than 20 seconds by a journeyman in his second. UFC’s mission, more so than fending off the competition, seems to be finding creative ways to extend its own brand and merchandising.

A more important setback than White’s gaffe may be the Fertittas brothers’ financial woes. In the recession-that-none-dare-call-depression, they are in the midst of defaulting on their share of billions of dollars in financial instruments underwriting the new Vegas palace they wanted to build.

Meanwhile, WWE (whose market share of PPV is hurt far worse than boxing by the penetration of UFC/MMA) staged its 25th annual WrestleMania on Sunday. Despite a creatively lackluster lineup of matches – Mickey Rourke from The Wrestler bailed out of one of them after being advised that the announcement would hurt his Oscar chances – Wrestling Observer Newsletter publisher Dave Meltzer projected a live gate approaching $7 million at Reliant Stadium in Houston, along with something like half a million PPV buys. At this point WWE is huge enough to churn out megaprofits on autopilot.

The only thing Vince McMahon can’t yet pull off is a truly successful Hollywood-scale movie. Twelve Rounds, the latest WWE studio flick starring John Cena, is another flop that will need to make up its losses in video sales. The proven winning formula is that of former WWE star and current movie idol Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – you build your base in wrestling and then pivot adroitly away from it.

For those of you keeping score, here’s the latest on drugs and death in wrestling:

* Last year filmmaker Christopher Bell released a documentary, Bigger Faster Stronger, which glorified his steroid use and that of his brothers. On December 14, one of the brothers, former WWE wrestler “Mad Dog” Mike Bell, died at a substance abuse rehab facility in Costa Mesa, at age 37.

* One of the wrestlers with cameos in The Wrestler was Paul Fuchs, ring name “Paul E. Normous.” On January 16, Fuchs was found dead at his parents’ home in Sloatsburg, New York, at 33.

* Real-life drug dealer Scott Siegel portrayed the Mickey Rourke character’s drug dealer in The Wrestler. On February 18, Siegel was arrested by Drug Enforcement Administration agents after he rammed their cars and fled on foot. Read all about it at TMZ.com.

* On March 13, former WWE star Andrew “Test” Martin was found dead at his condo in Tampa, at 33.

* On March 22, former WWE wrestler Steve Doll, a star in other wrestling companies, died in Nashville at 48. He had been in failing health for years.

Irvin Muchnick is author of Wrestling Babylon and the forthcoming Chris & Nancy: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death. He blogs at http://muchnick.net/babylon and http://freelancerights.blogspot.com. Follow his tweets at http://twitter.com/irvmuch.

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