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Popularity of mixed martial arts fighting soars
Posted on Mon, Jan 24, 2011 at 1:21 pm
by IDMA Editor

It's a Saturday night at Buffalo Wild Wings, and the place is packed. It has been that way for hours. Get there early, or you can forget about getting a seat.

The crowd a mix of all ages but leaning a bit toward the younger side is at a fever pitch, rising from their seat with every tackle, every big hit, every takedown shown on one of the large TV screens on the wall.

A Packers game? No. The Badgers? Not a chance.

On this night, and many nights like it, it is a pay-per-view Ultimate Fighting Championship battle that has brought out the frenzied fans. It is the ultimate in reality television. Call it Rocky for the non-fiction crowd.

"On Saturday nights when there is UFC, we definitely see a spike in our business," said Russ Raymond, the managing partner of Buffalo Wild Wings on Calumet Street in Appleton. "(The fans) are energized like a Packer game. They cheer loud. Not everyone is rooting for the same fighter. People cheer for one fighter or the other one, and it gets pretty exciting."

UFC, the most popular fighting organization in the rising sport of mixed martial arts, put on its first fight in 1993. But it's only in the last five or six years that the sport has started reaching mainstream America, making stars out of the likes of Brock Lesnar and Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell and, to some, household names on par with Favre, LeBron and Tiger.

A sure sign of the sport's growth is the number of copycat organizations that have sprung up alongside UFC, notably Bellator where Freedom native Cole Konrad is the reigning heavyweight champion and Strikeforce. A better barometer of the rise of MMA is the number of local gyms and clubs that have started training athletes in the various fighting disciplines.

In Appleton, you don't have to look any further than the downtown store that opened in May of 2010 which specializes in MMA gear and clothing and caters to fighters and their fans.

"What we see is just the booming phenomenon of the sport, where pretty much everybody knows about it now," said Ken Popelka, who owns Caged MMA Clothing and Fight Gear with his wife, Di. "You can't go on TV now without seeing it on Spike or wherever every night."

To the untrained eye, ultimate fighting is a savage, unrefined combination of boxing and wrestling and other martial arts disciplines, where the object is to knock out or beat an opponent into submission.

But those who do it say there is more to the sport than inflicting physical punishment.

"It's just so honest," said Matt Brown, a 29-year-old Oshkosh resident who trains at the Fox Valley Grappling Club in Appleton and has had 10 fights, including seven as a pro. "The more you learn about the sport, the more you realize it's not just a human cockfight. It's a very technical sport. The more you learn about it, the more fascinating it becomes because it grows your respect for the fighters and what they go through.

"It's in your face. It is a combat sport. At first, it can seem a little gory and bloody, but once you look a little deeper and start to understand the people who are involved in it, it's really a great thing."

James Peterson, who owns Fox Valley Grappling Club along with Alexandra Rathbone and helps train fighters, says the same thing that makes football fans love the NFL is what attracts him and others to mixed martial arts.

"I think the aggressiveness and I don't think brutality is quite correct but the raw power of it," said Peterson, who has had four professional MMA fights. "Football, obviously, is a hugely popular sport because it moves fast, people hit hard, it's exciting. I think you have a lot of the same thing with the UFC.

"And it's just one-on-one. People just love to see who can be the tougher guy."

Opponents of MMA fighting will say that the sport is violent, but the sport's fans and competitors point to it being the ultimate one-on-one challenge of mind and body.

"For me, it's the closest thing you're going to have and the most realistic way to show who's the better man when it comes to fighting," said Appleton's Dustin Yule, who has been training for about four years. "I think it's the draw of the competition because it's so competitive."

Popelka, who has been friends with Couture a six-time UFC champion since they were All-Army Wrestling Team teammates in the mid-1980s, says a lot of people drawn to MMA fighting picture themselves inside the eight-sided ring called "The Octagon," being able to do the same thing.

"Everybody that watches it thinks they have a chance to be that person that can win in the cage, and that just thrives these guys and drives these guys to think that they can be just like that," Popelka said.

While a lot of people are inherently against fighting in any form, others acknowledge it's human nature to watch a good brawl once in a while.

"In school, whenever there was a fight, everybody crowded around to see it," said Brown, one of the top-ranked 135-pound fighters in the state.

It is the schoolyard fight mentality that is bringing more people to the club to train and generating more phone calls from people expressing interest in learning what MMA fighting is all about.

"What draws these kids into it is being able to pound on a kid without getting in trouble. I guess that's the main thing," said Popelka, who coached wrestling at Menasha High School for 10 years and teaches wrestling and takedowns at Fox Valley Grappling Club.

"Back in your day and my day, if we got in a fight we always worried that we were going to get into trouble from our parents or from the principal. Now, these kids have the option of going and beating a kid up and getting praised for it instead of being in trouble. And I really believe that's what gets people motivated into wanting to do this."

But there is more to the sport than just beating people up. While being tough is definitely a component of being an MMA fighter, the competitors agree it's nothing like Rocky Balboa standing in the middle of the ring, taking beating after beating and begging for more.

In MMA, when a fighter surrenders by tapping on the mat or his opponent or verbally submits, it is rarely seen as a sign of weakness.

"That's one of the other great things if you want to compare UFC to boxing," Peterson said. "You rarely see guys throw in the towel in boxing. It's humiliating. It's an embarrassment. It's like a last resort. But in MMA, it's commonplace. You see guys tap out. And that's why these athletes will last a lot longer in their sports than boxers will in theirs and with less long-term detrimental effects."

It all goes back to being the ultimate one-on-one challenge.

"They don't want to just see who can take the most damage," Yule said. "That's not the point. The point is to see who is the better fighter, not who can absorb the most punishment."

MMA fights are seen mostly on the Spike and Versus networks or on pay-per-view right now, and UFC used social media on Saturday to reach fans by livestreaming two fights on its Facebook page.

But it might not be long before sitting down to watch ultimate fighting on TV could become a weekly family tradition.

"My mom told me that she used to watch boxing on Fridays and she'd watch them with her grandfather. She was a little girl at her grandpa's house watching boxing on TV," Peterson said. "I think it's only a matter of time before UFC becomes that broadly accepted."

UFC president Dana White has talked recently about international MMA competitions being inevitable. There's also talk that MMA becoming an Olympic sport is just a matter of time, all of which would give the sport a world-wide audience.

"If it ever becomes an Olympic sport, look out, because then it will be so mainstream it will be huge," Popelka said. "There won't be kids coming out of high school looking for a scholarship for football, basketball, wrestling, so be it. There will be kids wanting to train so they can make the Olympics. It will be huge if that happens."

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