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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

There's a craze brewing in the sports world. It's called Ultimate Fighting. The first point is not to confuse or connect this craze with professional wrestling. Free-for-all hair pulling with overboard histrionics? That's pro wrestling and when that was the craze, in the 80's, we thought of it as a sign of new times. Bodies and violence to mimic that decade's wave of video games. But there was something called Slam-Bang Western-Style Wrestling way back in 1915.

Up through the 50's and 60's, pro wrestling had a hearty blue-collar following in the Northeast but it was in the 80's, when Vince McMahon, who grew up in the grunge pro-wrestling halls that his father promoted, amalgamated the various wrestling venues of the day and formed the WWF, the World Wrestling Federation. McMahon's coup was signing larger-than-life Hulk Hogan, he of Rocky III fame. McMahon developed a pretty good stable of characters--Jesse Ventura, Andre the Giant--but Hulk Hogan was the superstar and by the 90's, Hulk himself wasn't enough to carry the brand.

Steroid allegations swirled around the slam-bam bouts and in 2000 the other WWF, the World Wildlife Fund, sued the wrestling WWF for their name and won. That's when the WWE or World Wrestling Entertainment came to be. The name may have changed but the smack-downs, guys flying into the ring in capes, dudes fake-slamming knees into necks, still capture a certain niche audience, mainly on a weekly show called Extreme Championship Wrestling on the Sci-Fi Channel.

So when I first heard the term Ultimate Fighting Championships, I did associate it with pro wrestling. But now that UFC is leaving the fringes and plunging into the mainstream, I, along with evidently millions of others, am discovering that Ultimate Fighting is a brand of combat competition that is not only light years more legitimate than pro wrestling. I'll go so far as to predict it's going to take boxing's place as the sport for man-to-man battle in a ring. Actually UFC takes place in a cool mesh Octagon, visually reminiscent of Roman Gladiator days, when men fought lions to the death in the round of the Coliseum.

The action in The Octagon requires a wide range of talents. One can strike with fists, palms, forearms, knees, feet, head. And one can get down on the mat for classic wrestling or Brazilian-style jujitsu. There are knock-outs. There are wounds. There are broken bones. Yet statistics bear out that the bodily damage done, especially to the head, is nowhere near as egregious as in boxing. These guys are generally much fitter than boxers, too. While a boxer can perhaps cover up with his gloves and hang on the ropes, the Ultimate Fighter can't hide. He's got to come in with little body fat and lots of courage. It's a wild series of five five-minute rounds for title fights and the guys are clearly in extra-buff shape.

The combination of ancient martial arts with classic Olympic-style wrestling and boxing, along with new-age kick boxing is very 21st Century. But The Octagon itself and the fighters entering barefoot, with open-fingered gloves, a pair of short trunks, smacks of simple, raw man-to-man combat of long ago. Boxing, with its mismatches, its multiple and confusing belt categories, its bogus promotional bouts, has lost its foothold, its once-grand place in the pantheon of American sports. A new brand of fighting is sweeping the scene. UFC bouts bring in sometimes larger television audiences than professional basketball and baseball games, even post-season games.

These guys are no Hulk Hogans. They're the real deal and UFC is going to produce the respected Floyd Pattersons and Joe Fraziers and Sugar Ray Leonards of generations to come.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.


Photo © 2007 World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc

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