(NOTE: This post is a little longer than most. It probably could have been partitioned into two or three sections, but I think it wrote better in a single shot, and I think it reads better, too. But if you need two sittings, or you just skim it for the pictures, I won’t take offense.)
My first exposure to the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) came practically by accident. In 1997, when I was in 5th grade, that acronym meant nothing to me. But like preteen boys around America, I was well-acquainted with a different set of letters: WWF.
By that time, professional wrestling was riding a 15-year surge in popularity, carried from obscurity into the mainstream by the likes of Hulk Hogan, Macho Man Randy Savage, and many others. But while these were stars whose appeal lasted throughout the decade, many older wrestling icons were being replaced by newer, edgier characters, epitomized by the likes of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and the wrestling crew D-Generation X.
I grew up in a house without cable TV, the broadcasting medium for virtually 100 percent of wrestling content, but that didn’t make me clueless. For boys of the late ’90s, wrestling was everywhere. Shirts emblazoned with wrestling nicknames and slogans, like “The Brahma Bull” or “Austin 3:16,” were phenomenally popular. So were the catchphrases–“If you smellllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll… what The Rock is cooking!“–and so were the moves. At my middle school, doing D-Generation’s X’s signature “Suck It” sign-off gesture became a detention-able offense.
So, while my interest in wrestling was short-lived compared to some of my peers, the landscape is still littered with its cultural touchstones. No matter how many Tooth Fairy sequels he makes, The Rock will always be a wrestler in my eyes. And when someone says McMahon, I’m thinking Vince, not Ed.
The WWF and its wrestlers were good at nothing if not self-promotion. So when Ken Shamrock joined the WWF as “The World’s Most Dangerous Man,” you heard about it. Though new to WWF audiences, Shamrock wasn’t an unknown commodity, and his debut was highly anticipated in part because of his past exploits.
Shamrock may not have actually been The World’s Most Dangerous Man, but he probably staked a stronger claim to that title than any other WWF wrestler. That’s because, unlike many of his competitors, Shamrock’s background lay not in pretending to fight but in actual fighting, as an original member of the fledgling mixed-martial arts (MMA) circuit known as UFC.
Since 1993, the UFC had been holding MMA tournaments and matches, and while the company’s popularity grew throughout the ’90s, so too did its share of troubles.
The first UFC event was a conceived of as a one-off tournament to answer a simple question: “Which fighting style is king of them all?” Held in Denver, CO, the event pitted eight entrants from different backgrounds against each other, with combatants hailing from disciplines like kickboxing, karate, sumo wrestling, boxing, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Thought to be a niche interest, the pay-per-view receipts shocked even those involved in the planning, as almost 90,000 subscribers tuned-in.
This kind of profitability, though perhaps stumbled-upon, was never likely to be ignored, and soon subsequent events were scheduled. Shamrock, a shootfighter, competed in the first tournament and became a staple of UFC bouts. In 1995, Shamrock claimed the title of UFC Champion.
Though the UFC featured some boxers–and boxing-style hand-to-hand combat remains a big part of MMA competitions to this day–the two sports couldn’t portray themselves more differently. While boxing often dubs itself “The Sweet Science,” and considers itself a “Gentleman’s Sport,” the early UFC promoters decided to go in the opposite direction. “There are no rules!” was an early tagline used for bouts, and in practice, only biting and eye-gouging were strictly disallowed. Other suspect strategies, like fish-hooking or groin-shots, were merely discouraged.
For some, this degree of brutality was surely part of the draw, but not everyone was thrilled with such barbaric practices. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), after seeing footage from a UFC event, denounced the bouts as “human cockfighting,” and made it a personal crusade to see the sport banned in the US. McCain, who probably knows more than most people about human suffering, evidently made a compelling case in the strongly-worded letter sent to the governors of all 50 states, because 36 followed suit.
The legislation crippled pay-per-view receipts and forced the UFC to implement a series of rule changes. And in 1997, as all of this unfolded, Shamrock–at the time one of the biggest names in the UFC and a past champion–left MMA for the scripted pastures of professional wrestling.
As a pro wrestler, Shamrock was never terribly popular or memorable. This was, perhaps, because he had a fighter’s skill-set rather than a showman’s. In the WWF, physical prowess mattered less than charisma on the mic, and Shamrock certainly couldn’t compete in that category with the Stone Colds of the world. (Sadly, and somewhat ironically, Shamrock also incurred more injuries as a pro wrestling “entertainer” than he did as an actual MMA fighter. It may be scripted, but that doesn’t make it safe.)
But while Ken Shamrock’s career as a professional wrestler was somewhat forgettable, it’s possible that his leaving was the best thing he could have done for the UFC. Because, for millions of young boys like myself, Shamrock introduced us to a new acronym and an entirely new sport.
Not that MMA is really entirely new. Like anything apparently novel, its roots are old and elsewhere, in this case as far afield as Brazil and Japan, where–outside of the United States–MMA retains its largest following.
In Brazil, the seeds of MMA lie in Vale Tudo, a no-holds-barred style of combat effectively pioneered by a single enterprising family, the dynastic Jiu-Jitsu house of Gracie. In Japan, martial arts are an established part of the culture, and the country has played host to its own MMA events since the ’80s, prior even to the creation of the UFC.
But as a spectator sport, the success of MMA owes itself to American business interests. After the McCain debacle, the UFC struggled to stay relevant, not to mention profitable. In 2001, a pair of casino executives purchased the company and made Dana White, a former MMA manager, the president. Under White’s stewardship, which continues to this day, the UFC has grown exponentially in terms of both viewership and profitability.
And while business savvy and a strong product are no doubt responsible for the sport’s ascendance, there also seems to be an element of lucky timing. Boxing, which for decades competed effectively with the major team sports for American dollars, experienced a dip popularity just as the UFC established itself, and hasn’t had a truly marketable heavyweight champion since Mike Tyson.
Also, as I alluded to earlier, the explosion of professional wrestling during the ’80s and ’90s surely laid a foundation for the success of MMA. The boys who grew up with Hulk and Savage and Stone Cold and The Rock are adults now in that coveted 18-49 age range. And, while most men eventually outgrow the theatrics of professional wrestling, the ones that grew up watching fake combat sports could easily develop a taste for the real thing.
And–believe me–this is the real thing.
We arrived in Tokyo on Saturday morning, twenty-two hours before the start of UFC 144. (The event was scheduled, ridiculously, for 10am on Sunday morning in order to accommodate pay-per-viewers in the US.) There were three of us–all gaijin from Nagasaki–and a fourth, Japanese, who would be joining our party later that night.
Since every athlete knows that preparation is the key to victory, we had only one item on the docket for Saturday: Eat Like A Champion Today.
That meant a trip to Tokyo’s Ribera Steakhouse, famous as the place where fighters, wrestlers, sumos, and other hungry, muscular dudes go to eat big-ass cuts of meat. But since Ribera didn’t open until dinner-time, we decide to take a lap through downtown Tokyo.
As I’ve said here before, and as most people know without being explicitly told, Tokyo is just a massive fucking city. It’s like took somebody took New York and just squeezed the bejesus out of it. You have to look up and down as you walk through the city because the bars, clubs, and restaurants are all stacked on top of each other five or six stories high everywhere you go.
It’d be hard to adequately experience Tokyo in a month, but in 48 hours, you’d have to be mad to try. So we committed to keeping a pretty tight radius around our hotel for our wanderings. Luckily, our hotel was located next to Shinjuku, which may be the heart of Tokyo, if that could be said of any single place in the city.
Our first stop was Shibuya, where I had a strong physical connection with a chocolate milk shake at T.G.I. Friday’s. Then, we hit up Akihabara, renown in Japan and around the world as the epicenter of manga and anime otaku culture.
For the uninitiated, otaku is the Japanese word that refers to another person’s house, but in modern slang it is used to refer to nerds. The idea is that an otaku is so overcome by his obsession–usually anime, manga, video games or the like–that he never leaves his house. The word can be either playful or disparaging, depending on the usage.
But if you’re expecting an assortment of comic book stores and arcades, you underestimate Japan. Sure, there are plenty of those, including a seven-story arcade where otaku compete for generously-proportioned and eminently-collectible anime figurines, but that’s just scratching the surface. Because in Japan, it seems, nerd culture and fetish properties go hand-in-hand.
Notice that you are entering an unusual part of Tokyo is served immediately in the Akihabara metro station, where dozens of signs in English and Japanese warn women, “Watch out for upskirting!” These signs are nowhere to be found elsewhere in Tokyo.
Why? Well, for one thing, Akihabara is home to plenty of adult-themed businesses like this one:
What you find inside isn’t so different from similar shops in America–not that I have much experience in such matters–but, like much of Japanese sexuality, it tends to skew a little younger.
At this moment in time, there’s probably no better example of that tendency than the popularity of AKB48, Japan’s most popular music group. Really, though, to pigeon-hole AKB48 as a music group is to sell the organization short, since they’re nothing short of a national phenomenon.
Founded in 2005, the AKB stands for Akihabara, where the group’s headquarters are marked by a cafe, shop, and theater bearing their name. The 48 represents the number of members, or so I thought. According to their Wikipedia page, the group actually consists of 57 members broken into four separate “teams,” and that’s before you factor in the “trainees” hoping to achieve member status.
With that many people hovering around the mic, it’s hard to imagine fans keeping them all straight, but there’s a system in place for that as well. Apparently, since 2009, the group’s lineup has been subject to changes via general elections, where fans vote to determined promotions, demotions, and changes in leadership (each team has its own captain).
Anyway, as you might expect, the girls of AKB48 are very, very young, many between 16 and 18. And, while the girls at my schools all openly worship the group, it’s impossible to sell $200M worth of records in one year (the 2011 figure for domestic sales) on the strength of teenage girls alone. It’s evident, then, that Japanese men are also “invested” in following the group, though probably for some different reasons.
If that weren’t enough, though, Akihabara isn’t just the home of AKB48 but also of MaiDreamin, one of the many “maid cafes” that populate the area:
I’ve never been in a maid cafe, but from what I gather, they’re not unlike a Japanese Hooters, except “cuter” and geared to a much younger audience. Because of that, they seem less overtly sexual, but I’m pretty they serve the same purpose for teenage otaku that Hooters does for rednecks and lonely businessmen in America. Only with a little more technology.
With all that jail-bait sexuality crammed into one place, let’s hope that upskirting is the biggest problem facing the girls of Akihabara.
After experiencing the fiefdom of the nerds, we went back to the hotel to drop our stuff and ready our stomachs for Ribera.
Sight unseen, there were some gentle reservations about the type of accommodations we had arranged for ourselves. Optimistically named, the Best Hotel was the cheapest three-bed I could find in downtown Tokyo, and the reviews had been, well, mixed. It was either a no-frills, budget option or a seedy, questionably-staffed love hotel, unsafe for children and located in the red-light district.
What it was: a love hotel, in the sense that they did book rooms by the hour as well as the night. What it wasn’t: dangerous, or festooned with hookers. The hotel billed itself as situated in a Korean neighborhood, but so many of the reviewers had insisted it was in a pleasure district that I began to suspect euphemism at play. “Korean neighborhood,” eh?
Well, consider me sufficiently chastised, because while there weren’t any ladies of the night around, there were plenty of Korean restaurants, and Korean bars, and Korean people. And not one of them tried to proposition me. So let me assure all the clean-living, Tokyo-traveling folks out there: fear not the Best Hotel, or ye shall pass up a swell deal.
Reassured, we set out for our date with destiny at the Ribera Steakhouse. Before, I said the place is famous, though that may have been an exaggeration. It’s certainly hosted some famous eaters, but while it may have cachet amongst combat-sport enthusiasts, it probably doesn’t have the crossover appeal of the 17 Tokyo-area restaurants listed as three-star by the 2012 Michelin Guide, the most of any city in the world.
Located in the Gotanda neighborhood of Shinagawa, the Ribera Steakhouse is small and tucked away, but difficult to miss if you know what to look for. In this case, what to look for is a giant picture of Hulk Hogan, circa his salad days.
Inside, you’ll find no tables, a handful of seats along a bar, and only one cook behind the grill, Ribera’s owner. How do I know he’s the owner? Well, he has that “I own the place” swagger about him. Also, there are photographs of him covering the walls and ceiling, posing with a veritable Who’s Who of muscular dudes, 1970 to present.
As far as I can tell, Ribera does one thing–steak–but it does it beautifully. You’ve got four choices: half-pound steak, one-pound steak, pound-and-a-half steak, or–for the truly bold and beefy–the Akebono Challenge.
Named for Akebono Taro, the 64th sumo wrestler in history to achieve yokozuna status, the Akebono Challenge involves eating the same meal as the man himself. When Akebono parks his 6’8, 514 lb frame on a Ribera stool, he proceeds to eat: two bowls of miso soup; three bowls of rice; a side of corn; and three pounds of steak. Do it in under 30 minutes and the owner will give you 10,000 yen, or a little over $100.
My buddy from New Zealand, who had found the place, had talked a big game about the Akebono Challenge throughout the day, only to back down when push came to shove. Still, he saved face by ordering the pounder, while the rest of us opted for half.
In the words of Dr. Hibbert: “Diagnosis, delicious.”
The next morning, we left the city, heading north to the Saitama Super Arena, a building sometimes called the “Mecca of MMA.” Opened in 2000, the arena had previously hosted MMA events for a variety of domestic promoters, including the PRIDE Fighting Championship, K-1, and DREAM. PRIDE, the oldest and most well-known of the three, was swallowed up by the UFC in 2007 and disbanded. The presence of these other MMA circuits, past and present, makes Japan one of the biggest MMA markets in the world.
Getting to the arena required a few train line changes and would’ve been troublesome if we hadn’t had a guide along the way. The night before, as planned, a young Japanese guy (my friend’s friend) joined our party. He spoke excellent English, having studied abroad in New Zealand, and as a former practitioner of judo he was very knowledgeable about all things MMA.
He was, also, a total cut up. On the way to the arena, he casually mentioned to us that the train we were riding was “famous for chikan.” None of us recognized the word until he made a groping gesture–it actually translates as “sexual pervert.”
We were curious, so he went on to explain that on this train, the doors only open on one side, and so it is famous for incidents of men pinning women against the opposite side and copping a feel. Now, I’m sure something similar occurs on subways in NYC, but apparently such practices became so common on this particular line that they had to install cameras in the cars.
Of course, my friend wasn’t making light of sexual harassment, and neither am I. But you have to admit there’s something amusing about announcing that a train is “famous for sexual perverts.” So, this is where they filmed that scene in “Lost in Translation.” And that’s Tokyo Tower over there. And here’s the train line where all the gropings happen.
He also added that, “if you are wrongfully accused” of such misconduct, “you must run.” Because apparently stating your case is out of the question. “If you go with them to the office, it says you are guilty, and they arrest you.” Pervy until proven innocent, evidently.
Luckily, though, we made it to the arena unmolested, and that’s when the real fun began.
Though its capacity is almost 40,000, the UFC decided to sell only 15,000 tickets for the event at Saitama, in order to make it a more intimate atmosphere. And from the looks of it, they were successful, since there didn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house.
In a move that seems more theatrical than sporting, UFC fights occur under a spotlight, while the rest of the arena is left dark. This further enhances the feeling of intimacy and draws your attention to the action at all times. It probably wouldn’t work at team sporting event, but it’s cool to feel like you’re at the game and watching a movie all at once.
The production values also exceeded my expectations. I knew Joe Rogan was associated with the UFC, and sure enough, he was cage-side, entering the Octagon after every fight to interview the winner.
But I had no idea the UFC had their own Buffer brother! Michael Buffer is, of course, inextricably linked to boxing (and wrestling, too), where his trademark phrase–“Let’s get ready to ruuuuuuuuumble!“–is a staple of virtually any big match. Not to be outdone, the UFC has Bruce Buffer, Michael’s half-brother, who introduces the fighters and has some signature moves of his own.
The neat thing about Rogan and Buffer is that their association with the UFC is entirely natural. Before he became famous as a comedian and game show host, Rogan was a Taekwondo champion. Buffer, the son of one-time bantamweight boxing champion Johnny Buff, is himself a black belt in Tang Soo Do and a former kickboxer. So these aren’t just randos that the UFC latched onto for promotional purposes.
As the event was held in Japan, many of the under-card fights featured Japanese fighters, or internationals who had previously fought in Japan. The most noteworthy of these was Rampage Jackson, the former UFC light-heavyweight champion, who is beloved in Japan for the years he spent fighting in PRIDE.
The best indication of Jackson’s celebrity status here is this: prior to his fight, each combatant enters the Octagon to a song. Jackson, playing skillfully to the crowd, entered to the official PRIDE anthem as a nod to his history in Japan. From the first chord, the place went insane. The crowd–split close to 50-50 between Japanese and gaijin–ebbed and flowed throughout the day in terms of noise level, though the excitement never really waned. But for Rampage, and the PRIDE anthem, the entire stadium stood and shook the building.
Afterward, my Japanese friend summed up his feelings: “I was so excited I almost puked.”
Unfortunately, the entrance was probably the highlight of Rampage’s performance, as he was soundly beaten by relative newcomer Ryan Bader. By the end, Rampage–who had come in six pounds over at the Friday weigh-in–looked as if was ready to puke, too.
In addition to the main event–a Lightweight title bout between Frankie Edgar and Benson Henderson, which we’ll get to in a minute–there were a number of terrific fights. The single most thrillingly brutal moment of the day came when, barely a minute into their match, Anthony Pettis bluffed a low-kick, drew down Joe Lozano’s defense, and landed a frighteningly powerful blow to the side of Lozano’s skull, dropping him immediately and ending the match. Lozano eventually walked off under his own power, but that kick resounded throughout the arena like a wooden plank being broken over a brick wall.
The speed, fitness, and precision of these athletes is a thing to behold in person. But as impressive as any of that is the versatility that MMA demands. In the early days of the UFC, guys like Ken Shamrock were schooled in a particular style, and the bouts often pitted different types of fighters against one another. That’s still true today, but with the way the sport has evolved, in order to compete you have to be competent in half-dozen different specialties. Edgar, for example, is a wrestler by trade, but employs trainers in four other disciplines: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Almeida, Boxing, and Muay Thai.
Another interesting fight was between the half-Japanese Yoshihiro Akiyama (or “Sexyama,” if you prefer his nickname) and American Jake Shields. While the fight itself wasn’t more or less gripping than some others, what makes it worth mentioning is the crowd’s response.
As my Japanese friend told me before the match, Akiyama is something of a pariah in the Japanese MMA community due to repeated accusations of cheating. Once, during a fight between the two, legendary Japanese fighter Kazushi Sakuraba appealed to the referee that Akiyama had illegally used grease to make his body difficult to grip for submission holds. And during a judo match in 2003, Akiyama washed his gi with detergent to give it a soapy, slippery feel when touched by a sweaty opponent.
So when Akiyama entered the arena, my friend booed him lustily, and yelled repeatedly, “Suberi! Suberi!” (“He’s slippery!”). He was the first, but soon many in the crowd, Japanese and American alike, followed suit, and Akiyama lost to Shields on a unanimous decision. Afterward, my friend proudly called our attention to a Japanese article about the contest which noted that, even in his home country, Akiyama was treated to a frosty reception. Grease-monkeys never prosper.
The last, best match was the highly anticipated Lightweight title fight between Edgar and Henderson. While I knew nothing about either man entering the fight, I was pumped to see a championship-caliber match, and this one lived up to the billing.
The UFC Lightweight cut-off is 155 pounds, but how you get there is up to you. Edgar, at 5’6, apparently fights at around his natural weight. Henderson, 5’9, does not, relying on training to cut as much as 20 pounds in the weeks before a fight. Edgar began the day as the Lightweight champion, but as the two men stood side-by-side in the Octagon, it was clear that Henderson–despite the weight-cutting–held a considerable size advantage.
Edgar is known for his speed, and it showed. He moved around the cage tirelessly even into the later rounds. A normal UFC fight is three round five-minute rounds, but a title fight is more grueling, lasting up to five rounds. In many of the under-card fights, combatants slowed down noticeably by the third round, but fatigue seemed to be less of a factor in the title fight. Both Edgar and Henderson demonstrated world-class fitness as the match went the distance.
Edgar landed more punches and chipped away with admirable consistency, but Henderson landed the biggest blows of the match, including a devastating upkick from the ground that caught Edgar square in the face and nearly ended the match in Round 2. Edgar continued to battle and work, although his face bled and swelled throughout the final three rounds.
As an MMA novice, I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the judge’s decision. The fight had seemed fairly even, and although Edgar had suffered massively more in the way of physical damage, my more experienced friends pointed out that he had landed more blows and ought to take the victory on points. However, they also said that MMA judging is notoriously suspect, so that no ruling would be a huge shock.
In the end, Henderson was awarded the victory by unanimous decision. Just about everyone seemed to think this was a raw call, including President Dana White, who said in an interview afterward that he scored Edgar as having won. In spite of this, the decision stood, and Henderson claimed a UFC Championship for the first time. And of course, based on the pictures, it’s hard to argue too vehemently against the ruling.
Even so, though, it’s clear that if MMA wants to keep growing and truly surpass boxing as the dominant combat sport, it must find a way to address suspect rulings, a problem that both sports share. But for now, the UFC–and, by extension, the world of MMA–has to be happy with the way things are going. Frankie Edgar, well, maybe not so much.