I recently read an article on the UFC (The Ultimate Fighting Championships) in Report on Business, a free magazine insert in the Globe and Mail which featured Georges St. Pierre on its cover, claiming that the UFC has risen from basement level obscurity into a multimillion dollar franchise for the fight-loving masses. The article was incredibly insightful and it got me to thinking about the role of violent sports in society and how the rise to prominence for the UFC may have less to do with slick marketing than it does with good timing.
A look back in history will tell you that violent sports often meet their peak with the masses when times are good. Take the Greeks at the height of civilization with the first Olympics and the Romans with their gladiators. The first Olympics was not the clean, happy world gathering that you see nowadays littered with Coke ads, but rather, it was a brutal show of force between rivals and could, on occasion, replace an actual war. By sending out their fiercest warriors to battle it out in single-handed combat in front of the people, the people were giving out a clear message: don't mess with us.
The entertainment industry can sometimes offer an unique counter portrait to the society that it's targeted for. During the Depression, there was a rise in cheesy, banal and over the top optimistic films featuring lots of singing and dancing, which was what the starving masses needed in order to take their minds off their troubles. Likewise, times of leisure and opulence are usually the best time for introducing horror and apocalyptic style films- hence, the rising zombie trend, the best selliing war games and now, the rise of the UFC into mainstream sports.
The octagon is basically a return to the gladiator arena. It's been regulated into a sport which is less bloodshow and more sportsmanship. The advertisers are quick to play up the hours of rigourous training, regimes, and all-around diversity of their fighters, who are skilled in several forms of combat. It's not just a bop on the head sport- it requires reflexes, adaptability, anticipation, and a variety of techniques borrowed from judo, kickboxing and others.
It also helps that their spokesman is a presence. Georges St. Pierre has an air about him that's clearly alpha male in the best sense of the word: he's the strong, silent type who proves himself through actions, not words, and his eyes are all steely determination. He appeals to both men and women alike because he's the kind of man most men want to be and the kind of man most women want to be with. Watching him work out is hypnotic. And the most surprising thing? He's articulate. He's not a big dah dah crush beer can on forehead beast.
The UFC has a gold mine in St. Pierre and they know it. He's an icon in Canada and all over Japan. Dana White may be famous for causing controversy and self-promotion, but he bet on the right horse to make his venture a success. Anything with St. Pierre in it is going to be a runaway success- unless he starts doing romantic comedies. And even then, who knows? Can anyone stop Georges St. Pierre?
A final sociological positive note for the UFC and St. Pierre is this: countless generations of young men have been defined and initiated into manhood by going to war. With less men in North America being recruited for this kind of activity, and with wars being less deadly than the battles of the two world wars, more men have been defined by sports figures going to war for them. This gives men like Georges St. Pierre an even more important social role to play, because he battles for these young men.
And he makes it look good.