A man behind me at the neighborhood Starbucks decides to start some light conversation. Already half-turned with arms folded, he tosses it to me. “Soooo….What kind of work do you do?”
I hesitate but, ok, today I’ll give a real answer because why not, I kind of feel like burning some time too. I turn around. He’s not into MMA. I checked that at the door. My guy is like 50 or 51, somewhere around there. He wears a grey scissor cut under a faded Nike cap. He’s a BBFF, a basketball-baseball-football fan…and sometimes he watches boxing. Definitely.
“I own a public relations agency specializing in combat sports,” I say.
His reaction is textbook. For a non-MMA guy. Surprise replaces his smile and I’m hit with a blank stare. He looks me down, then up, and searches for a make-sense reply. Yes this is a woman standing before him, she’s petite, kinda feminine looking. Did she really just say combat sports?
We both step forward in the line. “Basically its handling media, special events, publicity and stuff like that for MMA, Muay Thai and kickboxing,” I offer.
“Oh like for boxing?”
I shake my head. “No, no. Not like boxing. Like the U-F-C. I spell it out for him. His smile returns.
“Ohhh the UFC. That’s that crazy wrestling stuff in the cage, right? That’s where the guys fight without rules and are always getting hurt. It’s so dangerous. I tried watching it once. It’s brutal.”
It’s my turn to smile. Starbucks buddy has just sent me back to the year 2005. And 2006. And 2007. When my boss Dana White and me are sitting at the desk of a big sports editor. Any editor. Any newspaper. Any one of those years. And he has just said THE EXACT SAME THING to us. To the best of my memory those 05-07 conversations went something like this:
“Well I sure appreciate you coming all the way down here, but we just don’t cover the cage fighting stuff. We know it’s entertaining and popular. But it’s violent. We stick to sports here.
Dana shifts in his chair and leans forward, and his eyes lock in before he starts to engage.
“Yeah, that’s one of the most common misperceptions about our sport. People think it’s violent,” Dana puts emphasis on ‘think’. He leans forward, determined to make his mark. “But that’s just because people are uneducated about it. That’s why we came down here and why wanted to meet with you.
“The truth is that there’s never been a serious injury or death ever in the UFC. The most common injury is a cut or a broken finger. And it’s been proven in a study that MMA is safer than boxing. Name any sport that can say the same.”
Dana doesn’t wait for a reply, “You can’t. There are more injuries in high school cheerleading.”
He’s taken the floor and he’s full on MMA 101-ing this now intrigued editor who Dana and I know has been quite comfortable covering just the B-B-F and big boxing fights since he took his job 12 years ago. We know, because I did the research, but this was the case across the whole country.
“The thing about the UFC is that everything you’re seeing is already an Olympic sport. MMA is Olympic sports mixed together into one sport, that’s why it’s called Mixed Martial Arts,” he says stressing the “Mixed.”
“There’s Judo, Tae Kwon Do, Boxing, Grappling, Greco-Roman Wrestling…and our fighters,” he cuts himself off. “You know these guys are real athletes – most of them train six-seven hours a day and they come from a college sport. 80 percent of our guys have college degrees and if they weren’t fighting they would be accountants or lawyers.”
He returns to the point, “What they do is learn all of these different sports and mix them into one. That’s what makes it so exciting. There are so many different ways you can win and so many different ways you can lose, and no one discipline is better than another. Not only do you have to learn all of them to be a complete fighter, you have to be able to mix them together.”
The editor doesn’t interrupt. And neither do I, except to point out that UFC now holds a fights every two to three weeks, generating enough news to satisfy a dedicated beat writer or regular MMA column. And that other major daily newspapers that gave us a shot with trial coverage, reported back that UFC stories ranked among their highest trafficked stories online, if not the highest.
“Yeah our numbers are crazy. Our website does four million uniques a month. Our reality show The Ultimate Fighter is the highest rated show on television with Males 18-42. We are the number one live event on Pay-Per-View and we sell out venues wherever we go. UFC is the fastest growing sport in history, and we’re going to become the biggest sport in the world.”
Dana’s last remark is met by silence. I smile because I know what’s coming next for the traditional sports editor who just doesn’t cover ultimate fighting.
“I know what you’re thinking. But think about this. Fighting is in our DNA. It was the first real sport. If you’re walking down the street, and there’s basketball on one corner, football on the other, soccer at the third, and then a fight breaks out on the fourth. Where does the crowd go?”
The three of us nod in agreement. “They go to watch the fight.”
“That would be true,” says the editor.
“It doesn’t have to be explained to you. No matter what country you are from or what language you speak, everyone understands fighting. Football is the biggest sport in the United States, no denying that, but the NFL will never be big in Europe. Just like cricket will never be big here. But fighting, fighting transcends all languages and cultural barriers. And as human beings, we get it – and most of us – like it.”
Dana’s given our subject a lot to think about. After another 15 minutes or so of sports talk and a state of the UFC address, that includes statistics about the exponential growth of fans, Pay-Per-View buys and interest in general, we leave the State to return to Las Vegas and our 24/7 focus on the next fight.
In exactly three days the sports editor will assign one his writers to do a trial preview story. And the next day he’ll call me back to say this ultimate fighting thing is pretty popular with readers. He’ll ask if I will continue working with his writer on future events. Another wall is knocked down, and we have gained another supporter with influence and power in the media.
I zoom back to 2013 and have just given my coffee line partner this same drill.
To his credit, he returns a thoughtful smile. He doesn’t disagree with me. He asks, “Yeah, you know, I should check out a fight sometime. When is the next event?”
I give him information on the next UFC event in Vegas. He grabs his Americana to go and heads out the door. Maybe he was just being nice, but maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he will keep an open mind the next time he’s sees MMA and give it a chance. Either way, he had more of an education than he did yesterday, and that’s why I never ever give up – I never stop continuing the work I started in 2005 with a team of eight and a visionary who to this day is committed to building the biggest sport in the world.
Never Give Up.