Vancouver sports bars benefit from MMA popularity

(Added on Jun 18, 2010)

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Young male fans note technique, work ethic of mixed martial artists

A mix of cheers and gasps echoes through the Sin Bin sports bar on West Second Avenue when Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter Kendall Grove lands the first blow on his opponent, Mark Munoz, during UFC 112.

In the event broadcast from Abu Dhabi April 10, the two fighters land kicks as they struggle to take each other down into submission holds.

Mixed martial arts, or MMA, and its pro-league UFC, was once considered a bloody, no-rules sport that encouraged savage fighting and added to the desensitization of violence. However, UFC has changed over the last 15 years with new rules, regulations and a professional image. Fans are now recognizing the skill and technique that goes into MMA fights. New fans are also flocking to the “sport,” with some willing to pay top dollar to see UFC matches live. The June 12 GM Place UFC 115 fight sold out in a record 30 minutes during a presale.

The long-term future of mixed martial arts events in Vancouver is unclear. City councillors, some of whom may attend the event for work purposes, voted 6-3 in December to a two-year trial allowing events such as the UFC to take place in the city.

Three university students sit around a table with a pitcher of beer and a plate of nachos, staring intently at one of the six TVs in the bar. They paid a $5 cover charge because UFC matches are a pay-per-view event. Two are MMA fans and the third is simply along for the ride. “You can have the best fighter going in and the next thing you know, he catches a one punch and he’s done. You just never know what’s going to happen–that’s why I like it,” Paul Mosiuk says.

His friend, Zack Galay interjects, saying that fighters train hard and that the events bring back images of two Roman gladiators facing off against each other. But despite the image of two fighters pounding each other into the ground, there’s a measure of class between opponents that wasn’t around in the early days, adds Mosiuk.

A Nanaimo native, Mosiuk used to be involved with MMA, training in the sport as a young teen, lured by the opportunity to learn different martial arts techniques. Now 26, he doesn’t train anymore but still enjoys watching the sport and following the UFC circuit.

Taylor Patterson, the third man at the table, acknowledges the raw image the sport created in its infancy and says he isn’t a hardcore fan. “I’m kind of torn because I think it’s a disgusting blood sport, but at the same time it’s the last bastion of true sport because there’s no hockey sticks, no soccer ball or nets, it’s just mano a mano. These guys train their hearts out and then the better man wins.”

Hockey and football are examples of sports where there are higher frequencies of career-ending injuries than there are in MMA, argues Mosiuk. He cites the 2004 Steve Moore incident when the NHL player broke three vertebrae after being punched by former Canuck Todd Bertuzzi. The ensuing dogpile likely compounded the injury cutting Moore’s career short.

Concussions, broken limbs and torn ligaments are all par for the course in both sports, but there’s no outcry of protest like there is with MMA. Major injuries are rare in MMA, but the matches look savage because fighters appear to be trying to kill each other, adds Mosiuk.

For the trio, what separates UFC from boxing is the technique, training and fight styles utilized by MMA fighters to win matches. Boxing is strictly about defeating your opponent by allowing blows only above the belt. MMA fighters must be capable of grappling, taking down opponents and correctly administering submission holds to win matches, as well as using fists and feet. “You can’t just go in there and be a basher and a fighter–you have to be trained in so many different styles,” says Mosiuk.

Sports bars and pubs make a killing on UFC fight nights. The Sin Bin doubles its business compared to when a Canucks away game is on TV. About 60 per cent of the tables are reserved a few days before fight night and the remaining 40 are full by broadcast time, says Sin Bin owner Chris Hall, who anticipates a sold-out pub June 12.

The bar has been showing UFC events since opening last June and business on fight night trumps anything else by far, 27-year-old Hall adds. The only thing that comes close are Canucks playoff games. A self-proclaimed fan of the UFC, he decided to show events after opening the bar based on the popularity of fight nights at other sports.

If critics say there’s no MMA fan base in Vancouver, recall how fast GM Place sold out for the June 12 event. Tickets went so fast none were left over for the public sale, which was slated for April 15.

This irks Mason Ostwald, a 23-year-old UFC fan from B.C.’s southern interior, who was hoping to pick up tickets. Vancouver is the closest city to Ostwald’s hometown of Cranbrook to host a UFC event, and he would have made the trip in a heartbeat.

The MMA caught his attention a few years ago when he watched a fight at a friend’s house. The excitement and unpredictability of MMA fights captivated him. “It’s more unique than boxing or any other kind of fighting sport,” says Ostwald, who works for an electrical company.

There is no proof to definitively say there is an instinctual attraction to MMA but there are other reasons why the sport has become so popular, says Dr. Bryan Hogeveen, a sociologist with the University of Alberta. He’s researching the socio-cultural values and impacts of Brazilian ju-jitsu, a staple in MMA fighting, and has previously researched social justice and violence in youth.

While researching MMA, he’s learned fans like the excitement, drama and adrenaline of watching fights that are often over very quickly. “I think there’s a certain sense of a connection to violence and I’m not sure if it’s the fighting part of it or the violence part of it or the drama part of it that we’re so connected to and so intrinsic to our being but there is something there and it’s going to take some research to find out exactly what is there,” Hogeveen says.

Short fights were the intent of the UFC in its infancy in 1993, when organizers actively promoted fights as a no rules, no holds-barred event, but that has changed, Hogeveen says. UFC recognized the raw and violent image it created and began to evolve, bringing in new rules and a new marketing strategy that focused on the fighters and their personalities. This new marketing strategy appeals mainly to the 18- to 45-year-old demographic and attracts male and female fans from all different social classes.

Despite lingering views that paint the UFC of old, Hogeveen says the organization has successfully rebranded its image to attract a wider fan base. UFC champions like Georges St-Pierre, Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell are practically household names. “People get invested in fighters by connecting with them, knowing their stories and background.”

The focus on fighters has helped the UFC somewhat bury its image of the past. In the early UFC days, fighters came from all different fight backgrounds and styles. Some fights could see mismatches of a 300-pound bouncer against a 180-pound kickboxer. But MMA athletes are now well trained and more professional in their attitude towards the sport, says Hogeveen.

When things get disrespectful, like a recent bout between Anderson Silva and Demian Maia at UFC 112, fighters run the risk of incurring the wrath of UFC president Dana White. Silva quickly landed hits on Maia and got the upper hand early but in the third round to the end of the fight, he ran down the clock by circling his opponent. Afterwards, White told the media he was “embarrassed” by the performance and speculated that Silva may be demoted to fighting on a preliminary card instead of a main event in the future.

Since White and the UFC set up the bouts, fighters are usually aware that any disrespectful behaviour in the ring could give the league bad publicity, which can get them blacklisted by the organization.

In the beginning, UFC organizers promoted fights that had no rules, yet a few existed, such as no eye-gouging or biting and allowing, with reservation, groin hits and head butts. Changes were on the way after U.S. state governments began to investigate the legitimacy of the sport. In 1997, gloves were mandated and kicking an opponent on the ground, head butting and hair pulling were banned, along with other changes.

The UFC promotion was bought by White in 2001, backed by corporate investors, who slowly built up an advertising juggernaut that pushed MMA and the UFC into the mainstream by 2005. The UFC gained a wider audience through The Ultimate Fighter, a reality TV show that debuted in 2005 and pitches two teams of unknown MMA fighters–coached by established UFC fighters–against each other.

Vancouver has an active MMA community with clubs and gyms across the city that attract a wide range of devotees, from hardcore MMA fighters to fitness gurus looking for cardio training.

At Dynamic MMA, a Cambie Street gym, about a dozen teen boys and two girls decked out in gloves and shin guards complete drills on a Sunday afternoon. At the end of the drills, instructor Joel Wasel partners them up to spar with each other. “Anyone not have a mouth guard?” he calls. “No mouth guard, no sparring.”

MMA has moved into the mainstream, but there are still misconceptions it’s still a blood sport, says Adam Ryan, Wasel’s business partner and MMA coach in the gym. Some fans or observers of UFC events may think fighters brawl in the ring, but fighters recognize it’s a competition where wins are accumulated through skill and technique, Ryan adds.

He recognizes the type of people who sign up just to fight and says they last a few days or a week at most because they are in it for the wrong reasons. “Tough guys don’t do well. Why? Because you have to lay it on the line to do well in sports. You can’t really open up your heart and soul to your training partner, your coaches and yourself if you’re trying to prove something all the time–if you’re a bully.”

The interest in MMA from the perspective of fighters and fans stems from throwback memories of horsing around with friends and siblings, says Ryan. ” A lot of people when they’re growing up, they wrestle with their friends or family. And what do you do? You get each other in a head lock, you hit each other a little bit, you play around, it just comes naturally out of us.”

There’s nothing new about MMA or the UFC that makes the fighting controversial, but adding measures of safety like padded hands, mouth guards and cups allow fighters to do it safely, Ryan adds. The UFC and MMA gets labeled as a controversial and dangerous sport yet, like the fans at the Sin Bin, Ryan believes auto racing, hockey and football present a greater chance of injury than MMA fights.

Fighters at the UFC level have doctors on hand and amateur matches sanctioned by municipalities across the province usually require medical personnel to avoid lawsuits. “The fans and the image, I think it’s more what they want it to be because they’re putting themselves into it a little bit, like they want it to be crazy,” says Ryan.

Back out on the gym floor, the teenagers finish their session and a group of MMA trainees take to the mats for judo instruction from Doug Rogers, a judo silver medallist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. These aren’t the typical tough guys MMA followers would imagine in a fight. They are a lawyer, an investment banker and an engineer.

Brendan Kornberger had been a UFC fan for a few years before getting involved in the sport after wanting to learn ju-jitsu. He played baseball at the University of B.C. and went into investment banking after graduation. At first, he trained in ju-jitsu, but the desire to compete and learn more martial arts styles took hold. It’s a competition, just like a baseball or basketball game, except two people are stepping into a ring as combatants, Kornberger says.

He has competed in two MMA events, in Nanaimo and Vancouver, winning both and has no plans to quit. “Slowly but surely, were starting to get more people educated on it [MMA] and they either like it or they just keep their mouth shut because they know it’s not as brutal as everyone seems to think it is.”

At the Sin Bin, one of the bar’s TVs is broadcasting a Vancouver Canucks game. The home team is dominating the Calgary Flames. A few cheers permeate the atmosphere when Daniel Sedin scores a goal, only to be drowned out by a thunderous roar as a UFC fighter lands a punch to his opponent’s head.

BY TREVOR CRAWLEY, SPECIAL TO VANCOUVER COURIER

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