UFC emerging as major contender

While the World Series and NBA Finals have seen their ratings decline over recent years, one league making huge strides is the Ultimate Fighting Championship. UFC has emerged from an underground sport to a legitimate ratings powerhouse.

Baseball saw its ratings dip 16 percent for Game 1 of the 2006 World Series, while Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers plummeted 19 percent and set an all-time ratings low for an opening game in primetime.

Ratings for UFC have gone up 500 percent in the past year.

Prior to 2006, no UFC event sold more than 200,000 subscriptions on Pay-Per-View. Their all-time ratings were shattered on Dec. 30, 2006 as 1.05 million fans purchased the Pay-Per-View match as Chuck Liddell defeated Tito Ortiz to retain the light heavyweight championship.

“It’s taken over because it’s realistic, action-packed and there really isn’t any down time. The fights are usually exciting,” UFC lightweight fighter Allen Berube said. “If you’re a fan, you’ll end up enjoying all aspects of the game. No matter what in UFC, there is always something going on.”

UFC was popularized in America by brothers Rorion and Royce Gracie, who brought a Brazilian-style jiu-jitsu to the country. They were nearly unbeatable. Royce won UFC 1, UFC 2, UFC 4 and fought to a draw in UFC 5.

At 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, Royce was able to defeat larger opponents by forcing them to the ground and causing them to submit. His style wasn’t the most entertaining fight to watch, but effective.

“The Gracie family started the whole mixed martial arts concept and explosion in this country,” said Rob Kahn, chief instructor and owner of the Gracie Academy in Tampa. “And to be honest, I think it really has only just scratched the surface.”

UFC features a fighting style known as mixed martial arts (MMA), where fighters use a variety of ways to defeat an opponent. A victory can be earned by a knockout, technical knockout, submission or a judge’s decision.

Every fighter brings a different style into the caged octagon, and UFC has been able to draw more fans as fighters like Liddell have helped the sport grow with an exciting style of fighting.

“UFC has really helped the popularity of martial arts as a whole,” Mang Ho Martial Arts club president Robert Blanton said. “Everyone used to think martial arts was like the movies where people would do flips and impossible kicks. But UFC shows the take-downs and forcing people to tap out. It’s a more realistic portrayal of what the sport actually is.”

Although Liddell is an accomplished wrestler, he prefers to strike more like a kick boxer, using punches and kicks to knock out his opponents instead of fighting on the ground.

“Now that MMA has more stand up fighting, I would have definitely done it because that is the most popular game in town right now,” five-time world champion kick boxer Olando Rivera said. “If it was run like it is now back when I was fighting, I would have loved to have done MMA fighting, without question.”

While the 43-year-old Rivera opted to pursue kickboxing instead of MMA, many upcoming fighters are training for the UFC octagon instead of the boxing ring.

Interest is MMA has even surfaced at USF. “I’ve done boxing, karate and wrestling. Why not blend everything into one better form of all of them?” USF wrestling club president Josh Wilson said. “It’s taking wrestling to the next step.”

Kahn agrees.

“We have a ton of students from USF. I probably have 20 students from USF. (Enrollment) has definitively jumped a lot,” Kahn said. “MMA has exposed boxing to be a very limited sport. You have gigantic pillows on your hands and you’re only allowed to use your hands. Any fight that doesn’t encompass grappling isn’t a fight.”

As a child, Kahn trained to be a boxer, and in 1995, he won the New York State Golden Gloves Championship. He turned to MMA seeking a new challenge to be “truly the best pound-for-pound” fighter.

Berube, who trains with Kahn at the Gracie Academy, began his career much later in life. At 31, he left his job as owner of the seafood restaurant Monstah Lobstah in Tampa for the UFC.

After competing in a few local fights, Berube was selected by Spike TV to compete on the fifth season of UFC’s reality show “Ultimate Fighter.”

“It’s pretty amazing, since I’ve only been doing it for a year. They had auditions for (Ultimate Fighter 5) on Spike TV, and out of a couple thousand people I ended up getting picked,” Berube said. “I went from being an average blue-collar worker to jumping into the ring with real savage dudes who want to kill you.”

Berube and his business gained national exposure as 2.5 million viewers tuned to watch him fall to Leonard Garcia in the show’s finale. Berube holds a career record of 2-1 in UFC bouts.

The ratings for the reality show on Spike TV were the same for May’s Floyd Mayweather/Oscar De La Hoya championship boxing bout, widely considered the most anticipated fight in recent years.One of the biggest differences between UFC and boxing is the quality of opponents UFC fighters have to contend with immediately after winning a championship.

Quinton “Rampage” Jackson knocked out Liddell and is now slated to defend his title against No. 1 contender Dan Henderson. In boxing, defending champions usually fight lesser known opponents before facing a serious challenger.

“I don’t know how boxing expects to compete with UFC when (we have) great fights in almost every card. You can’t compete with the content,” Berube said.