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News » Cover Story

Caged Rage

Pent-up Utah machismo meets its match in Mixed Martial Arts fighting.

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It’s Almost Like Being in Rome
Art form or pure sport, MMA is governed by the Pete Suazo Utah Athletic Commission (PSUAC), a state government agency with which all fighters, promoters and referees must register. PSUAC requires that promoters have a physician (who conducts pre- and post-fight check-ups), EMTs and an ambulance on hand at all fights. PSUAC also sends out several inspectors to events to make sure fighters are taken care of and paid immediately after each match. Promoters pay a fee to PSUAC based on the size of the audience ($200-$500 in most cases), but the agency is largely funded by the state.

The current PSUAC chairman is Alan Dayton, once a member of ex-Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman’s administration and now a powerful legislative lobbyist for companies such as Intermountain Healthcare. He was appointed by Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. a year ago. At a recent MMA event, he says he came into the job with no prior knowledge of the sport.

“It’s an acquired taste,” Dayton says. “It’s violent but, arguably, not any more violent than football or hockey.”

Dayton’s committee also oversees boxing and is looking at regulating what is known as “white-collar boxing,” a form of fighting that has recently become popular in Utah County where people who simply use boxing as a form of training get together to test their skills against one another in events where no money changes hands.

“We’ve been trying to apply boxing rules to this sport (MMA), and it really doesn’t work,” Dayton says. “We’re working on separating the rules. Each sport needs to have its own unique set of rules.”

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The differences between boxing and MMA have been magnified on a national level as the rise of MMA has been blamed in part for a decline in the popularity of boxing. Although one could argue professional boxing had enough of its own internal problems to cause a downfall, some boxing purists view MMA as glorified bar-fighting that can’t hold a candle to “the sweet science.”

In Utah, the sibling sports seem to have a fairly collegial relationship, with both sides recognizing, as PSUAC secretary Bill Colbert says, “it’s in everyone’s interest that both sports do well.”

The mutual respect is strong enough that Stidham and boxing promoter Bill Oleson even try to stay out of each others’ way when scheduling events.

“Let’s face it: [MMA] has caught on big time,” Oleson says. “They’re doing everything right. Everyone has to benefit. I want [Stidham] to do well.”

For his part, Stidham says, “I’m a boxing fan. We did spring from that well. I don’t know if one sport is successful without the other.”

Rick Montoya, president of the Utah chapter of USA Boxing, which runs amateur programs and promotes the sport among youth, says, “MMA was a shot in the arm for contact sports no matter how you look at it.” This is partly because boxing has received more acceptance in “mainstream society” and looks downright civil compared to MMA.

The equanimity between the two sides may also be because both sports seek different audiences.

“At an MMA event, you’ll see a lot of people in their 20s and early 30s who are very energetic and make a lot of noise,” Colbert says. “At a standard boxing event, you’ll see a totally different crowd. Boxing crowds are older, more ethnically diverse and more working-class. Most people I see at MMA events, very few of them would go to a pro-boxing event.”

The boxing community also seems to take the view that, while MMA is certainly here to stay, boxing has already taken the new sport’s best shot and is still standing. “Sooner or later, it isn’t going to be as new,” Montoya says. MMA will eventually reach a plateau where it will have to face many of the same issues boxing has.

“There’s always going to be boxing,” Montoya says. “It’s been around since the Roman days, for crying out loud!”

Some segments of society need an outlet for aggression and a larger segment will want to vicariously blow off steam by watching the first group. As America learned during Prohibition, some people are going to engage in certain activities regardless of their legality, so MMA promoters, fighters and fans argue it’s better simply to go legal and make sure the taboo behavior is well regulated. If people are going to fight anyway, why not do it under controlled conditions and let them earn some money while they’re at it?

EMT Jef Jones, who regularly works at the fights, says, “This is stuff that’s left over from caveman days. It’s just humanity’s outlet for brutality, but for some reason we’re drawn to it.”

MMA is undeniably brutal, but it’s an unvarnished brutality that doesn’t make any excuses for what it is. While many forms of media glorify savagery by not showing its consequences, the results of MMA blows are crystal clear to anyone watching a fight. In a society that can’t seem to get enough glamorized violence, MMA can at least make the argument that it’s honest.

Bash-O-Rama

The Ultimate Combat Experience championships will be held on Saturday, Dec. 1, at EnergySolutions Arena, beginning at 3 p.m. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased through UCombat.com. Utah fighter Jeremy Horn of Elite Performance Gym, who has fought in Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view events against world champions, will appear in the card’s main event.

Weekly Ultimate Combat Experience fights are held Saturday nights at Elevate at The Hotel, 155 W. 200 South. For more information, visit UCombat.com. Taped shows featuring the fights can be seen on Park City Television at 10 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays or anytime on Comcast On Demand.