By Mark Simpson
'STOP LOOKING LADIES!' some guy in the audience shouts. It's the weigh-in, a day earlier. Ed 'Short Fuse' Herman, another 20-something boy-next-door redheaded fighter, from Vancouver, Wash., is naked on the stage under the spotlight, a towel held up by two lieutenants to shield his 'short fuse.' Funnily enough, it's mostly men rather than ladies doing the looking here in this packed auditorium. Though some are perhaps doing more looking than others: From where I'm seated at the side, I manage to catch a glimpse of Ed's white butt as he bends over to slip off his briefs (a day later he will fight in shorts cheekily advertising CONDOM DEPOT -- on his butt).
Several guys have had to take their underpants off -- to cheers. I can't help but wonder whether the UFC officials, for showbiz's sake, pretend some of these guys are closer to the weight limit than they are.
UFC knows all about showbiz. According to Forbes magazine, its pay-per-view shows have drawn well over 2 million viewers, most of them male and ages 18 to 49. Formidably shrewd, motor-mouthed former boxing promoter Dana White hosts The Ultimate Fighter, UFC's hit PPV series on Spike (a men-only Big Brother with grappling gloves), which has taken MMA, essentially a semi-organized barroom brawl in the '90s, cleaned it up, introduced some rules -- including no stomping, no spitting, no throat strikes, no punches to the back of the head, and 'no groin attacks of any kind' -- and made it into a hot, multiangle, high-impact PPV commodity.
Described memorably by John McCain in 1998 as 'human cockfighting,' and under threat of a total ban, MMA has become a different, more saleable, less relentlessly violent kind of 'cockfighting' in the nurturing hands of the UFC -- so much so that McCain himself recently relented: 'The sport has grown up.' As a measure of just how grown up, UFC -- for which casino owners the Fertitta brothers paid $2 million in 2001 -- is today valued at roughly $1 billion. Cultural respectability has arrived too in the form of a recently published $2,500 MMA art book titled Octagon with a foreword by man-loving straight playwright David Mamet, who wrote and directed the MMA-themed movie
Redbelt. MMA is also coming to major-network TV: CBS recently announced plans to air four MMA fights (non-UFC) annually -- despite the disapproval of CBS chairman Sumner Redstone. 'I'm a lover, not a fighter,' he said.
There is a lot of passionate hero worship in the world of MMA, not so much homoerotic as hero-erotic -- or herotic. Straight male fans and fighters themselves will enthuse with shining eyes about 'my idol,' but perhaps that's not so surprising, since MMA owes a lot to those notorious warrior homos, the ancient Greeks. Although today's MMA came to us via Brazilian jujitsu (alas, not conducted in Speedos, as the name may suggest), many consider it the modern version of pancratium (also spelled pankration), a combination of boxing and wrestling that was the basis of combat training for Greek soldiers and an original Olympic sport. With lethal purity, pancratium had two primary rules: no eye-gouging or biting. Fingers were often snapped off. Sometimes death or unconsciousness was the only form of submission -- in other words, rather like this year's Democratic primaries.
MMA's younger fans are not likely to acknowledge their sport's homoerotic heritage. For most of these young men, many of them blue-collar and swooningly in love with masculinity, gay means unmanly and passive -- and therefore major turnoff. MMA is gay porn for straight men because its violence not only justifies the intimate, protracted, eye-popping physicality of the sport but also preserves its virility -- the very thing that gets many of its fans hot. These fighters can't be fags -- look how fucking tough they are, dude! It's a bit like how in gay porn 'real' tops never bottom -- for the sake of the bottoms watching.
Sometimes the MMA fighter really is homo -- like professional MMA fighter Shad Smith, who was recently profiled in The New York Times. From a tough blue-collar background, Smith was desperate to hide his sexuality at first. 'I was petrified because I didn't want anyone to find out,' he told the Times. 'And I would try to be the toughest person around. That way no one would suspect. No one would ever say it. No one would think it.' Doubtless there are quite a few Shad Smiths who became very good, very determined, very motivated scrappers because they weren't escaping to college or opening a hairdressing salon.
The tough-guy image is something of an illusion -- if an entrancing and convincing one. Surprisingly often, fighters turn out to be sensitive, introspective loners -- 'fags' who aren't actually fags -- such as Mac Danzig, the beefy auburn-haired killer who is in fact a vegan and whose main pastime, when he isn't turning another lad's face into tenderloin, is nature photography. That's the story of Georges St.-Pierre, who when stripped of his title pendants and clad in designer clothes looks rather metro. As one observer put it: 'He's the kind of flash Europunk you might think you could wipe the floor with if you came across him in a bar, but you'd be very, very wrong.'
You might expect a fight between Serra and St.-Pierre to be billed as good ol' USA versus Frenchy 'fag,' but you'd be wrong. Because GSP -- to give St.-Pierre his brand name -- is generally considered to be an exceptional fighter, genuinely excellent in several disciplines, or maybe because it's such a visual medium, he has begun to look like the David Beckham of UFC, albeit one who actually reads books and is interested in philosophy. His photogenic face and body and his workouts have been splashed across countless health and fitness magazines.
His opponent, Matt Serra, may be breezily unpretentious and resemble an unpainted fire hydrant, but he is definitely no idiot: 'I think they look at Georges as the Crest poster boy with the sparkle in his teeth, the looks, the physique, the body and the athleticism'the real version of what Van Damme was doing,' he's said. 'And then comes me -- the Joe Pesci'style 'Heyooo!' But it's cool, man. I'm down with it. I fit in those shoes real well. I'm just looking forward to having another good fight.'
When he turns up for his weigh-in, a relentless tidal wave of boos greets him. An Italian-American pocket battleship at 5 foot 6, Serra weighs in at 169.5 pounds; he appears indifferent to the roiling sea of audience hatred. The booing doesn't stop when the host offers him the microphone, and whatever he says is completely drowned out. He offers the crowd two fingers, meaning 'two times' and V for victory -- and perhaps 'fuck you.'
Ecstatic cheers greet his challenger St.-Pierre, who's taller by four inches but in stature by several feet. St.-Pierre fluidly strips down to his tasteful black underwear and also weighs in at 169.5 pounds. Offered the mike, he graciously tells the crowd they shouldn't hate Serra and that 'I don't fight with anger -- I fight with my heart.' The two men pose for the cameras in a fighting stance and then they hug, GSP kissing Serra's huge neck.
There was no trash talk in the quieter surroundings of the press conference the day before. The fighters had been polite, respectful, even friendly. 'C'mon, I've got nothing against the French,' protested Serra when the journalists dug up some 'Frenchy' quotes from the past. St.-Pierre, for his part, was touchingly open. 'I'm nervous and scared to fail but that's normal,' he admitted. 'I have butterflies. but I have to make the butterflies fly in formation.'