Back in my young pup days as a scribe, the sports editor called me into his office.
“What do you know about boxing?” he asked.
“People hit each other,” I replied.
“Good enough,” he responded. “I have an assignment for you.”
Thus a few nights later at, of all places, Metro Softball Stadium on the east side, I found myself next to a ring that had been constructed between the pitcher’s rubber and home plate. The occasion was matches between local fighters and a touring team of young pugilists from the Soviet Union.
As the first match began, I started scribbling notes for my story. It was a hot summer’s eve and quickly the fighters were sweating profusely. Then one opened a cut on the other and the sweat mixed with blood. In short order, my notes—and the nice, white shirt I was wearing—were covered with flying droplets of the mixture.
By the time the night was over, I looked like I had lost a 10-rounder.
Thus, my introduction to the raw reality of boxing. I was left with admiration for the physical skills necessary to be a fighter and the sheer toughness it takes to get into the ring. However, at the same time, being young and naïve, I was shaken by the brutality of the enterprise.
I remember asking myself, “Is this ‘sport’?”
That question comes to mind again because, on Sept. 25, the Ultimate Fighting Championship takes place in Conseco Fieldhouse.
UFC is the sanctioning body for mixed martial arts, another take-it-to-the-next-level extreme “sport” profiting from our willingness to purchase packaged violence.
I don’t offer that up from a sanctimonious perspective. After all, why is football so popular? Partly because it, too, is violence packaged for our consumption. And we eat it up.
Mixed martial arts—so called because it is a combination of boxing, wrestling, judo and taekwondo—actually has been around awhile and, in some places, notably Japan and South America, it has been part of the culture for decades.
It got its toehold in the United States in the early 1990s and has grown from niche to nearly mainstream, especially in the 40-and-under male demographic.
Just a week ago, UFC Hall of Famer (and I didn’t even know there was a UFC Hall of Fame) Randy “The Natural” Couture took on boxer James Toney in a crossover match from Boston’s TD Gardens. Couture, who is also an actor and a former Greco-Roman wrestler, won the highly hyped pay-per-view event by taking down Toney in the first round, pummeling his head with fists and elbows—a technique called “ground and pound”—and forcing him into “submission,” which is a polite term for giving up because he was getting the crap knocked out of him.
Oh, and did I mention, all this action takes place inside a cage?
The event at Conseco will mark the Indiana debut of UFC, primarily because the state of Indiana didn’t give its blessing until this past January. Like boxing, UFC and mixed martial arts must be regulated by the state, which means promoters and venue managers must have a license to allow men to pummel each other inside a cage.
Again (really) I’m trying not to come off as self-righteous. We all make decisions about what we want to do with our lives, and what we want to spend our discretionary dollars on. I also note that cage-side seats for the Conseco event are going for $300, and I trust they carefully surveyed their audience. In other words, they’re charging $300 because they can get it.
The Conseco card, which will have a national pay-per-view telecast, will feature a rematch between former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir and former interim heavyweight titleholder Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
Two fighters with Indiana ties are also on the card: Indianapolis firefighter Chris Lytle and former Purdue University linebacker Matt Mitrone.
Let’s face it, there is a certain fascination to determining the toughest of the tough. Once upon a time, that was generally acknowledged to be the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
Now we’ve taken that determination to another level. I will let others decide whether that level is a higher or lower one.
One last word of advice to Conseco’s cage-side seat holders: Don’t wear a white shirt.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.