- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 11, 2009

Saturday night in Las Vegas, Ultimate Fighting Championship stages its 100th show. } That’s a lot of human cockfights. } UFC 100, which features Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir for the heavyweight championship, is seen as a milestone for the sport of mixed martial arts. } But this landmark event arrives between two other less noticed milestones for a sport that Sen. John McCain more than 10 years ago called “human cockfighting.” } In March, the Arizona Republican helped host an Armed Forces Foundation ceremony in the District in which UFC president Dana White was presented with the Sheldon Adelson Patriot Award for raising money for medical research for troops.

The moment marked a triumph of credibility for White and UFC - a milestone. Another landmark event occurs next month.

UFC 100 likely will set all sorts of MMA pay-per-view records. But the show that really stands as a milestone in the tremendous growth and popularity of UFC takes place Aug. 8 in Philadelphia - the first UFC event to be staged in Pennsylvania.

One of White’s goals is to get mixed martial arts sanctioned in every state. Several years ago in what marked another landmark moment for the organization, White hired Marc Ratner, the respected executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, to get UFC sanctioned around the country.

“The big problem the old UFC had was that Sen. McCain went after them because they refused to be sanctioned,” said White, who with Las Vegas casino owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III, bought UFC in 2001. “We took the opposite approach and embraced sanctioning.”

Getting Pennsylvania into the fold was a huge step, and UFC 101 likely will be a rousing success. If ever there was a city made for mixed martial arts, it is Philadelphia - an old fight town full of rowdy, passionate fans.

UFC 101 makes it very likely that we will see a UFC 200.

The sport long ago passed the “fad” stage, becoming a powerful international moneymaking operation and a bonanza for the pay-per-view industry - particularly in light of the demise of boxing as a meal ticket.

How successful has the sport become? The Fertittas purchased UFC for $2 million; Forbes valued the organization at $1 billion last year.

It is no coincidence that UFC’s rise coincided with the demise of boxing in this country.

Boxing in the past 15 years suffered a series of controversies that badly hurt the sport: the Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield bite fight, mismatches, bouts canceled because a fighter couldn’t make weight.

The missteps turned off a pay-per-view audience that felt it wasn’t getting its money’s worth.

UFC delivered the opposite - exciting, competitive fights that created a buzz. UFC especially appealed to younger fans, who have embraced mixed martial arts as their generation’s combat sport.

If you haven’t been paying attention, UFC 100 should be your wake-up call.

Madison Avenue certainly has been paying attention.

Years ago, UFC sponsors often were, at best, fringe businesses. They now include such heavyweights as Anheuser-Busch and Burger King.

Two years ago, UFC pay-per-views made more money than either boxing or wrestling shows. UFC expects about 1.5 million pay-per-view buys for Saturday night’s show.

Only four boxing shows ever have surpassed that figure - and none of those was accompanied by the hoopla of a fan festival leading up to the fight. UFC 100 staged a fan expo Friday and Saturday at Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

Boxing now follows UFC’s lead. A staple of HBO’s boxing programming is the “24/7” show, a behind-the-scenes look into the lives of opposing fighters leading up to a bout - essentially, an infomercial for the event.

UFC started its own reality show, “The Ultimate Fighter,” on Spike in 2005. The show has become the network’s biggest hit and this season figures to be even more of a draw with the addition of street fighting legend Kimbo Slice, who briefly became an MMA sensation for a rival promoter but suffered an embarrassing defeat last year.

Locally, mixed martial arts has taken hold in Northern Virginia with a series of successful shows by Ultimate Warrior Challenge at the Patriot Center. Several MMA shows staged in the District produced mixed results, though the use of the octagon “cage” is not allowed in the District at this time. And Maryland just recently sanctioned mixed martial arts under the state athletic commission.

Don’t be surprised, then, if sometime in the near future you see a UFC event in the District.

Now that would be a milestone - human cockfighting in the capital of the free world.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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