Just in the last two months, the UFC had two successive pay-per-views crack the magical 1 million number in buyrate, and has a chance to do it for the third time in three months with Jan. 31’s Georges St. Pierre-B.J. Penn champion vs. champion fight.
So with the industry at its highest point, it seems perfect timing for the first long-form examination of the sport by a mainstream writer. Sports Illustrated senior writer L. Jon Wertheim’s recently released book Blood in the Cage: Mixed Martial Arts, Pat Miletich and the Furious Rise of the UFC, follows the UFC’s growth from outlaw scourge to cash cow.
Wortheim is an accomplished writer whose last book, Running the Table: The Legend of Kid Delicious, the Last Great American Pool Hustler, was optioned by Lions Gate. As in that project, Wortheim seems to relish in the subculture in which he is ensconced. The author interweaves the sport’s early days with the colorful life of MMA pioneer Pat Miletich. Over the years, Miletich has become well known as the trainer behind such champions as Matt Hughes, Tim Sylvia, Jens Pulver and Robbie Lawler, but here we get a glimpse behind the making of the myth from his Iowa roots.
Wertheim recounts a story about a teenaged Miletich getting into a fight with a classmate, who promptly returned in his Jeep and gunned the engine towards the future UFC welterweight champion. Miletich threw rocks at the car and moved aside a split-second before being hit. At the time, Miletich had such a fearsome reputation as a streetfighter that longtime friend John Sharoian commented, “It was Pat Miletich against a Jeep. We all considered that a fair fight.”
Mixed martial arts itself faced a similarly "fair fight" in its rise.
The sport’s renegade roots will be of particular interest to new fans, and the stories are ripe with fascinating characters and ingenious schemes. For example, in 1997, Monte Cox, now a well-known MMA promoter and manager, was organizing a show in Battle Creek, Mich., to which only a few hundred tickets had been sold. After trying and failing to get press coverage for the event, Cox paid three friends to picket the weigh-ins and decry the violence. Cox then anonymously called the same TV stations who’d rejected his previous attempts at coverage to tip them off to the protests. Hours later, he was being interviewed on the local news, and tickets were quickly flying out of the box office.
But more than just a series of vivid tales, Wertheim manages to explore the anthropology of the sport, from fighters’ motivations to the dismissal of the sport by the highest levels of mainstream media.
Brian Bahr / Getty Images
The life of famed fighter/trainer Pat Miletich mirrors the rise of the UFC in Blood in the Cage.
At a time when the sport is still unsanctioned in New York (state Assemblyman Bob Reilly recently said, “My feeling about mixed martial arts is that there are many problems with it. It really is a glorification of brutality and violence), Wertheim’s book could be just the education that MMA’s detractors need, and an easily digestible diet of information from a credible source.
After all, Sen. John McCain is the man who first rallied against the sport in its previous and admittedly more violent incarnation, famously labeling it “human cockfighting.” Since then, the sport’s critics have tossed around the term with impunity, happy to pass along their misperceptions and downright ignorance. But since then even McCain himself has at least credited MMA with “significant progress” in the sport's safety.
Wertheim reports that in 2007, Miletich received word that then-Presidential candidate McCain had been trying to reach him. McCain had been told about Miletich through the Republican grapevine in Iowa, and wanted to see if he was interesting in going hunting with him. Perhaps in some ways, that was a symbolic closure to the sport’s outlaw phase, neatly wrapped up with a simple phone call from the politician who railed for more safety measures and regulation to a pioneer who had helped revolutionize the sport from the inside.
Blood in the Cage is important as an early history of MMA, but it is even more important for the education a mainstream writer can impart on a mainstream audience that still knows too little of the sport.
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