Walk into any neighborhood and if they're playing football on one corner, basketball on the next, baseball on the third and a fight breaks out on the fourth, everybody's going to run and watch the fight. Hand-to-hand combat is strangely irresistible.
These days the national street corner is on TV, where millions are now being drawn to a new kind of fight called "mixed martial arts" or MMA. Not long ago the sport was banned as too vicious for decent society. But mixed martial arts came back swinging. In April, a fight on the Spike cable channel was watched by more young men than the NBA playoff game broadcast at the same time.
Correspondent Scott Pelley reports how a contest, once reviled and banished, has become one of the fastest-growing sports in America.
Pat Miletich, one of the greatest coaches of the sport and Brazilian Renzo Gracie, who helped invent it, are among the pioneers of mixed martial arts in America.
"You cannot hide who you are once you step on the ring. If you're a coward, they will show it," says Gracie. "You can't hide. It doesn't matter how much money you're getting paid. On the moment that that bell rings … you forget about everything else. You think about survive, and you think about beating up the other guy."
The name Gracie is to mixed martial arts as Ford is to cars. In Brazil in the 1920's, the Gracie family invented a new jiu-jitsu. They challenged all comers and nearly always won. They brought their challenge to the U.S. in the 1990's in a contest of styles – boxers, kick boxers, wrestlers and jiu-jitsu masters – to find out who was the ultimate fighter.
"What do you say to people who watch an MMA fight and say it's barbaric?" Pelley asks.
"For them to understand my sport, I know it's gonna take a little bit, you know, for them to accept and understand," Gracie says.
"What's to understand? You're pounding a guy, choking a guy into submission," Pelley remarks.
"It goes far beyond that. The first impression is, hit him, knock him out, hurt him, but believe it, it goes far beyond that," Gracie explains. "There's so much technique involved, that I, to be honest, I think when I see a good fight, I think it makes a Russian ballet look like a uncoordinated body movements."
He admits that it can sometimes be a bloody ballet. "But the blood is the source of the whole thing. Believe – it's not blood that's coming out, it's a little bit of pride that you're putting out."
To prevent too much of that kind of "pride" spilling onto the mat, fights can end in a number of ways. There's a knock out or a submission, a throat squeezing or bone straining hold that would do real harm if the loser didn't tap his opponent to signal surrender. And if the tap never comes, the referee can always jump in.
"It used to be boxers were called – 'Okay, this guy's the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.' Now it's, 'No, you're the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world.' These guys are the best pound-for-pound fighters," Miletich tells Pelley.
Miletich blended all those combat styles into one.
"Look, most people are more familiar with boxing. So how do you compare MMA to what we're used to seeing?" Pelley asks.
"I would compare boxing to MMA as – you know jeez, checkers to chess. You know?" Miletich. "If you take the branches of a tree, all the techniques, if I do one submission hold on you, you have three different ways to escape. That's three more branches. And I have three more moves off of each one of those branches. And then it just keeps going from there. It's very complex."
This entire sport suffered a stone cold knockout just a few years ago. Back then, there were virtually no rules. Fighters could stomp, kick to the groin, there were no time limits, and no weight classes. Critics called it human cockfighting. It was barred in many states and banned on TV.
"In the late 90s, the reputation of the ultimate fighting championship was what?" Pelley asks.
"Uneducated gorillas that liked to go in there and basically kick the crap out of each other," says Dana White, a former amateur boxer who thought the fights might be just the thing to draw an audience that advertisers often want most – men, ages 18 to 34.
That group has been disappearing from TV audiences. White convinced investors to buy a league, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC. He adopted rules for the safety of the fighters and got 18 states to sanction the fights.