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Mixed Martial Arts: A New Kind Of Fight

This segment was originally broadcast on Dec. 10, 2006. It was updated on July 23, 2007.

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.

Asked if TV channels were eager to put this on, White says, "Not even close. I mean, you wouldn't believe. All these big TV geniuses. And, you know, all the guys from Fox and this place and that place. You know, all these guys that supposedly know everything."
"Too violent," Pelley remarks.

"They were scared of it," White argues. "What's more violent than the NFL? What's more violent than the NFL?"

"Oh, come on. The NFL, they're not throwing punches at each other, not usually," Pelley says.

"You've got 250 pound men in the best shape they could ever get into, and they're so fast they could run track and field with pads on running directly into each other head to head. Broken arms. Legs getting snapped in half. Broken necks. What do you consider violent?" White replies.

He didn't sign any network TV deals like the NFL, but he did get a reality show on cable where fighters compete for a spot in the league. Now, White has seven TV shows reeling in that young, male demographic; his Internet site sometimes gets more hits than the NFL. And he's got a video game and his DVDs that outsell all other sports.

He and his partners bought the UFC for $2 million. Asked what it's worth now, White says, "I don't know. A lot more than two million."

"The smile on your face suggests maybe over 100 million, I'm guessing," Pelley asks.

"Could be. Could be. Could be a billion. I don't know," White says.

It seems plausible. The International Fight League just went public and it is valued at more than $150 million. It turns out rules were the key: the money flowed when the blood stopped gushing.

These days, there are 31 fouls, and the fighters don't come at each other bare-fisted anymore. They're required to use special gloves with a little bit of padding over the knuckles. You can't kick to the groin anymore, and you can't stomp your opponent once he's on the ground. The octagon itself is 30 feet across. There's padding under the fighters' feet, and they put the fence around it so the fighters don't go rolling out onto the floor.

Have all the rules and regulations made the fights less interesting for the fans? That didn't appear to be the case when 60 Minutes headed to a match in Anaheim, Calif.

There were some 14,000 fans in the stands and 700,000 at home, who paid $40 a pop to watch on TV. This event alone made $28 million. White does 14 of these a year.

Pelley wondered exactly where the fighters come from. Who wants to get in on this? One of the biggest stars is welterweight Matt Hughes.

The fights have made Hughes a millionaire. When he fights, he's in a testosterone-fueled world of money and sex, but 60 Minutes found him where he grew up, on the family farm in Illinois.

"When I leave this sport, I want to be the same person as when I started this sport," Hughes explains.

"It'll change ya if you let it," Pelley remarks.

"You're exactly right," Hughes agrees.

Like a lot of the fighters, Hughes has a college degree. He was an all-American wrestler who sees this as more like the Olympics than a street brawl.

"Yeah, but you know better than I do that that's not why those 17,000 people are in there," Pelley remarks.

"Well, that's true," Hughes says.

"They want to see somebody bleed," Pelley says.;

"They like excitement," Hughes says. "There's excitement all over. It doesn't have to be somebody getting hurt to get excitement in the octagon."

In fact, a recent medical study found that MMA fighters are less likely than boxers to suffer brain injuries.

"There's a lot more options. It's a wrestling match. It's a jiu-jitsu match. It is partially boxing. It's not my only option to stand toe-to-toe with you and beat you in the face," says Pat Miletich.

Miletich coaches in Bettendorf, Iowa. Fighters from all over come to his gym, where Miletich has turned out eight top champions, including Matt Hughes who showed Pelley some of the finer points when he tried to train with Team Miletich. They wrestle, they grapple, they maul. Then they work endurance relays with a man on their shoulder.

Miletich teaches power, top conditioning, while Renzo Gracie is about counter balance and cunning.

Renzo teaches the pretzel logic of Gracie style at a gym in Manhattan. Where 60 Minutes noticed there's only one picture hanging. Gracie and a fighter named Kazushi Sakuraba. In their fight in Japan, sponsored by Pride Fighting Championships, Sakuraba broke Gracie's arm with. Gracie never tapped out – he just let it break.

During the fight, Sakuraba twisted Gracie's arm completely inside out.

"To be honest, I really even enjoyed that moment. Because I had plenty conscience of what was going on. And I didn't give up. I saw the ligaments going. I heard one by one going away. And I embraced that as a punishment for the mistake that I had," Gracie says.

Asked why he didn't tap, Gracie says, "Because I really believe I could keep fighting even without the arm."

That's the spirit he brought to bear in a match against Miletich. The two masters, both pushing 40, sized each other up. It was a clash of styles.

Miletich seemed in better shape, and was the heavy favorite. Gracie, the jiu-jitsu grappler, wanted to fight on the ground. Miletich defended against the takedown.

But there's a saying in this sport: "There are so many ways to lose."

Gracie climbed the stronger Miletich like a tree and inch by inch improved his position until he had his arm around Miletich's neck like a boa constrictor, tightening his grip, until the match was over. The move is called "flying guillotine."

Any sport with a move called a "flying guillotine" is never going to be for everyone. But the combat style the Fracies brought to America just a few years ago is quickly rising above boxing in popularity, at least among those who see beauty in the martial arts.

"People would see a lot of times fighting as a ugly thing, as a thing that denigrates the human being. In reality, you see fighting on everything," says Gracie.

"Everything's fighting?" Pelley asks.

"Everything's fighting. Doesn't matter what it is. You wake up in the morning, to get outta bed is a fight, believe it," Gracie says. "So, fighting is actually the best thing a man can have in his soul."
Produced By Solly Granatstein

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