Enter the Octagon

The lovely spectacle of Ultimate Fighting.

Ultimate fighter Tito Ortiz

Roland Barthes posited that when a professional wrestler enters the ring, he’s stepping into a role in a grandiloquent drama of suffering, defeat, and justice: “Even hidden in the most squalid Parisian halls, wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve.” For a comparable appreciation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship—the interdisciplinary martial-arts league that broadcasts matches regularly by pay-per-view and, irregularly, on the cable channel Spike—we must turn to that noted semiotician from the great state of Arizona, John McCain: “a cockfight, only we’re using human beings.” The senator definitely beats Barthes for both pithiness and understatement.

CNBC’s Business Nation retrieved McCain’s sound bite—from 1995, an era when an elbow to the crown of the head was still a legal UFC move—in a fairly recent, and distinctly promotional, segment. The correspondent went on to note that more young men watched an October bout between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock on Spike than caught the first game of the 2006 World Series, which is impressive but not entirely apt. I want to know whether more sadists, ages 18 to 34, watched the Ortiz-Shamrock fight than lined up for that month’s release of the Reservoir Dogs video game. Which group gets out less? Would they please keep not getting out? What does the rise of the UFC mean for those of us who like our screen violence the old-fashioned way, with the distance of fiction and a semblance of meaning and bullet-riddled Bonnie Parker in the driver’s seat? Which channel is Spike again?

It was with a head full of such questions that I turned to some recent episodes of Spike’s UFC Unleashed. The commentary team of Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan briskly laid out the laws governing the UFC’s eight-sided ring: Matches consist of three five-minute rounds, except for championships, which last five rounds. Anything goes, except for a small handful of things that no longer go, like strikes to the throat and—this is in the rule book—kicking a man when he’s down. While judges are said to gauge the fighters’ effectiveness at “striking, grappling, aggression, and octagon control,” the matches never seem to require decisions. The paramedics see more action than the judges.

Ding ding ding. This was Vegas. Here were Andrei “the Pitbull” Arlovski of Minsk, Belarus, and Wesley “Cabbage” Correira of Hilo, Hawaii—and thus also known, in one of the announcers’ less worthy ventures into alliteration, as “the heavy-handed Hawaiian”: “He says he feels like he’s fighting for all of Hawaii.” Did Hawaii have any say in this matter? It didn’t seem as if it would be much of match. The Pitbull was all muscle, except for his jaw, which seemed made of some exotic tungsten alloy; he wore a Caesar cut and form-fitting briefs. The Cabbage was fat; he wore baggy shorts that read “cabbage” across the ass. But the announcers assured us that Correira’s lumpy physique belied his fine conditioning, with Rogan adding: “He, uh, gets a kick out of beating up buff dudes.” It wasn’t much of a match. The Pitbull TKO’d the Cabbage in the second round.

Unleashed being a kind of greatest-hits package, the next match also featured the Pitbull. His hair now flowed in an Orlando Bloom fashion, and his abs, impossibly, were harder. We were now at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, and the opponent was Paul “the Headhunter” Buentello, who declared himself ready to tame the Pitbull in the pre-match interview: “Yeah, he’s got more muscle, but I’ve been dropping those guys for eight years.” The Pitbull took one swing, and the Headhunter went down. The match had lasted 14 seconds. It was either Rogan or Goldberg who put forth the idea that this was “anti-climactic, but very climactic at the same time.”

And now, an Ortiz-Shamrock matchup! Stoking the fury of aficionados and piquing the curiosity of novices, the announcers began to wind up the hype: “There is dislike. There is distrust. There is simply hatred.” In a clip, Shamrock, a veteran known as “the most dangerous man in the world,” expressed his belief that Ortiz is a punk. Meanwhile, Ortiz, a punk, forwarded the notion that Shamrock is over the hill. Cut back to Shamrock: “Tito Ortiz is going to find out who Ken Shamrock is, was, and is now.” The “is now” in that sentence wasn’t really a redundancy. Shamrock was employing a new tense—the ultimate tense—to describe how he was about to be bringing it, how it was about to have been brung.

Ortiz wiped the floor with him. Literally. He spent the bulk of the fight mounted on top of his opponent, squishing, kneeing, punching, all but reaming. Rogan and Goldberg were again quite helpful here. They pointed out when Shamrock was struggling to maneuver his hips to accomplish an “arm bomb,” or something, or anything. They took note of the minutiae of Ortiz’s strategy—the moment when he was perhaps attempting to elbow Shamrock into submission and, elsewhere, when he was “just trying to disrupt his breathing there, with a hand in the mouth.” Once Shamrock’s face looked exactly like the steak tartare at Brasserie Balzar, the referee stopped the fight, and the episode was over, and I felt rather melancholy. After violence, every animal is sad.