Having been branded as “human cock fighting” by former Whitehouse hopeful John McCain, mixed martial arts is set to join mainstream sports by having its very own world cup.
The competition will happen in 2017 and will fittingly take place at the home of the gladiators in Rome.
“Considering the history of Rome, and the Coliseum, it is the perfect environment for the first mixed martial arts world cup. It gives marquee values and it is the right tribute to history,” said World Cup Mixed Martial Arts (WCMMA) Executive Director, Edward Catucci.
Qualification matches for the eight-team tournament start next year, but the first step on the road to Rome is scheduled for September 15th.
The WCMMA will be staging an event at the Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut that will see Team USA take on Portugal in the first ever world cup format match. The aim is to build up hype ahead of next year’s qualifiers.
“Points will start to accumulate in 2013 in a league table format, but this month, although there will be winners and losers, the aim is to build momentum,” said Catucci.
The competition follows a spike in popularity for MMA – which has been predominantly generated by the sport’s biggest promotion – the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
The UFC, which was set up in 1993, stages individual fights and has gone from having a cult following to touring over 20 countries, and being broadcast in over 140 territories.
Unlike world cup fights, which will take place in a boxing-like-ring, the UFC uses a metal chain-link cage – infamously known as the Octagon. The aim of the game is to KO your opponent, or force him to submit by tapping out.
The fights are often gruesome and although things like low blows and hair pulling are forbidden, there’s plenty of blood - while bones get broken too.
”Barbaric and repulsive” is what reporters on Fox Australia called what happened at a sold-out UFC event in Sydney in 2010; where homeboy Anthony Perosh was beaten into a bloody mess by Croatian Mirko Filipovic.
Shock and gore have become common place with MMA, and Catucci wants the world cup to move away from this image.
He was offered the chance to work for some of the major promotions earlier in his career, but declined. Having spoken at length with him about the state of MMA, he did not seem happy.
When asked whether the major companies have damaged the image of the sport, he said: “Well I think by you asking me that, you have understood that from what I am saying. A lot of people feel that way, and many sponsors have articulated that viewpoint to us.”
He wants the world cup to be built upon the principles of “discipline, respect and honour” and believes the competition will be the “next level of mixed martial arts.”
“Visually, it will look different to what people have seen traditionally. Teams will be wearing national colours, it will be nation against nation, and this will help fights be fought in a forum of integrity.”
Furthermore, world cup matches will only be two rounds as compared to five as seen in promotions like the UFC. This is an attempt to reduce the chances of injury as shorter fights may result in less weariness, according to Catucci.
Nonetheless, by moving away from the violent character that MMA has become associated with, the world cup may lose some appeal.
MMA is mainly watched by men aged between 18 - 29, and the increasing popularity of MMA says more about an increasing desire for masculine violence in certain societies, according to sociologist David Mayeda – who co-authored Fighting for Acceptance: Mixed Martial Artists and Violence in American Society.
He told us “MMA is one of these new venues where men, in particular middle-class men, feel they can re-claim a sense of rugged masculinity.”
Conversely one thing that may help the world cup is the status it gives to women. Mayeda states that although women are often welcome at most MMA gyms, up till now: “The only place in MMA where women hold higher numbers is among the ring card girls.”
In the WCMMA however, there will be one woman on each team to supplement four men in different weight categories.
Catucci knows it will take time for the world cup to establish itself alongside international competitions for football, basketball and hockey – but he is optimistic.
“The soccer world cup only started in the thirties and the success has been dramatic. If we can achieve a fraction of that, it would be a positive influence on society.”
The world cup is still five years away, and subsequent competitions will then happen every four years. Throughout that time plenty fighters will tap; but it’s all good for fight fans, as long as it keeps MMA on the map.