There was a time when the Ultimate Fighting Championship was thought to be a passing fad, but just as writing in 140 characters or less has revolutionized the way people communicate, mixed martial arts has become a billion dollar business.
LeBell fought in the first sanctioned mixed martial arts match in America on Dec. 2, 1963. LeBell, a judo champion, squared off with Milo Savage, a light heavyweight boxer who was ranked fifth in the world at one point. The fight in Salt Lake City was dubbed “something new for sports fans.” And something new it was. Savage allegedly wore brass knuckles and covered his body with Vaseline to make it tougher to grab and hold him. None of that deterred LeBell. He choked out Savage after four rounds, and the boxer lied unconscious for about 20 minutes before being resuscitated.
Up until that night, martial arts were viewed with disdain by the general public, most of whom had never stepped foot in a dojo. Jim Beck wrote an article in the August 1963 issue of Rogue magazine that examined a familiar, contentious topic: Is boxing or MMA better? The article was titled “The Judo Bums,” and Beck poured gasoline on the controversy:
Judo … is a complete fraud. … Every judo man I’ve ever met was a braggart and a showoff. … Any boxer can beat a judo man.
Judo bums hear me one and all! It is one thing to fracture pine boards, bricks and assorted inanimate objects, but quite another to climb into a ring with a trained and less cooperative target. My money is ready. Where are the takers?
LeBells’s win over a boxer opened people’s eyes. He went on to do stunts in movies and television shows. He trained Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. In 1976, LeBell even refereed Muhammad Ali‘s infamous fight against Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in Tokyo.
Don’t expect the James Toney-Randy Couture fight at UFC 118 — or any of the other nine fights on the fight card — to look anything like the Ali-Inoki mockery. Toney might be a UFC rookie, but he’s taken his training seriously and is prepared to give Couture a run for the money.
“What I’m expecting on Saturday night is not a boxing match. It’s not an MMA match. It’s a fight,” White said earlier this week while promoting the event. “There’s going to be a fight with those two.”
If Toney wins, more boxers could step into the Octagon in future events. If Couture wins, the UFC will continue to debunk the myth that it’s just a niche bloodsport. Either way, MMA wins. UFC 118 is expected to be one of the most lucrative events in Garden history, and the popularity of the sport is growing.
“Now the big thing is MMA,” veteran boxing trainer Jake Lake told ESPN.com. “And it has a real shelf life for a younger audience. It’s the 18-to-40 crowd, guys with tattoos, pretty girls. And the fights themselves, that’s the closest thing we have to the Roman gladiators.”
The ruling class in ancient Rome believed all that was needed to control the people was bread and circuses. With Dana White — the modern-day P.T. Barnum of sports — driving the train, the UFC will keep providing entertainment, earning respect from the boxing community and making boatloads of money for everyone involved.
MMA has come a long way since Gene LeBell showed a boxer that grapplers can fight, too. The martial arts legend still teaches the art of the sleeper hold. Good thing the rest of the world is waking up.