Just ten years ago, the British Medical Association was trying to get mixed martial arts (MMA) placed on the banned list. Today, the UK is seen as the flagship European market for the sport, and last time the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) touched down in London earlier this year, it played to a capacity crowd at the O2 arena.
Tickets at the 20,000 seater venue had sold out within minutes of going on sale, a far cry from the first ever UFC event, a spit and sawdust affair at the Royal Albert Hall in 2002, when spectators and the media were more interested in the fight that broke out later in the after party than what happened on stage.
So where has this growth come from? There are a number of factors.
It sounds obvious, but for a sport to become popular, people need exposure to it. BT Sport secured a partnership deal with the UFC in 2013, and the sport began to appear on TV screens in homes and pubs across the UK. Things went from strength to strength – suddenly, this was something people could watch down the pub with their friends alongside football and rugby.
But that was not all – it is also far more accessible from a participative perspective. Gyms now offer MMA training as a way to get fit, increase muscle tone and take out some of life’s frustrations in a controlled environment – and people can’t get enough of it.
To really take off, a sport needs its heroes. Barry Hearn realised this when he tapped into the potential of snooker in the early 1980s, and the effect was obvious – people admired the skill of multiple champion Steve Davis, but they fell in love with Jimmy White, and electricity filled the air as much as bums filled the seats when he stepped into the arena.
MMA has its own heroes, although you will not see them sipping on a pint of lager and smoking endless cigarettes like Jimmy in his heyday. Tim Barnett is one of the UFC’s rising stars, and the Merseyside lad has taken the sport by storm over the past year or so. Everyone loves an underdog, and he has literally fought his way towards the top the hard way.
Barnett’s rising profile and growing popularity with UFC fans has landed him a huge sponsorship deal with online casino Fruity King. The likeable 27 year old is not your traditional fighter. He is a major advocate of veganism and healthy living, and engages regularly with his growing fanbase on social media. You can read more about the deal here.
Sport for the new millennium
At first glance, MMA seems like something from a bygone era. Yet it is so much more than two men trying to beat the hell out of each other. It is more technically nuanced than, for example, boxing, which is one of the reasons people have become so immersed in the sport.
With the likes of Barnett providing an additional focus on healthy living and social media engagement, this really could become the biggest new sport for the 21st century.