Brian McGrath (top) is a college student and mixed martial arts fighter with the Dog Pound Submission Fighting Academy. He’s one of nine fighters from the Dog Pound competing on July 14 in Missoula Mayhem at Rock Creek Lodge. To him MMA fighting is “like ballet or ballroom dancing.
The air conditioning and cold beer were welcome relief from the heat, but the real reason The Press Box was packed last Saturday night was because “Ultimate Fighting Championship 73: Stacked” was on the tubes.
“People really get into it,” says Press Box owner Gordie Fix.
In the last few years mixed martial arts (MMA) in general and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in particular have become some of the most popular sporting events in America, and have steadily hacked away at the pay-per-view receipts of boxing and professional wrestling. Last year the Associated Press reported that Zuffa LLD, which owns UFC, earned more than $200 million in revenue from pay-per-view events. Each pay-per-view costs about $40.
The sport, a type of cage fighting that combines wrestling, Brazilian jujitsu, boxing, tae kwon do and more, seems brutal—like a street fight on crack. People bleed, they lose consciousness, injuries are commonplace; it hardly seems the sort of activity to fit the progressive peace-and-love mentality associated with Missoula.
But if the assembled crowd at The Press Box was any indication, the sport is gaining popularity here regardless of its unmerciful ways. Lifelong Missoula resident Fix says that makes complete sense.
“You can see this town changing,” he says. “There’s more people…the town’s more diverse.”
As the owner of a sports bar, Fix sees the changes from the perspective of what his customers want to watch (“When the World Cup was going on people were coming here at 7 in the morning to see their team.”) and what they don’t want to watch.
Curiously, the most prominent peacemakers in Missoula, the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, say MMA doesn’t conflict with their cause.
“Martial arts can be a peaceful activity,” says JRPC Executive Director Betsy Mulligan-Dague. “Things like wrestling and martial arts are not necessarily against peace.”
Mulligan-Dague was quick to point out, however, that MMA’s popularity could also be a reflection of an increasingly violent society.
If one person understands the popularity of MMA fighting in Missoula, it’s Brian McGrath, a 21-year-old college senior who fights with the Dog Pound Submission Fighting Academy.
McGrath is a Missoula native who describes a pretty standard Montana upbringing. He enjoys hiking, hunting and fishing. All pretty normal fare, except that McGrath spends his evenings giving and taking beatings at the Dog Pound’s gym at 301 S. Third St. W.
“I work at the Red Bird and it became common knowledge that I was a cage fighter,” he says. “People were really interested. Some wanted to know why I did it. Some wanted to be my buddy. Some didn’t want to talk about it because they thought it was so violent.”
But McGrath sees something more than blood and guts in the sport. To him, MMA is “like ballet or ballroom dancing.”
His coach, however, sees the violence clearly.
“It’s a fight sport. It’s violent, but it’s not fighting for the sake of fighting,” says Matt Powers, head coach of the Dog Pound, owner of Rock Creek Lodge and co-owner of Challenge Financial. Powers and three friends started the Dog Pound in 2003 as a place to work out, creatively vent their daily frustrations, and train for a sport they love. Four years and a few cauliflower ears later, the Dog Pound has grown to 35 members, nine of whom are competing in a “Missoula Mayhem” event July 14 at Rock Creek Lodge.
“Sometimes I get people saying, ‘If you want to fight why don’t you go overseas?’ But that’s not what we’re about,” Powers says. Despite Missoula’s liberal reputation, Powers isn’t surprised cage fighting has taken root in Missoula, or that MMA has exploded on the national scene. He thinks it has to do with changes over the years in the sport’s rules and standards.
“People who wouldn’t watch it at the beginning because it was so brutal have seen the sport change,” he says. In fact the sport sometimes marketed as “no holds barred” actually bars several, including eye gouging, biting and attacks to the groin.
As the first fight of “UFC 73” played out on the majority of screens around the Press Box Saturday night, a boxing match between International Boxing Federation heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko and Lamon Brewster was playing as well.
No one was watching it.
The audience was immersed in the UFC fight, shouting out commands like cornermen: “Don’t do that!” “Get out from under there!” “Why did he do that?!” “He’s an idiot!”
Fix says UFC provides him with guaranteed customers, some of whom show up several hours early to claim comfortable seats. Last Saturday’s crowd was meager at 6 p.m., two hours before the fight, but half an hour later the party was starting, and every minute brought more excitement as the throng eagerly awaited their evening’s entertainment.
“I’ve tried to show some [boxing] fights and I’ve ended up losing [money] on them,” Fix says, pointing out that the recent bout between Oscar de la Hoya and Floyd Mayweather, one of the most hyped in recent history, barely got the attention of his patrons.
“Boxing is dead,” Powers says. “MMA is going to just get bigger.”