Do you know where you were on March 29, 1987? I do. I was spending the weekend at my grandparents’ house in Hampton, Virginia.
And why do I remember exactly where I was more than 20 years ago? Because, if it were up to me, I would have been in Pontiac, Michigan that weekend. My parents weren’t about to throw their 10-year-old son on a plane to Michigan, so I did the next best thing and convinced my family to order Wrestlemania III so I could watch Hulk Hogan, Randy “Macho Man” Savage and Andre the Giant in all their glory during the World Wrestling Federation’s biggest annual pay-per-view.
But here’s the thing – my parents would only agree to order the pay-per-view if they could watch it first and ensure it was suitable for me and my six-year-old brother. So when Hercules Hernandez busted open Billy Jack Haynes with his chain after a double count out, my parents took it upon themselves to tape over that part of the bloody match. I wish we still had that old VHS tape, because it was hilarious to see Hernandez rear back and prepare to drill his opponent, only to have the scene cut away to black and white video of dancing girls from some PBS show.
I’ve got a confession to make – I’ve never missed a Wrestlemania pay-per-view since. Each year, I’d save up my allowance and convinced my parents to order it. Once I graduated high school and joined the Army, I went to sports bar or a friend’s house to watch Wrestlemania, a.k.a. – the “granddaddy of them all.” Even last year, after dealing with kidney stones for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for myself and ordered the pay-per-view at the house. But this year, I think I’ll pass on it. After everything that happened with the Chris Benoit stuff, I just cannot get into it like I once did.
Over the last year or so I’ve quietly tried to find a substitute for my old wrestling fix, but nothing’s really worked. I gave boxing a few chances to win me back over, but the two biggest matches – Floyd Mayweather vs. Oscar De La Hoya, and Mayweather vs. Ricky Hatton – were both highly disappointing, unless you like lots of talk and not much action. That’s when an old Army buddy of mine came to the rescue.
My old roommate from Texas, Dave, kept bugging me to come over to his place each month to watch the Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts. My backstory with UFC is that when I was in Panama, a buddy got the first 12 pay-per-views mailed to him and we plowed through them in a weekend. But shortly thereafter is when UFC started getting in trouble because it was viewed as too barbaric and gladiator-like. People forget this now, but Senator John McCain was sent a tape of the first UFC events and found it repulsive, prompting the senator to lead a campaign to ban Ultimate Fighting, calling it “human cockfighting.”
Early pay-per-views featured lots of blood and lots of concussions while guys like Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn and Royce Gracie ushered in this new, brutal form of entertainment that was essentially bare-knuckle fighting.
After 36 states enacted laws that barred “no-holds-barred fighting,” the UFC braintrust realized changes were needed or the sport would not last in the U.S.
Weight classes were introduced. Gloves became mandatory. Moves like groin strikes, kicking down opponents and small joint manipulations were banned. Five-minute rounds and judges decisions, if necessary, were implemented.
From there, UFC exploded and over the next decade transforming from a niche sport to a mainstream success. The only problem? I never watched another UFC pay-per-view until I finally came over to Dave’s house for December’s UFC 79 bout. That night, greybeard Chuck Lidell defeated Wanderlei Silva and pretty boy Georges St. Pierre destroyed Matt Hughes. I’ve been hooked ever since.
I know wrestling is fake, but I always enjoyed the entertainment factor and some of the high-risk spots they would do during a match. Well, in UFC nothing’s fake. These guys are trying to do whatever they can to beat their opponent into submission.
And it just keeps getting better. When former professional wrestler Brock Lesnar made his first appearance in UFC earlier this year, I swear he did it just for me. I ordered the pay-per-view at the house and had some friends over to see if a guy who made a living winning predetermined matches could make the change from the wrestling ring to the octagon. He couldn’t.
After beating Frank Mir’s face in for the first minute of the match, Lesnar left his leg exposed and Mir locked in a kneebar. Lesnar tapped out like a junior-varsity wrestler trying to go a round with the school’s heavyweight. But unlike pro wrestling, there was no post-match chairshot or someone having to kiss Vince McMahon’s ass. Instead, Lesnar admitted that on this night the better man won.
It’s got all the brutality and physicality of the old gladiator days, but none of the clownish over-the-top pageantry that I just got too old for. Hell, a good chunk of the talent on the UFC’s roster doesn’t even speak English. It doesn’t matter what language Anderson Silva speaks, when he’s in the octagon, someone’s taking a beating.
So enjoy your March Madness, or even your Wrestlemania XXIV (featuring Floyd Mayweather, no less). I’ll be quietly waiting for UFC 83 to roll around next month. Trust me when I tell you Matt Serra and Georges St. Pierre are going to put on a better show than either of those two events has to offer.
Brian Murphy is an award-winning sportswriter, and still doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.