“WE’LL BE BACK.”
It was an ominous-sounding statement, given that it came from a man who routinely enters a city with a couple dozen tribal-tattooed, iron-knuckled, steam-breathing brawlers in tow. But there wasn’t a hint of a threat in Marc Ratner’s voice when he said it. In fact, he sounded almost giddy.
Frankly, he had every reason to be. Ratner is the vice president of regulatory affairs for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, easily the world’s largest and most successful promoter of mixed martial arts. MMA, for those who don’t watch Spike TV, is like boxing mixed with karate mixed with wrestling—in a cage. UFC is bringing its bloody brand of the hand-to-hand combat to Seattle for the first time ever on March 26 at KeyArena. And the 11-bout throwdown—dubbed UFC Fight Night 24—sold more tickets in six days than the Key’s event booker anticipated it would sell in the two months preceding the event. (A spokesperson says it planned to open only the lower bowl, which seats about 9,500, but had to ditch that idea after those tickets sold out by the end of the first day.) So yeah, Ratner’s pumped, and he’s already looking forward to his next sweaty swing through Seattle.
We know, we know. You had no idea Seattle loves a good old-fashioned beating. But even though we have a reputation as a sophisticated, enlightened haven for intellectuals and conservationists, a sanctuary for society’s geeks—the fact is, bloodlust is in our blood, bubbling just beneath our passive-aggressive facades. And MMA has had Seattle in its kung-fu grip for decades.
For starters, this was Bruce Lee’s lair in the ’60s, where the master of the multilimbed attack practiced a martial arts mashup that made him famous and Seattle a hotbed for Far East fight training. Lee didn’t contribute anything directly to UFC’s creation—MMAers favor disciplines like Brazilian jujitsu, kickboxing, and judo, while Lee was more of a martial arts maverick who developed his own style—but his work left a mark on Seattle’s fighting community like a heel print on a jaw. “Bruce Lee living here lends to the popularity of martial arts in the area,” says Charles Pearson, the owner of Charlie’s Combat Club in Everett.
You know what else lends to the popularity of mixed martial arts here? A complete lack of governmental oversight. Washington State doesn’t regulate amateur MMA events. At all. In fact, the only restriction the Department of Licensing’s professional athletics division places on amateur fights is that they be overseen by a sanctioning organization. But there’s a convenient little loophole in the law that allows a promoter to be his own sanctioning body. In other words, Washington is the Wild West of amateur whoopass, an ungoverned territory where anyone with a gym and a roster of gladiators can sell tickets. A 2009 Department of Licensing survey of states that regulate MMA found no more than 40 events in places like Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri. Last year, Michael Renouard, the cofounder of NW FightScene magazine, says his writers covered nearly 100 events in Washington. “But there were probably 200,” he says. “We just physically couldn’t cover them all.”
Change could be coming, though. The DOL held meetings with members of the local MMA community last summer to brainstorm beatdown best practices. And in January the Washington legislature introduced House Bill 1062, which would close the loophole and require the presence of a state-licensed official at all amateur events. That may weed out the shady operations and reduce the number of fights in Washington, but it’s not going to stop MMA from continuing to pummel this city’s peacenik reputation like a nerd in gym class. Even UFC’s Ratner says he’s “very bullish” about Seattle. The gloves, it seems, have already come off.