Being the kind of guy who is totally up to date on all major social trends, I finally watched on TV some bouts of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the big growth spectator sport of the 2000s. As you no doubt know better than I do, this is a "mixed martial arts" competition. Originally, it was put together by, among others, John Milius (screenwriter of "Apocalypse Now," director of "Red Dawn," and the model for John Goodman's Walter Sobachek in "The Big Lebowski") to answer classic male questions such as: "Who would win in a fight: a boxer or a wrestler? A tai chi blackbelt or a krav maga adept?"
It has since evolved so that most fighters have a blend of skills, although you can still kind of tell which discipline they started out in. The two fighters typically start out boxing, with maybe a little kicking, then end up rolling around on the ground like high school wrestlers.
To me, it's like watching wrestling in the Olympics: two guys suddenly collapse in a heap and squirm about, with the announcers going so wild with excitement that they leave out all the antecedents for their pronouns, as if Henry James had written pulp novels: "Did you see what he did to him?" "Yeah, he's really taken control." "Look at the advantage he has over him!" And I keep wondering "Who? Whom? What just happened?"
One thing you've got to say for professional wrestling: it's quite clear at any single point in time who is doing what to whom. When Kurt Angle sneaks up behind The Rock and hits him over the head with a folding chair, well, that I can follow. But any kind of real grappling between well-matched experts involves such a rapid flurry of moves and countermoves aimed at establishing a small advantage in leverage that I'm mostly at sea as a viewer.
The main event of the night involved a big French Canadian guy who sat on a little Hawaiian guy and punched the little guy's defenseless head against the mat until the poor bastard finally gave up.
Allow me to make a prediction. We hear a lot about UFC being the Sport of the Future, but I suggest that the real Sport of the Future, whatever it turns out to be, will not involve hitting people in the head. Hitting them elsewhere, definitely. But not the head.
In the Ali-Frazier-Foreman era in the 1970s, boxing was a gigantic sport. It was hard to imagine it would sink so low in just 35 years. But it has, and a big reason is that as we got more familiar with what happens to boxers as they get old, it has become harder to take pleasure in the sport.
Having just watched a great 4th quarter of the Super Bowl (except for all the damn penalties), it's hard to imagine that American football will fade in popularity. But I sense that it will over the next half century because of head injuries.
So, that's my sense of the future: the favorite spectator sports will remain some form of ritualized combat, but with less brain trauma.
The UFC might turn out to be that sport since it could presumably finetune its rules (e.g., no hitting people in the head repeatedly while holding their arms down so they can't try to block your punches.) But knockouts are dramatic, and they don't require judges to decide matches. Olympic boxing, for instance, has never recovered from the ludicrous split decision Seoul in 1988 in favor of the hometown Korean over the great Roy Jones Jr.