Face swollen and body battered, 43-year-old Randy Couture delivered an improbable victory speech on the heels of his Ultimate Fighting Championship title bout last spring. Captain America, as he is widely known, declared his allegiance to "Jesus Christ, who stood up and died for our sins."
Unlike the post-game deference to God common among Christian football or basketball stars, Couture's statement of faith hailed from a stage many Christians consider unsavory. UFC is the world's leading purveyor of mixed martial arts, a bloody and brutal sport that combines wide-ranging fighting styles from kickboxing to jujitsu to Greco-Roman wrestling.
This month, the cable television network Spike TV debuts season 6 of its reality show The Ultimate Fighter, which has helped launch the once fledgling sport into the mainstream. Just two years ago, UFC's pay-per-view offerings garnered few more than 100,000 buys. But in 2006, the UFC drew more than a million customers for one event and broke the pay-per-view industry's all-time record for a single year of revenue with $222,766,000.
The re-emergence of Couture out of retirement has helped the young industry continue its rapid climb this year. In May, UFC purchased its top rival PRIDE, uniting the world's best fighters under one parent organization and generating further appeal. Some analysts predict mixed martial arts will soon topple boxing as the premier sport of hand-to-hand combat.
The fights' attraction among young males, including teenagers, is particularly strong, pressing many parents to wrestle with the ethics and morality of the blood sport. Couture's outspoken Christianity adds intrigue to that dynamic. And he is hardly the only mixed martial artist to profess faith in Christ: Big names like Matt Hughes, Rich Franklin, Diego Sanchez, and Anderson Silva are among the considerable number of ultimate fighters who use their public platform to share Christian testimonies.
Hughes posts Philippians 4:13 at the top of his website and tells the story of his religious conversion on his bio page. His weekly updated blog features regular posts about evangelism and day-to-day Christian living.
Franklin likewise greets web visitors with a Bible verse: "Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight." The former high-school math teacher is a thoughtful and articulate defender of his profession and helped create the Keep It in the Ring Foundation, which raises money and awareness to fight youth and domestic violence. Earlier this year, Franklin lent his celebrity to the opening-day festivities of Ken Ham's new Creation Museum in northern Kentucky.
But the involvement of such men does nothing to alter the sport's celebration of brutality-and little to stem the surrounding controversy. When first shown video of the action in 1996, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) famously condemned it as "human cockfighting" and wrote letters to all 50 governors seeking statewide bans. That campaign succeeded in pushing 36 states to outlaw "no-holds-barred" fights, which, in turn, prompted UFC to enact stricter rules.
Some mixed martial arts fans now credit McCain for sparking new regulations and unwittingly increasing the sport's mainstream demand. UFC fights no longer allow kicks to a downed opponent, eye-gouging, hair-pulling, or strikes to the groin, spine, or back of the head. Competitors must also wear thinly padded fingerless gloves, which provide some cushion for fist-to-face punches.
Supporters insist that mixed martial arts is safer than boxing since the lack of large padded gloves prevents fighters from delivering repeated blows to the head. Margaret Goodman, a longtime ringside physician for boxing bouts in Las Vegas, agrees with that analysis. She argues that while ultimate fighting generates more cuts, which look grotesque, the damage pales in comparison to 10 rounds of taking shots to the head.
Of course, favorable comparisons to boxing offer little solace for those who condemn violent sports categorically.
"Young people need discipline in their lives, and mixed martial arts gives them exactly that."
-Jason Barrett, British mixed martial artist and Pentecostal preacher
"My three young sons and I enjoy watching Ultimate Fighting in conjunction with our Old Testament Bible studies."
-Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle and outspoken fan of mixed martial arts
"I view mixed martial arts just like another form of competition. I am not out there to try to hurt my opponent. I don't go out there angry. I don't try to maim him or something. I just go out there and try to win."
-Ron Waterman, ultimate fighter and preacher with the evangelical ministry Team Impact
"I always pray that God's will is done before a fight and, as long as that's done, I'm happy and I'll definitely fight again. Even with a loss, I can't be anything but thankful for all that God has done in my life."
-Matt Hughes, nine-time UFC world title holder and committed Christian
"This kind of competition hardly constitutes a sport. The days of gladiator fights are over, and we should not be looking to resurrect them."
-Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics for the British Medical Association, which is seeking to ban mixed martial arts in the UK