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Combat Sports Fight Their Way to Cable

Pasadena, Calif.— The scene: Two martial arts boxers are leveling violent straight leg kicks, thundering left hooks and powerful elbow shots to the midsection and gloves of a thankfully well-padded trainer. The crowd of often-jaded television critics applauds after the demonstration as one of the now-glistening fighters explains the commitment, sacrifice — and, often, pain — associated with becoming a successful Muay Thai fighter.

Most people would guess that such a scenario would have come out of ESPN’s summer Television Critics Association Tour presentation last week. But the fact that the fisticuffs exhibition originated during the session belonging to female-oriented network Oxygen says all you need to know about the rising popularity of combat-sports programming on television.

Once relegated to the fringe hours on sports networks like ESPN2 and FSN, ring sports like boxing, kickboxing and combat sports are kicking their way back into primetime, bringing with them a loyal and often rabid audience of young viewers, both male and female.

And while live Ultimate Fighting Championship events and Oscar De La Hoya boxing matches continue to draw hard-core sports fans to the boob tube through pay-per-view and premium networks like Home Box Office and Showtime, it’s fight-based reality series like Spike TV’s Ultimate Fighter, Oxygen’s upcoming special Fight Girls and even National Geographic Channel’s science-based special Fight Science that are helping to draw more eyeballs to the genre and getting consumers to vigorously exercise their all-important remote control-pushing thumb muscle.

Even ESPN will try to give the combat-reality genre a punch in the Nielsen ratings with the resurrection of boxing show The Contender, which was initially knocked out of NBC’s lineup last year due to poor viewership.

But why are viewers so eager to watch their fellow Homo sapiens smack each other around in the ring, inflicting untold pain, bloody noses and the occasional broken bone, all in the arguably barbaric pursuit of beating your opponent into submission? Part of the reason is that young viewers have been watching such athletic violence on television for years — through video games. Those young kids weaned on the cyber butt kicking exploits of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft and other violent, nonstop-action PlayStation video game characters in the late 1980s and early 1990s are now the most voracious consumers of this new generation of combat sports events.

In fact, you could probably fit the number of 40-and-over attendees of a live UFC event in one small section of a sold out arena.

Concurrently, these same young viewers grew up on a heavy dose of reality programming, from The Real World to The Surreal Life. Add the two combustible genres together and it’s no surprise why shows like the recently completed fourth season of Spike TV’s Ultimate Fighter series increased its viewing among males 18 to 34 by an astounding 445% during its Thursday 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. time slot, compared to the same period last year.

Oxygen this August is also hoping to draw younger female audiences to its squared ring with Fight Girls. The show matches three American female fighters trained by renowned Muay Thai guru against fighters from around the world competing for the World Muay Thai Championship.

Oxygen Media president of programming and marketing Debby Beece says the appeal of the show goes beyond the physical abilities of the athletes and the action in the ring. It also gets into the psychology behind why people, particularly women, decide to take up such a violent pastime, she said.

“Younger women are huge martial arts enthusiasts; the sport is growing in all varieties,” she said. “It also has a Karate Kid feel — it’s as much about the journey as it is about the fighting.”

It seems the journey is just beginning for the combat sports genre on cable. HBO has said it may develop a reality series that follows a boxer as he trains for a championship fight. Former UFC founder Robert Meyrowitz is pitching a new combat sports-themed reality competition show in which the finale would be aired live on PPV.

As for live events, OLN will team with longtime boxing promotion outfit Top Rank Inc. to create a weekly boxing series.

If the combat-sports genre continues to thrive, it’s only natural that TV critics will be treated to more martial arts exhibitions at future TCA Tour stops, which wouldn’t be all that bad. I mean, there are worst things in the world — like listening to Shannen Doherty pitch another reality show.