THERE NEVER was a burning bush moment, or a celestial voice whispering in their ears. For two very influential older converts to the church of mixed martial arts, the revelation was gradual, like the changing of the seasons. To tell the truth, it sort of sneaked up on them.
"Joe Jr. and then Joey Jones [the sales manager of Joe Hand Promotions] got into this before I did," Feasterville's Joe Hand Sr., the national closed-circuit distributor for boxing and UFC events, said of his introduction to mixed martial arts. "I was the last one to come aboard."
Hand formally entered boxing, that most traditional of combat sports, in 1964, as one of the original investors in Cloverlay, the consortium that backed the early portion of future heavyweight champion Joe Frazier's professional career. The former Philadelphia police officer went on to become the closed-circuit distributor of major boxing cards, first locally and then nationally, and he acknowledged being initially resistant to a new idea, a new love. But, well, things change. Sometimes it is possible to teach an old dog a new trick.
Hand, 72, still sells boxing's bigger fights to about 40 sports bars and restaurants in the Delaware Valley, and up to 3,500 nationwide and in American territories as far-flung as Guam. But, increasingly, boxing constitutes a smaller portion of his business, and UFC makes up for, and surpasses, whatever he has lost in boxing.
"Over the course of a year, we might do three big boxing matches, tops," Hand said. "UFC is running every month. And a year in advance, I know the date and site of those shows.
"When I go to sell [UFC] in a bar or a restaurant, they understand they're going to get 3 hours of entertainment. Every fight is a great fight. Most boxing promoters, they'll put on a good main event. But you might not find out who's on the undercard until the last minute, and then it's usually junk. The undercard is not important to them."
Hand might have arrived late to the mixed martial arts party, with most guests in the coveted 18- to 34-year-old male demographic, but he is now having the time of his life. And he thinks UFC 101, set for Saturday night at the Wachovia Center, signifies a sea change that could cement MMA's recognition as the foremost combat sport. Although UFC, which is far and away the most dominant of the MMA promotional companies, has a presence in Europe, UFC 101 represents the Las Vegas-based company's farthest penetration east in this country.
Forty states have sanctioned MMA and, if the lobbying efforts of Marc Ratner, UFC's highly respected vice president of regulatory affairs, are successful, Massachusetts and New York will soon enter the fold.
"People ask, 'Do you think UFC will kill boxing?' " Hand said. "It already has. Boxing's dead.
"Look, the next [Floyd] Mayweather fight [Sept. 19, against Juan Manuel Marquez] is the same night as UFC 103. Does that make any sense?
"If you own a sports bar and you can buy a UFC event for $1,000, and you know you're going to pack the place, why would you buy the Mayweather fight for $2,200 and not do as well?"
Ratner, 64, former executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission who left that high-visibility post to join UFC in May 2006, isn't quite as down on boxing, despite its penchant for shooting itself in the foot. Ratner loves all sports, filling in what spare time he has by being an assistant replay official for Mountain West Conference football games and shot-clock operator for Nevada-Las Vegas basketball games.
"Dana [White, UFC president] and Lorenzo [Fertitta, UFC chief executive officer] love boxing as much as I do," Ratner said. "We're all big fans. I still go to as many fights as I can. They're different sports, but there's plenty of room for both. There's a misconception that Dana is out to hurt boxing. All he's ever said is that boxing's business model is skewed."
Ratner noted that, like Hand, his conversion to MMA took time.
"I had seen MMA on film, but the first card I actually saw in person was in September 2001," he said, recalling an event his office was responsible for regulating. "Tito Ortiz was in the main event.
"One of the things I remember quite vividly was that there were long lines to get into the arena at 4 p.m., for a show that wouldn't begin for hours. You never see that in boxing. I also remember that every fight was competitive and exciting."
Eight years ago, MMA still was widely considered something of a disreputable activity, having been derided in the 1990s by Arizona Sen. John McCain as "human cockfighting." White knew UFC would have to clean up that no-holds-barred, anything-goes image if the sport was to flourish, and, toward that end, he and Fertitta, a former member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, targeted Ratner as the guy who could facilitate the transformation.
"He's meant a lot," White said of Ratner's addition to UFC. "The crazy thing about boxing is that everybody hates everybody, but Marc is maybe the most respected man I've ever met. It's very hard to find anybody who has a bad thing to say about him.
"He loves boxing and he loves mixed martial arts. He's helped build both industries. Just an amazing human being."
So what persuaded Ratner to switch churches, so to speak, or at least to move to a different pew?
"I had the best regulatory job in the world," he said of his gig with the NSAC. "Coming to UFC was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. But what intrigued me was the chance to get in on the ground floor of a new, exciting sport."
Even Ratner, though, said MMA's skyrocketing popularity surprised him.
"I can't say I saw it happening this fast," he said. "When I came over 3 years ago, I could see the excitement of the crowds, but I didn't realize how big it was going to become."
Hand can relate. He sold his first UFC closed-circuit telecast to "maybe 40 locations" in 2001, when MMA was still more of a novelty attraction than a phenomenon.
"It's shocking, how far the sport has come," Hand said. "But, then, I've been shocked all along." I