As infuriated as mixed martial arts enthusiasts might get upon hearing MMA referred to simply as UFC (cough-Yahoo Sports website-cough), we must admit the even more derogatory term is "cage fighting".
Cage fighting denotes barbarism, an animalistic contest that can only be contained by a fence of chicken wire. It can easily be assumed that in the 1990s John McCain railed against "cage fighting" rather than mixed martial arts, a term uncommon until the UFC’s ascension in the mid-2000s.
Although the Octagon that has been the defining feature of the UFC since its inception in 1993 is truly the most prominent symbol of MMA in North America, it is much less so on the international fight scene. Across the Pacific Ocean, the legendary white ring of Pride Fighting Championships set the tone, with major players DREAM, Sengoku, DEEP, and SHOOTO all following suit with its use.
The squared ring has been proven the quintessential combat platform, with boxing’s long tradition making it ubiquitous and even K-1 and other kickboxing outfits reestablishing it as ideal for modern striking. But with the advent of mixed martial arts, combat arenas had to take grappling into account; wrestlers, judoka, and jiu-jitsu players would all be factors in this new sport. Thus, the necessity for a more enclosed area arose and the nascent UFC’s answer was the Octagon: sheets of chicken wire wrapped around eight padded poles.
But with this new arena came baggage: the images—however unrelated—of chicken fights, dogfights, back alley brawls and escaped convicts went unrestrained until Zuffa and Dana White arrived on the scene to begin the streamlining of MMA. The first time I saw it, I believe on an Outside the Lines special when I was very young, I immediately thought of the Bob's Country Bunker scene from "Blues Brothers". These things are a stigma still attached to the sport in the minds of some, and it will likely never be shaken.
As the sport grows, the question exists: how much will this integral part of MMA hinder the development of a mainstream following? Older generations are so conditioned to watching fight sports in the squared ring, and even professional wrestling, that simply having the matches between ropes and turnbuckles might make it "more acceptable." But take away the cage and gone is not only the best fighting enclosure known to the sport, but also the signature image of the UFC.