Growing up, I only saw boxing on HBO. With Mike Tyson the premier fighter, it was usually over fast. Anything that wasn't seems sanitized in low-definition hindsight. That changed the first time I saw a bout fought live. In headgear.
It was in February 1997, inside Goettge Memorial Fieldhouse aboard Camp Lejeune at The Armed Forces Boxing Championships. I was sports editor of The Daily News in Jacksonville, N.C., and when the night's card came through the fax, one of the title bouts featured a Lejeune Marine against a seaman. I figured it was something to go see for myself. I ended up seeing what my boss and I later called The Thing In The Ring.
The fight was over early, decided, as I recall it, when the Marine fired out a set of almost unconscious rapid fire lefts into the sailor's face, stunning him. Then an absolute missile of a right hand obliterated his eye socket and sent a spray of blood onto the press table and my notebook. I circled the droplets while the crowd leaped to its feet, roiling with a positively primal bloodlust. But the mist was so fine, I remember thinking they couldn't have been reacting to its sight, but its smell.
The referee immediately stopped the fight as the Marine crowd roared with triumph. Later, I asked the newly minted all-military champ about that four-punch combination. "Oh, this?" he said, mimicking the three jabs. "The thing?" At the critical moment, both boxer and crowd were in a perfect synchronization of pure, lizard-brain instinct.
Today's sports conversation may be dominated by the hitting of professional football and the concussions that result, and the relentless violence of mixed martial arts. But boxing is and always has been a far more brutal sport. Since Duk Koo Kim's notorious death in the ring against Ray Mancini in 1982, which resulted in shortening title fights from 15 to 12 rounds and other reforms, there still have been more than two dozen deaths on U.S. soil attributed to in-the-ring injuries, compared to just two for sanctioned MMA bouts.
So it hardly surprises me that Fight Night Champion, the fifth iteration of EA Sports' award-winning boxing series, will become the first licensed sports title to be rated M for Mature. The sport has well earned adult treatment, and EA Sports isn't waiting for the scorecard from the ESRB judges. Early screenshots of Champion show Manny Pacquiao with swollen eyes, almost dressed in ribbons of blood. The game's debut trailer tips off the grittier, rawer presentation, and Nate Ahearn's early preview for IGN speaks of a mode with a bare-knuckled prison-yard brawl kicking off a documentary-style tour of your fighter's career.
It is not the first sports game to be rated M. The football game Blitz: The League and its sequel, capitalizing on the fascination with football's seedier aspects, presented a game with graphic injury, illicit sex and steroid use. Though its first offering was critically well received, Blitz: The League wasn't licensed by any team or sports league and none of its on-field personnel were from real life. Fight Night Champion, if the Pacquiao screens are any indication, will feature the regular stable of legends and current stars that we've seen over the previous four versions.
But why now? And why this game, and not EA Sports MMA, or UFC Undisputed? EA Sports MMA, after all, features exotic rule variants that allow for standing "soccer-style" kicks to the head on a downed opponent; in an online bout a month ago, developers pointed out for me the blood transfer from a suffering opponent to the canvas and to my fighter. As a spectacle, MMA seems profoundly more violent than boxing, a fists-only combat sport using heavier gloves.
The answer's simple: MMA's audience is younger and has a higher growth potential - especially considering there have been just three titles on the current console generation, all since 2009. EA Sports isn't going to hamstring sales potential by cutting it off from teenagers. Further, Zuffa LLC, the owner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship brand, has a property to protect. It, like any sports league licensing a video game, is not going to lend its name to any presentations that magnify its controversies, embarrassments, or mainstream flaws.
Boxing's longstanding, promotion-by-promotion structure puts the sport completely outside of that. It's not a league controlled by a single entity, whereas UFC has emerged as the dominant authority over a new sport. Boxing is governed by state and national athletics commissions, and an alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies that confer championships. But the actual events are staged through a contract-by-contract, sometimes fight-by-fight basis comprising promoters, boxers and their agents. Indeed, there are no named world boxing authorities in Fight Night, and it doesn't suffer for the lack of the affiliation.
And so Fight Night Champion's grittier, narrative storyline not only reflects on no real-world fighter, it reflects on no real-world business. Even a created player in NBA 2K11's My Player mode, which also introduced role playing elements, will still, in some way, represent the NBA by playing for one of its teams. So the plot devices and story structure in that game still had to meet the famously exacting approval process of that league.
Fight Night Champion dipping its toe into M-rated territory is not without self-interest, either. EA Sports has likely done extensive research on its user base and knows it either won't lose much to restricted sales or, candidly, there will still be enough parents who don't find boxing nearly as objectionable as Mortal Kombat, whatever's going on in the game.
The truth is that boxing is a well established, largely static sport and after four video game iterations, its history has been plumbed and its current narrative isn't as compelling to casual fans. And so if EA Sports MMA is The Karate Kid, Fight Night Champion will now be Raging Bull. It is a bold and nearly unprecedented step for a sports property this visible. But it is one that makes a ton of sense, especially business sense, and represents a natural evolution in the genre.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays at 2 p.m. U.S. Mountain time.