Remember the first couple of UFC events? They remain my favorites, as for the first time you had a televised event with traditionally trained martial arts purists facing each other on neutral ground. No more talking about how the superior ‘Eagle Claw’ style would rip out hearts, or how the ‘Dim Mak’ strike would immobilize any opponent. It was time to put your gloves where your mouthguard was. And boy, was it showtime.
In a few short matches, the martial arts world was given a collective ice bucket wake-up call and the legendary black belt turned out to be just that – a belt, with the color black. It was clear that many of the traditional martial arts had flaws that were readily exploited by the more pragmatic styles like Muay Thai (Thaiboxing) and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and as a response the hybrid style of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) exploded in popularity.
Fast forward two decades, and every event is largely the same; two MMA fighters facing each other, both trained in the same tried-and-tested repertoire of grappling and striking techniques. Frankly, it’s boring me to tears. That said, I appreciate what events like UFC provides – a pragmatic testing ground with agnostic rules that allows for sports-oriented martial artists to try their mettle.
Now, Australian-based Unified Weapons Master (UWM) intends to provide a similar arena for any and all martial arts that use weapons. The European longsword will face the iconic Katana, the arsenal of Kung Fu styles will be pitted against the deadly arms of Escrima, and so on and so forth. This is made possible without anyone dying by way of the ‘Lorica’, an armored suit that uses sensors to track hits, impact force, “damage” taken etc. Once enough calculated damage has been sustained, the fighter is considered defeated and the match is over.
The concept – the idea of a weapons-based equivalent of UFC is wildly exciting to me. Not only do I wish for this venture to be successful, I am sorely tempted to try out to participate! Having trained in various martial arts since my teenage years, I have grown into a massive weapons fan. Handling a weapon is vastly different from just using you arms and feet, and every type of weapon has its own character. So not only am I interested in the sport, I’m also tempted by its challenge.
The market – As I see it, UWM is in a very advantageous position; it is fundamentally different from UFC and so it brings it own attraction value, but can still learn from the more established MMA giant. Ideally, UWM could attract attention both from the MMA crowd as well as those who have little interest in the empty-hand fights.
The new frontier – As the newcomer, UWM can also experiment with the variables; different rules, categories (polearms vs dual-wielded weapons, for example), varying arena formations, and so on. One easy example would be the tilted, concave arena from the movie Bloodsport. Or why not take a page from the gladiators and re-create duels from history or movies? Or incorporate throwing and/or projectile weapons? Team battles! Ok, I’ll calm down now…
The weapons – From what can be seen from the weapons, things look decent. Although they are blunt versions of the original pieces and look a bit toy-like, they are still closer to their authentic origins. In other words, no one will be wielding video game replicas like the Buster Sword or the Chaos Eater (not for long anyway, as they would weigh a ton).
The data – it also seems that UWM wants to position itself as the ‘thinking man’s MMA’, by bringing a wealth of data, metrics and quantitative measurements. Every fighter will have a health bar that, when depleted, signals the end of the fight. This could be good in the sense that it encourages the audience to consider the properties of each weapon and the techniques being used, and give a deeper appreciation of the strategies in play for each fight. After all, clashing with weapons is a whole ‘nother ballgame compared to empty-hand fights.
Now that it’s clear how big a fan I am of the concept, let’s throw a gander at what I perceive to be UWM’s risks and hazards.
The naming – UWM. Yuu-double-yuu-emm. It doesn’t quite roll off your tongue, does it? Methinks it’s the W that ruins it. The complete name is not much catchier; Unified Weapons Master. I’m no expert on these matters but if yours truly find this naming and acronym somewhat lackluster, then I wouldn’t be surprised if your average Joe feels the same. If I was in the marketing department, I would consider alternatives that have a better rhythm to them.
The logo – as seen above, it shows the acronym in grey with a red slashing line across it. I don’t have a major problem with this, but there is no greatness either. Considering that the logo is a critical part of the marketing face to the world and would appear on the organisation’s every event, ad piece and merchandise, I would hire a consultant that specializes on logos only. First impression goes a long way.
The armour – although this would be one of the distinguishing features of UWM, it also makes me a bit doubtful. Firstly, it makes everyone look like the Autobot ‘Hound‘. Ideally, I’d like to see armour that gives a variety in appearance. Different shapes and designs to parts, paint jobs, personal insignias or crests and custom details (e.g. a helmet with a crest à la 300) would be ways to provide more individuality. Secondly, the suit weighs about 25kg. My hope is that they will find a way to alter the weight – that way, the armour can actually function like armour. Let fighters go with the full weight for added damage reduction, or select the lighter model that offers less protection but allows for more speed and maneuverability.
The graphics – The organizers also claim that they will be able to use CGI to portray how the hits would’ve affected the combatants if sharp weapons would’ve been used, and apparently also show different CGI arena backgrounds. This is a good concept, but lives or dies with its execution. If the graphics look shoddy it will be more of a turn-off than a crowd pleaser. On the other hand, if you are able to manage high quality CGI, how will you pull off instant replays based on what took place just seconds ago in the arena? But who knows, maybe the live event will be showing rudimentary simulations and the broadcasted playback will have more flashy animations.
The experience – So, each fighter has a healthbar. Every helmet also has a built-in camera, so that fans can experience the duel in First Person View. Smells to me like they want to attract the gamer crowd. Which makes sense, considering profitable games like Tekken and Call of Duty. But the main appeal with MMA, boxing, muay thai and other contact sports is that it’s the real deal. You see the stunned face as the punch connects, you grimace when a solid low kick jars the opponent. From what I understand, the Lorica armor is heavily padded to provide security and, you know, not have fighters become paralyzed from a direct hit to the neck. Watch the video below, where someone wearing the Lorica suit gets whacked several times with no effect. If there is no risk of personal injury, what would stop fighters from just going toe-to-toe until someone has run out hit points? Where is the strategy if you keep hitting the same area, say, his sword arm, but he can still wield his weapon without difficulty? And lastly, if there is never a real knock out, how long can these events keep viewer interest?
UWM has a lot of good things going for it, but also faces some serious challenges in how they are going to realize their vision. As things are right now, I feel like the safety concern is hampering the entertainment value – and as a spectator sport, the ability to entertain will be key to success. Have a look at this clip from a Longsword tournament, where the competitors are using steel weapons but much less protection.
As much as I appreciate Kung Fu, my personal prediction would be that the Filipino Martial Arts like Escrima/Arnis will initially crush the opposition, much like the Gracie family showed the world just how valuable grapplings skills are. But, much like how MMA emerged, other weapon based styles will take heed of the factual results and rise to the task. If, that is, UWM turns out to be successful in realising their vision in a way that appeals both to fighers and the public alike.
But for now, I’ll be drilling and practicing at my school while I wait for the call to arms to sound. For Glory!
Hungry for more? UWM has a dedicated website at uwm.tv, and can also be found on Facebook. You can also sign up for their ‘Gladiator’ program, which gives you access to VIP tickets, merchandise discounts etc etc.