This is a guest piece written by Tom Grant.
The UFC's historic deal with Fox Sports has cause those at Zuffa to begin reevaluated some of their production effects. One production mainstay that is getting the axe is the Gladiator Man Intro.
The video depicted a man dressing himself in a rather generic Roman Gladiator costume, preparing to enter the arena. Introduced by Zuffa in the early 2000s, the video was a clear play on the popularity of the Riddley Scott film Gladiator. The actor in the video even rubs his hands in dirt before entering the arena, similar to Russell Crowe's character in the film. Many are glad to see this intro go, seeing it as an unwelcome reminder of the sports checkered past. Critics often decried the early UFC as being akin to Gladiator combat. As a farewell to Gladiator man, this article will take an honest look at the games of Ancient Rome, and how the compare to modern sport.
First and foremost, who where these men (and sometimes women) that fought and died for entertainment?
(Ancient fan depiction of Gladiatorial combat)
The answer is simple: slaves. The gladiatorial games started out as a funeral rite, where the deceased slaves would fight the death in honor of their owner's passing. They were wildly popular and over time bean to be held as events in their own right and the gladiatorial games were born. The games would become so popular the Flavian Amphitheatre, now known as the Coliseum, was built to give the city of Rome the grandest stage on earth to hold the games.
Slaves continued to constitute the vast majority of gladiators until the games were banned in the later Empire. So this is the first key difference between the games and modern combat sports, today all participates are willing contestants. While there definite benefits to becoming a successful gladiator and some freemen that would sign up, the majority of gladiators would have preferred to never set foot into the arena. That said, victory brought with it riches, fame and, sometimes, freedom but the stakes were very high.
Games would be held at the expense of noblemen promoters, who would often use the games as tools in political campaigns. So as a result the games would often be free of charge, so there is a difference most modern fans wish was still true today. Gladiatorial games would be all day events, starting in the mornings with the beast hunts.
Romans had a great fascination for exotic animals, but instead of seeing them in zoos they liked to see those animals in action. Arenas would be filled with gazelle from Africa or bears from Northern Europe or any other creature from the vast Empire and then trained hunters would kill them for the crowd's amusement.
(A hunt at the games)
At noon the public executions would take place. In some cases the roles of the morning would be reversed and the beasts who spent all morning being hunted would get to hunt the prisoners. For more lively entertainment the condemned would be lightly armored and given a simple spear and faced with a lion, tiger or some other fierce beast. With no training and little armor, the prisoners stood little chance against a fully-grown tiger or lion, and if by some miracle they did survive another animal would be released to finish the job.
After the executions it was time for the main event, the Gladiator fights. Unlike combat sports today, there were no weight classes that separated fighters, in fact it was quite the opposite. Gladiators were grouped by size of the fighter and the equipment he used, it was meant to create interesting stylistic match ups.
The Murmillo was the heavyweight of gladiators; he wore heavy armor with padding underneath to absorb the shock of blows. They would wear a large, decorative helmet that limited their vision but gave them excellent protection. They carried a large, heavy rectangular shield and wielded the Roman stabling sword the gladius. They were picked for their imposing physical and size, imagine Todd Duffee in armor. Rather than match them with gladiators of similar size, the Romans wanted to see how the raw power and size of the Murmillo would do against the speed and agility of a smaller fighter.
Enter the Retiarius, one of the all time favorite Gladiators of Rome. If the Murmillo was the heavyweight, the Retiarius was a featherweight. Armed with a weighted net and trident, the ‘netfighter' was only armored on his lead arm and wore no helmet. A Ratiarius paired against a Murmillo would use his agility to stay out of reach, and try to danced around and make the larger man tire. He would throw the net to further slow the Murmillo and use the superior reach of his trident to keep the distance. The Murmillo would use his superior protect to close the distance and get the smaller man within reach of his sword.
This type of match up made the Romans salivate; the strategies and techniques involved would be watched and analyzed with all the reverence of modern NFL plays. For special occasions the Romans would dress gladiators as conquered peoples of Roman and reenact old battles or create match ups of different peoples. Who hasn't asked at some point in the life who would win between a Gual and Numdian? Or a Thracian and Samnite? At the Coliseum you could answer those questions.
When defeated and unable to continue, in place of tapping out, a gladiator would extend the index finger of his non-weapon hand straight up. (This signal continues to this day in modern sport fencing, as an acknowledgment of a point against.) At this point the fight would stop and the victor would look to the patron of games, or the Emperor if he was present, for a decision on the loser.
Contrary to Hollywood, the signal for death was an upward thrust of thumb, normally directed at the throat to signal the coup de gras. A thumb down would mean put your sword away and the loser would live. Also contrary to popular belief it was uncommon for a gladiator who survived to the end of the fight to be killed at this point. The training and promoting of slaves was just too much of an investment to throw them away in such a fashion.
The Roman noblemen understood the basics of promotion and it made no sense to kill off popular or profitable fighters. Imagine if Muhammad Ali had been put to death after his first loss to Joe Frazier or if Randy Couture had been allowed to kill Chuck Liddell after his win. Fight fans would have denied classic fighters and promoters would have lost big money.
To that same end, gladiators receiver excellent medical care. Roman's grasp of medical practices would be the best the western world would see until the modern day and gladiator owners would pay top dollar to keep their best alive. The results are seen in the remains of gladiators; anthropologists find evidence of multiple non-fatal wounds that were healed in a way to keep gladiators from being crippled. This is much like today with sports leagues providing the modern athlete with top-notch health care and health insurance.
("Pollice Verso" or "Turned Thumb" by Jean-Léon Gérôme)
With that said, the death at the games would have been substantial, and many question why the Roman's reveled in it so much. The answer is simple; the Romans were a militaristic society. For much of the Roman Republic, military service was required of male citizens from their late teens to mid-thirties. Fighting and death was part of being a man in Rome and the gladiatorial games provided a way of teaching young Roman boys what was expected of them in battle. Much like Pop Warner Quarterbacks looking to Tom Brady or Michael Vick as examples of how to play football.
The gladiators had a connection with the military in Rome, much like modern MMA fighters sharing connections with the U.S. military.
The Roman Legion, was the premier army of its day. Composed primary of heavy infantry the Roman Legionary was primarily a sword fighter. Legion started out as a simple levy, but by the late Republic it became an army of professional soldiers.
Roman swordsmanship was based around the short sword the gladius, which was paired with armor and a large rectangular shield. The Romans would come forward tucked in behind their shields and would stab enemies with short, professional thrusts. It was close combat at its most brutal and to survive Legionaries had to be masters of covering themselves while they attack and creating openings for their attacks.
(Skip to 2:20)
While the Romans fought in formation and as an organized army, each Legionary was spaced a few feet apart and was individually responsible for the enemies directly in front of them. Imagine a cone in front of each solider, while they would overlap a bit, there was a patch of land that was the sole responsibility of a single legionary.
To help instruct new recruits in strategies to deal with enemies with various skills and equipment, the Legion would bring in gladiators, who were experts in individual combat. In fact the name "Gladiator" was a tribute to their expertise with the gladius, the sword of the Legionary.
In the 1990s the United States Army brought in the Gracie family, fresh off their victories in the newly birthed UFC to instruct soldiers in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, establishing an exchange of knowledge with both the Gracie family and the UFC that continues to this day for the U.S. Armed Forces.
While similarities exist between the games of Rome and modern sports, especially combat sports, the comparisons are really only skin deep. Despite all the healthcare and lower than assumed mortality, the fact of the matter is that death was huge part of gladiatorial games. Men and women were sent in to fight with spears, swords and many other weapons until one was too wounded to continue, the goal was never one of sporting accomplishment. There were no championship belts, no title defenses and no contenders, rather it was purely for entertainment.
Anyone who realistically tries to compare the Gladiators of Rome to modern fighters is simply being asinine. Two consenting adults entering into a regulated and sanctioned sporting event with a referee cannot be realistically compared to the combat that took place on the sands on the Coliseum. Concerns over concussions and an extra shot after the bell seem like minor things when put next to spilled intestines and severed limbs.
That is not to demean the problems faced by modern athletes, but rather to highlight the level of violence that took place in Rome. The comparison is just one that is apt to make as either a way to promote the sport or try to tear it down, to do so is an affront the memory of all those who actually died for other's entertainment.