Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was in crisis back in 1997. Branded “human cockfighting” by Senator John McCain the previous year and banned in 36 states, the sport that once prided itself on having “no rules” found itself forced to tone down for the sake of palatability. As it struggled to find its footing, it found an unlikely partner in a show that was just finding its own: “Friends.”
Following a delightful and apparently ad-libbed cameo from Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, the episode branches into three narratives. In one, Chandler struggles with his new boss’s fondness for slapping his ass. In another, Rachel agonizes over ex-boyfriend Ross’ burgeoning relationship with far-hotter-than-expected newcomer Bonnie. In the third, Monica faces her own relationship issues when millionaire boyfriend Pete Becker, played by future “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau, decides to join UFC.
Yeah, they don’t really strain themselves to come up with a justification. I’ve found that “rich dudes are weird” is a pretty realistic explanation, though.
When talking about “The Simpsons’” failure to make something funny out of a naturally funny sport, I noted that many of that episode’s issues were rooted in its unwillingness to engage with mixed martial arts (MMA) beyond the surface level. “Friends” at least makes the effort; then-badass Tank Abbott and a handsome young Bruce Buffer appear as themselves and Joey accurately reveals that the only banned attacks are eye-gouging and fish-hooking. MMA isn’t treated like a sideshow for brain-dead, violence-obsessed degenerates, and the jokes at its expense never feel more mean-spirited than the jabs at other sports.
Sure, Abbott defeats Becker by standing on his neck until he passes out, but that was legal at the time.
It also helps that, unlike “The Great Wife Hope,” the UFC subplot is actually pretty funny. From Becker’s trainer forbidding “boom-boom” ahead of the fight to Becker himself proudly wearing his gi and white belt into the cage, there are enough solid visual and writing gags to make it worth a watch.
As an aside, Becker should take it as a mark of honor that he was one of the last Ultimate Fighters to get his testicles mangled during the credits gag — the organization would ban groin strikes just a few months later … thankfully.