When men look to prove themselves, to show the world that nobody is tougher, meaner or more determined, there are only two places to go if you're serious about establishing your bonafides.
Either you step into the UFC's Octagon, stripped to the waist, nothing but you and another man who wants to rip you to pieces, or you strap on the pads and cleats, find 10 other tough guys and enter the killing fields of the gridiron.
They are the two manliest of all sports, the alpha dogs of this glistening age of televised extravaganzas. If baseball is your grandfather, comfortable in his study reading Hemingway and drinking port, the UFC is a slightly off-kilter younger cousin, hopped up on Red Bull and God knows what else. Football is your cool uncle, the one with the Corvette and a little bit of a drinking problem. Edgy, but in the way stock brokers are edgy—dangerous, but with a corporate sheen.
Which is tougher? That's a question that has been central to many late-night conversations at the bar, a question I was determined to answer. Of course, I was entirely the wrong guy for the job. I didn't want to participate in either sport. I prefer the more comfortable role of the chronicler, the ink-stained scribe who seeks only to pass on stories of other men's triumphs and failures.
In other words, the wimp.
In truth, few men have the expertise to compare the two sports. Only a handful have competed in both at the highest levels, and of those, none was willing to say anything to make either sport look bad.
It was agreed, across the board, that both sports' athletes had a lot of respect for their counterparts. That no one need apply to compete in either without a serious set of cajones.
But which was tougher? The answer was tricky. Both, it seems, but in their own way.
Herschel Walker is a football legend. The former Dallas Cowboy was so good at one point, such a gifted athlete, that the Minnesota Vikings essentially traded their whole team for the former University of Georgia running back.
That didn't work out so well for the Purple People Eaters (a nickname that desperately needs to make a vernacular comeback, by the way), but after his playing days were done, Walker turned out to be a knight in shining armor for the misunderstood sport of mixed martial arts. Competing in his late 40s for Strikeforce, Walker became one of MMA's leading advocates, telling an eager press corps that football was actually the more violent of the two competitions.
"People see the blood on the mat and assume MMA is more violent," Walker told Bleacher Report. "I think the NFL is. In the NFL you get hit, you get concussions, and go right back out there. In the cage, if you get knocked out or hurt, they stop the fight."
The pressure, however, is tougher in the Octagon. Although there may be brighter lights shining on NFL stars, most are shielded by their teammates and coaches, just cogs in a machine that needs everyone to perform to succeed. In the UFC, according to Walker, there is no place to hide. It's just you and your performance.
"When you play football, you can make a mistake," Walker said. "Hopefully when you do, a teammate covers for you, that quarterback or that offensive lineman. When you step into the cage, it's all you. You had better be on your P's and Q's and you better have put your time in at the gym. You had better be ready."
Current Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray agrees that the pounding in football is extreme, especially for a player with the ball—someone who can't devote his thoughts to protecting himself, choosing to take care of the pigskin first, his body second, if at all. Murray will take the hits for his team, a lunatic warrior ready to sacrifice it all in the name of victory, but if you ask him to step into the cage, you'll get nothing but a crazy look
"I just think it's all mental. Like me, I wouldn't ever want to get into a ring and fight a guy. That's just not my style," Murray said. "I wouldn't say I'm not man enough to do it, I'd just rather stick to the gridiron.
"Their training is hard. It's just like us—we get hit hard. I get hit by trucks. I'm getting hit by 350-pound guys. And they're getting knocked out. I think there is definitely a lot of similarities between the two sports."
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers first-round pick Marcus Jones played seven seasons in the league, racking up 13 sacks in 2000 and helping anchor one of the best defenses of the 1990s. He made the leap into MMA after injuries sacked his playing career by competing on the 10th season of The Ultimate Fighter.
To Jones, it's hard to compare the two competitions. First and foremost, he says, football is played in bursts of five seconds or less. If a play goes longer, it's probably a touchdown. He once told me that makes MMA's five-minute rounds a much more grueling proposition:
It's like this: football and MMA are such different sports it's like comparing apples and oranges...But the training aspect of MMA could help you in football. I think I would have been a better athlete if I had participated in MMA when I was in football. Just because MMA training is much harder. I'm not taking anything away from football, because I did it for a long time. It was like second nature to me. But in MMA the action is constant. You have to be ready for 15 minutes. A lot of people can't do that, man. If you watch tape of football, at the end of the fourth quarter when the offense is running that two minute drill, guys are getting tired because the action is quicker. And there's not that many plays. It's only two minutes. Imagine five minutes with no stopping.
Jones wasn't the only football player to realize that training in MMA could help improve his game. Fox broadcaster Jay Glazer has been an MMA evangelist, bringing the sport to offseason training programs all over the league. Tim Tebow has even made the plunge, although a guy like Murray, who's been following the sport since high school, might look at him as a complete newbie—another guy on the bandwagon he helped to start rolling.
"I try to implement some training in my regimen...I was doing a lot of work, just running around the ring and grappling," Murray said. "There's a lot of hand-eye coordination and it just works well for me as a running back. I just love the UFC. It's a great sport and a lot of credit to those guys—I definitely couldn't do what they do. Their work ethic is second to none."