Some people say they don’t like fighting, just as some people say they don’t like watches. But if you persuaded the most hardcore horology-denier to spend some time getting to know one or two of the lovely watches on the pages of this magazine, you can guarantee that sooner or later he would start to have warm feelings for them. Equally, if you think that you have no interest in combat sports, I challenge you to watch a few UFC fights. You may discover that you love it, or at the very least you will find it grimly fascinating. Because there is a bit of warrior in all of us.

Many of us like to think that we have evolved past our primitive instincts, but underneath the layers of morals and manners, we are still apes. And apes love a good scrap. But just because the instincts are primitive, it doesn’t mean that the fighting has to be. The martial arts have been evolving for thousands of years, and in the past quarter of a century there has been a revolution.

Fist Of Fury

Back in the 1980s, the whole world of martial arts was shrouded in mystique, and there were endless, unwinnable arguments about which style was best. Then everything changed. In 1993 there was a tournament in Denver, Colorado, in which men from different martial arts backgrounds were locked inside a cage and told to fight until one of them was no longer willing or able to continue. The advertisement promised that there would be no weight classes, no time limits and, most importantly, no rules.

Demetrious Johnson wearing his Breitling Navitimer

There were in fact some rules, but very few. They simply stated that you could not bite or eye-gouge. Beyond that, everything was fair game – headbutts, groin strikes, head-stomping, the lot. A standout moment among the bloody tear-ups was when a karate man booted a sumo wrestler in the head and sent his tooth flying through the cage and into the audience. This was the very first Ultimate Fighting Championship – the birth of the UFC.

The winner of the tournament was a skinny Brazilian called Royce Gracie. Rather than punching and kicking, Gracie would wrap bendy arms and legs around his bigger, stronger opponents, then slowly tighten his choking grip until they were forced to submit. The style was Brazilian jiu-jitsu and students of every other martial art were forced to admit that they had some catching up to do.

From then the sport of cage-fighting – or mixed martial arts (MMA) – began to take off around the world, with the UFC as the Formula 1 pinnacle, and below it countless lesser promotions, some of them with makeshift cages set up anywhere from village halls to strip clubs. Of course, not everybody approved. The sort of people who now spend their energy campaigning for university “safe spaces” said how ghastly MMA was and called for it to be banned, immediately.

They did not get their wish, but various amendments were made to the sport in the interests of safety. There are now weight categories, for example, so no more David vs Goliath battles. Also your opponent can no longer kick you in the head when you are on the ground, which is probably a good thing. And all groin strikes are banned, although a few still slip in “accidentally”.

Demetrious Johnson demonstrates the art of UFC
Floyd “Money” Mayweather

Last Man Standing

Rather than sticking to one style, today’s mixed martial artists are schooled in everything that works, combining the best elements of kickboxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu to make them the best fighters that mankind has ever produced. The skill levels are extraordinary. The idea that an MMA fight is two meatheads simply beating each other’s brains out is so far from the truth. The new breed of fighter is highly intelligent, with a team of trainers, nutritionists and physical therapists behind him.

As the fighters have changed, so has the audience. From those early days of videotapes being passed around, the sport is now big business, with the UFC being sold last year for $4 billion. The crossover star that stands above all others is the UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor. The fighting Irishman’s skills are supreme, with a left hand that can put a man to sleep with as little effort as a Vulcan. He also fights in a wide stance, with his hands held low, making misty-eyed fans think back to the days of the legendary Irish prizefighters of the 19th century.

It is not just McGregor’s fighting skills that make him the sport’s biggest draw. He is an expert in drumming up hype, using press conferences to verbally batter his opponents, giving the fights a vital sense of drama long before a punch is thrown. Even losing a fight last year did nothing to dent McGregor’s appeal. He accepted defeat with gentlemanly grace, trained hard and avenged his loss in an epic rematch.

Wrist Trophies

Being the UFC’s biggest star has brought McGregor many millions of dollars in prize money, pay-per-view shares and sponsorship, and the majestically inked former plumber loves to show that being a fighter doesn’t mean being seen out-and-about in sweaty gym gear. A lust for beautifully tailored suits is rivalled only by a serious and escalating habit of rewarding his success with wrist trophies.

Conor McGregor at a UFC press conference wearing the 60th Anniversary Rolex Day-Date

McGregor’s horological attraction is a visceral one, with the fighter saying in one interview that putting on a new watch takes him back to “the caveman days, when you’d kill an animal and you would take something and put it around your neck as a symbol of what you have done… When I have won a big fight and collect a big cheque, I’ll purchase a beautiful watch and I’ll put it on my left hand. My left hand that I have cracked on my opponent. That hand has got me my fill. It feels like I’ve earned it.”

He loves a Patek Philippe Nautilus, owning at least two, one in rose gold and one in two-tone stainless steel and rose gold. He has also been spotted wearing a gold Rolex Daytona with black dial and a 60th Anniversary Day-Date with green dial. But the Pateks and Rolexes look positively understated compared to McGregor’s fully kerching-blinged Hublot King Power Unico. He admits that the love of watches is “a damn good feeling, an addictive feeling… a feeling that I crave”.

And he is not the only UFC star to enjoy a nice watch – the flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson has been seen sporting a Breitling Navitimer and an AP Royal Oak Offshore and the middleweight champion Michael Bisping a black and gold Rolex Submariner. As the popularity of the sport soars, luxury companies – particularly watch companies – will be watching these fighters with interest. The watch world already has a toe in the water, with Perrelet signing a watch-sponsorship deal with One FC fighter Ariel “Tarzan” Sexton. It cannot be long before other watchmakers follow suit, although there will be understandable caution, given how recently the sport punched its way out of the murky shadows to become mainstream Saturday night entertainment.

Conor McGregor with his UFC Championship belt and a stone-set Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore

The Greatest

If there still is a bit of reticence among watch firms about getting involved in mixed martial arts, they might well consider the path that boxing took. In the pre-Muhammad Ali era, nobody would have considered associating their luxury products with the sport. But Ali, through his brilliance in and out of the ring, took boxing to an entirely new level of respectability. Certina placed a watch on Ali’s wrist in 1976, and the company is still bathed in the afterglow of The Greatest more than 40 years later. There are also numerous images of Ali wearing his Cartier Tank – not a timepiece one might immediately team up with a heavyweight champion.

Ali brought boxing into the mainstream, where it has stayed to this day – witnessed by Hublot deciding it was worth paying a reported $1million to put its name on Floyd Mayweather’s shorts. It would of course be sacrilege to compare anyone to Muhammad Ali. But with the appeal of Conor McGregor, along with the inherent marketability of a competition to find the very toughest people on the planet, means that the UFC is only going to get bigger.

In some ways the worlds of watches and fighting could not be more different. Compare the intricacies of a delicate watch being assembled with a man being knocked unconscious. But whilst the process of making watches is delicate, the end product needs to be tough, and what better way to emphasise this than by being strapped to the wrist of a fighter?

Both disciplines also suffer from being misunderstood. Some people do not appreciate all the mechanical genius that goes into making fine watches, seeing them as just shiny, expensive baubles. Just as some people do not understand that an MMA fighter is himself a piece of sophisticated machinery. One that just happens to be honed for the purpose of kicking the shit out of another man. The UFC may be brutal, but it is also brilliant. The warrior in you will love it.

Hublot CEO Ricardo Guadalupe with boxer Floyd Mayweather (Photo by Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images for HUBLOT)
Hublot celebrates its boxing partnership with Mayweather