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February 21, 2006

These guys are cagey: Mixed Martial Arts fights its way toward the mainstream

Thumping heavy music blares over loudspeakers. The crowd in the small gymnasium grows louder. At the rear, a grim-faced man with a shaved head and tattoos emerges from the locker room. By all appearances, he has a bad attitude. He shadowboxes. He hops around a bit, then gets patted down before entering a black chain-link cage.The music changes. Now Hank Jr. is giving his opinion on a country boy’s chances. A thick man with a flat-top haircut and camouflage shorts saunters out of the dressing room. He looks up at the crowd and pumps a fist, generating extra whistling and a hoot of appreciation. He, too, gets patted down before being shown into the cage.A bikini-clad woman smiles and circles the outside of the cage. She holds a sign over her head that says “1.”In a few moments, the men, each wearing 4-ounce fingerless gloves that do more to protect knuckles than the guy getting hit, will approach one another with mayhem in mind. There will be punching, kicking, maybe even an elbow or two thrown. Someone — maybe both fighters — will get hurt, perhaps shed some blood. But after it is all over, they will shake hands and quite possibly share a congratulatory hug. This is not merely “cage fighting.” It’s not a tough man brawl, nor is it merely two thugs trying to hurt each other. This is the evolution of combat sports, a contemporary discipline known as Mixed Martial Arts. And a scene very much like this will unfold Saturday night in The Gardens at an event called “Caged Inferno.”Mixed Martial Arts is not boxing, wrestling, taekwondo (a primarily Korean art that focuses on striking with the hands and feet, known for flashy kicks), karate (Chuck Norris is all you need to know) or jujitsu (a Japanese art primarily based on submission holds and grappling). It is all of the above. It is, simply, Mixed Martial Arts, and its popularity is growing around the world. For hundreds of years, men and women have striven to perfect martial arts and combat skills. But reading about Buddhist monks battling outlaws is one thing; using those techniques in a real fight is another matter. Until the last decade, there was never a place where all of these arts could be put to the test. That began to change with the advent of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993.The first Ultimate Fighting Championship was based on a Brazilian MMA form known as “Vale Tudo” (“anything goes”), with the goal of finding the Ultimate Fighting Champion. The sport soon became wildly popular in Brazil and Japan, with the bouts becoming major events.It’s also caught on in the United States, and now UFC is governed by athletic commissions in states such as Nevada, New Jersey and Florida.UFC fights consist of three five-minute rounds (title fights are five rounds). Fighters are divided into one of five weight classes: lightweight (over 145 to 155); welterweight (over 155 to 170); middleweight (over 170 to 185); light-heavyweight (over 185 to 205); and heavyweight (over 205 to 265).As for the cage, it does look menacing, but it’s necessary because grapplers often end up against the edges of the ring as they struggle to choke opponents or force them to submit to a painful hold or lock. The cage keeps them from flying out of the ring.Before fights, both men receive a physical and are weighed to ensure good health and a fair match. Post-fight physicals are conducted as well. Fights are closely supervised by a referee, who is prepared to stop the action as soon as either man “taps out,” loses consciousness or fails to defend himself properly. At ringside, medical professionals and judges score bouts much like boxing judges.The UFC is now owned by Zuffa LLC, whose president, Dana White, has pushed the organization toward the mainstream by hooking up with Spike TV. The cable channel regularly broadcasts fights and also carries a reality series, “The Ultimate Fighter,” aimed at finding and showcasing new fighters.The pay-per-view events that were once the sport’s main media outlet have also grown. White said UFC expects to sell 17,000 seats at The Pond in Anaheim this summer, breaking the previous record crowd of 14,500 in Las Vegas. “The Ultimate Fighter” is about to begin its third season on Spike; it features two legends of the sport acting as coaches of two teams. Two eventual winners, one from each weight class, will receive six-figure UFC contracts. This season’s coaches are Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz, who have bad blood dating to 1999, when Ortiz,  who White described as a “real-life bad guy,” showed post-fight disrespect to a pupil of Shamrock’s. They’ve met once in the ring, with Ortiz stopping Shamrock in the third round.Shamrock and Ortiz have both worked with professional wrestling, but White says they won’t be bringing those “production values” to ultimate fighting. “(UFC) is all real,” White says. “There are no scripts.”Naturally, celebrities have taken to UFC. The big pay-per-view events typically draw an array of stars, such as Shaquille O’Neal, Cindy Crawford, Michael Clarke Duncan and “King of Queens” star Kevin James.There are celebrities inside the ring as well. Chuck “Iceman” Liddell (www.icemanmma.com), is a fan favorite. He’s 18-3 as a pro, but he’s avenged two losses (including beating four-time champ Randy “The Natural” Couture twice, both by knockouts).The Iceman recently filmed the pilot episode of the new “Blade” TV series, which is based on the Wesley Snipes film, and this summer, Liddell makes his film debut in a movie starring Lawrence Fishburne.But he won’t give up fighting. “I will not stop fighting until I am unable to perform at this level,” Liddell said in an interview. “Fighting is what I love to do; it is what I want to do.”Mixed martial arts is not all Vegas and Hollywood. For example, UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin (www.richfranklin.com), a former high school math teacher, lives just up the road in Cincinnati.“I was an athlete throughout high school,” Franklin said of his decision to study martial arts, “(but) when I graduated I was not cut out for college football and I wanted something athletic to do. As kids, guys are bombarded with these machismo images. Cartoons like GI Joe, stuff like that, and those images are always in the back of your head. Everybody wants to be that guy, the hero. I decided to do something about it.”Franklin caught the mixed martial arts bug after he and some friends watched the first UFC. He decided to become a professional fighter after trying a few amateur fights to test his skills.“I was training in karate with the idea that I could use it to protect myself in a street fight,” he said. “After I saw the first UFC, I saw there were a lot of techniques that I knew nothing about.”Franklin and his friends decided to study ground fighting and expand their skills for self-defense. He eventually entered some amateur fights, and after the fourth he got a manager and began a successful pro career.Franklin will be a special guest at the Caged inferno event on Feb. 25, along with his friend Jorge Gurgel, a contestant on the second season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Gurgel also operates 11 schools, including Fusion Vale Tudo in Louisville (www.fusionvaletudo.com/main.html), and has a line of apparel for his fight team. He will be the referee at Caged Inferno, which he believes will go over well in Louisville.Franklin said such events are essential for amateur fighters who want to gain experience and make it to the professional UFC, and White, the UFC president, said they are important to the organization as a way of finding new talent.Caged Inferno is promoted by Kevin Moberly and John Hatton of Lexington-based Knockout Productions. Moberly has 20 years of experience in martial arts and is a well-versed instructor, teaching taekwondo, Krav Maga (an Israeli self-defense technique that is taught to the Army there) and Brazilian jujitsu.Hatton, who owns a Lexington construction business, has studied Krav Maga with Moberly for about four years and has taken a liking to martial arts.“I attended three or four events, and it occurred to me that this was a natural replacement for boxing,” Hatton said.With the growing popularity of UFC and MMA, Hatton and Moberly decided to stage local events on a larger scale than they’d seen previously. Caged Inferno is their first outing, and based on early interest, they’ve scheduled another event for October, and possibly one in June.They declined to discuss their budget for the first event, which will feature large-screen monitors to show the action for those who might not have a great view. They also hope to show taped fight action of Gurgel, the guest official.Another special guest will be Jermaine Andre, a former UFC fighter who started The Fighter’s Union, which runs a program called SAFETY (Safety Awareness and Fitness Education Towards Youth) that teaches grade school kids about fitness, meditation, discipline, abduction awareness and self-defense in abduction situations.One Kentucky fighter who will fight at Caged Inferno is Sgt. Jeremy Wurm of the Kentucky National Guard. Wurm, a heavyweight, fought his way onto the Kentucky National Guard All Combative Team by choking out the man he faced. Saturday’s event will be his first official fight.“I like to fight,” Wurm said. “I like to find out how good I am. I might get my butt kicked, or I might kick his butt.”Wurm said a U.S. military program that originated at Fort Benning, Ga., outlines a program of training in Mixed Martial Arts, and teams are being formed at bases around the country. There’s no formal military competition yet, but the teams try to support one another when they compete and do occasionally match up against one another.Andy Jugan, executive director of the Greater Louisville Sports Commission, is familiar with Mixed Martial Arts events, and he thinks Louisville would be a suitable host for a UFC pay-per-view event, provided it was sanctioned by the state. But Todd Neil, an inspector for the Kentucky Boxing and Wrestling Authority, said the Authority currently does not regulate amateur events of any sort. The organization often investigates events to ensure participants don’t compromise their amateur status, he said.Nikki Poofkanka, a spokesperson for the Authority, said the state just passed new regulations governing professional events, which will bring Kentucky’s rules in line with athletic commissions in Nevada and New Jersey.“Kentucky wants to be a premiere venue,” she said.The new regulations include things such as requiring a doctor at ringside until all fighters have left the venue; having an ambulance available throughout events; requiring promoters to carry health and accidental death insurance policies on fighters; and mandatory HIV/hepatitis testing. Action at an MMA event is intense, and watching in person is electrifying for martial artists, as well as fans of martial arts and other combat sports like wrestling or boxing.Every May, Louisville proves it can host a world-class sporting event. With the new Ali Center and other development projects planned downtown, could Louisville get in on the ground floor of a burgeoning new sport?White, the UFC president, said Louisville could host a big UFC event if the right sponsors could be found. Jugan, of the Sports Commission, said his organization is interested in bringing events to Louisville that draw people from outside of the area. An event that is broadcast internationally, such as the UFC pay-per-view events, would likely qualify.So it seems Louisville has a chance to grapple with major cities like Las Vegas to be a host for major events. The question is, will it “tap out” or fight the good fight?

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