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Fighting to be the ring leader

Sun Reporter

When Chuck Liddell first fought in an Ultimate Fighting Championship octagon, he was a 28-year-old bartender with backgrounds in amateur wrestling and karate and a fervent hunger to scrape out a living doing what he loved - fighting.

Eight years later, Liddell is the face of the country's fastest-growing combat sport. He's a millionaire. He endorses exercise supplements on cable television. His angular visage, adorned with tattoos and topped by a tightly cropped Mohawk, is known to thousands upon thousands of men, ages 18 to 34. And when he walks out for his next fight at the end of August, those men will pay handsomely - whether $700 for a ringside seat in Vegas or $39.95 to tune in from their couches - to watch his fists fly."It's all worked out a bit better than I thought," said Liddell, on a cell phone from California, where he was training to brutalize a Brazilian limb twister named Renato "Babalu" Sobral on Aug. 26.

The light heavyweight champion isn't the only one amazed by what has happened since he first fought. The UFC was a company on the run back then. Sen. John McCain had labeled it "human cock fighting" and had leaned on contacts in the cable industry to force mixed martial arts off the air. The sport wasn't sanctioned in big fight towns such as Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles. It seemed an oddity whose brief time in the spotlight had passed.

But the UFC has risen from near oblivion to become a sports and entertainment force. It sells out arenas in Las Vegas and generates $3 million live gates that would be the envy of most boxing promoters. Several cards have drawn more than 400,000 pay-per-view buys this year, totals that beat all but the biggest boxing and pro wrestling events. The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC's cable reality show, draws some of the best cable ratings anywhere among young men. Celebrities, from Shaquille O'Neal to Paris Hilton to Leonardo DiCaprio, have shown up to watch the combat.

UFC president Dana White wants more. He wants the sport licensed in all 50 states. He wants to be covered on ESPN and in the country's largest newspapers. He wants to open offices and cut TV deals in countries around the world. He wants his fighters to be sports stars, respected for blending centuries' worth of fighting styles and for training like demons. He wants people to know that the sport he loves, not boxing, is the choice of a new generation.

"The things we're going to do in the next 10 years are going to blow people's minds," White said.

In harm's wayThe UFC still has its detractors. Many states, including Maryland, don't sanction mixed martial arts. Doctors decry the sport's brutality. And some boxing aficionados say that UFC fights - which blend Brazilian jiu jitsu, amateur wrestling and striking arts such as boxing and kickboxing - are still very crude.

"The technical profundity of boxing is a product of its 115-year pedigree in this country and to compare those two is like comparing a mole hill to a planet," said Jim Lampley, who has called boxing on HBO for 19 years. "What I see with the UFC are bar fights. They may be very good bar fights, but they're still bar fights."

The sport is immoral, said Dr. Pete Carmel, a New Jersey neurosurgeon and board member for the American Medical Association.

"It's a sport whose principle aim is to harm an opponent and if possible, knock him out," Carmel said. "As a neurosurgeon, I find that reprehensible."

A study published this year by Johns Hopkins physicians found that mixed martial arts organizations have reduced risks by accepting regulation and that injury rates are very similar to those in boxing and other combat sports. The risk of traumatic head injury may be lower, the study concluded, because fighters take fewer strikes to the head.

But Carmel predicted that given enough time and enough fights, a death or severe injury will occur. "I just don't think you play a sport to damage people," he said.

Mixed backgroundsThe UFC is the most visible outlet for a realm of fighting known as mixed martial arts (Japan's PRIDE organization and numerous smaller promotions sell the same sport). Lovers of the form trace it to the ancient Greek sport of Pankration, which also combined grappling, striking and submission holds.

UFC fights can be confusing to watch for the uninitiated. They bear no resemblance to the high-flying sequences from kung fu movies.

Fights are broken into five-minute rounds - three for a regular contest and five for a championship match - and can end in a decision, a referee's stoppage or a submission to punches or holds.

The combatants usually begin on their feet exchanging blows like boxers. Some bouts end quickly when a fighter catches his opponent with a punch to the chin. But more often, one fighter dives through the punches, cinches a leg and takes his opponent to the mat.

In some cases, the fighter who has scored the takedown can simply control his opponent's upper body and unleash a cascade of punches and elbow strikes that lead to a stoppage. This is called the ground-and-pound style. But other fighters are masters of submission holds. Even from their backs, these men can use their legs to squeeze an opponent's arm or neck with such force that he must quit. Or they might wriggle around to his back and slip their arms around his neck for a match-ending chokehold.

Today's best fighters are hybrids. They come from solid wrestling backgrounds but can also kick and punch. And most have received at least a smattering of jiu-jitsu training.

The UFC ran its first show in 1993. That pay per view posed simple, almost childlike, questions: If you threw two fighters in an octagonal cage, would the karate man beat the wrestler? How would a 180-pound grappler fare against a 500-pound sumo?

As it turned out, 86,000 people paid for the answer. The show was supposed to be a one-shot deal but given its success, the promoters ran another and another. The audience grew to a peak of 260,000 pay-per-view buys for a 1995 event. The company's marketing in those days touted an absence of rules and a surfeit of blood. Fans lapped it up, but the UFC caught the attention of the wrong man in McCain.

"They did a real Christians and Lions promotion," said Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which has covered UFC from its inception. "And that bit them real bad down the line."

McCain is a longtime boxing fan but hated to see a sport in which a man could stomp on the head of a supine opponent. He called the UFC un-American and began a quest to eradicate it.

The company responded to McCain's criticism by adding weight classes and five-minute rounds and banning more vicious aspects of fighting such as knees and kicks to the head of a downed opponent. But these gestures could not stave off the political pressure. Pay-per-view companies and cable distributors stopped carrying the UFC, and its future as anything more than an underground sport seemed in doubt.

New beginningsEnter Dana White, a frustrated boxing lover who made a fine living as a bellman at a Boston hotel but saw little upside, financial or inspirational, in that line of work. The restless White moved to Las Vegas, where he had lived as a kid. He opened three more gyms there and started palling around with Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, childhood acquaintances who just happened to be the scions of casino owners. White also got to know fighters such as Liddell and Tito Ortiz.

He had watched the early UFC pay per views and enjoyed the concept. Lorenzo Fertitta had learned about the sport from his seat on the Nevada State Athletic Commission and also saw potential. So when then-owner Robert Meyrowitz asked the Fertittas and White to buy a stake in his company in 2000, they instead bought the whole UFC for $2 million.

That got them the name, a rickety old octagon and little else. But White and the Fertittas set out to create a real American sport to replace what many perceived as a freak show.

"We wanted people to know what great athletes these guys are," White said. "They aren't just barbarians who want to go in there and kill each other."

Many of the necessary rule changes were already in place. But White embraced regulation with almost religious fervor, believing that the UFC would only be accepted if subject to as many rules as boxing. He liked to say McCain was more a savior than a destroyer, forcing mixed martial arts to get its house in order. A key first step to business success came when the Nevada Commission sanctioned UFC. That meant the company could stage its shows in a town set up to support big fights.

The first such event under the new regime came when Ortiz, a cocky, bleach-blond takedown specialist, defended his light heavyweight crown against Ken Shamrock, a star from UFC's earliest days who had also made a name as a pro wrestler. Ortiz and Shamrock bore true hatred for each other and with their showdown, UFC began to perfect a superbout formula that had worked for decades in boxing and pro wrestling.

White found his true vehicle to wider appeal in The Ultimate Fighter. UFC had been trying for years to create a cable program. And Spike TV, which carried World Wrestling Entertainment's Monday Night Raw and other programs geared to young men, seemed an obvious destination.

"I finally just said we're pulling an all-nighter," White remembered. "So we went into my office at 10 p.m. and came out at 4 a.m. with the basic concept for the show."

The company tossed 16 aspiring fighters in a house and put them on teams, one captained by UFC legend Randy Couture and the other by Liddell. Each episode ended in a fight - loser go home. The Ultimate Fighter immediately clicked as a blend of reality-TV soap opera and dangerous combat.

One episode might feature White castigating a heavily tattooed skull crusher for wanting to go home to see his girlfriend. The next might feature a brawl between two chaps who hated sharing a kitchen. Meanwhile, the company's highest profile fighters, Liddell and Couture (middleweight champion Matt Hughes, Rich Franklin, Ortiz and Shamrock would follow in later seasons), became TV stars and built toward eventual grudge matches on pay per view.

"What appealed to us most was the character-driven aspect," said Brian Diamond, senior vice president of sports and specials for Spike. "You were going to love these guys or hate them, but you were going to feel something."

White struggled with the notion of becoming an onscreen character. But the reality was that he had his hands in all aspects of the company, so he believed a good show about the UFC had to feature the real him.

"What you see is what you get with Dana," Diamond said. "He's funny, tough, witty, powerful, respectful of the sport. And he eats, sleeps and breaths the UFC. If you cut his arm, I think little octagons would fall out."

White often refers to The Ultimate Fighter as his company's Trojan Horse. "We got people watching mixed martial arts without even realizing it," he explained. "And by the time they did, they were hooked."

This spring, the show's episodes routinely drew higher cable ratings among men 18-34 than baseball, the NBA playoffs and the NHL playoffs. The fourth season will debut Aug. 17 with a cast of 16 UFC veterans fighting to earn the title shot they never received.

Bigger stageFueled by the success on Spike and recent pay-per-view bonanzas, the UFC finds itself as the top dog in a hot sport. Unlike wrestling, it's real. And unlike boxing, it's orderly.

"We're lucky, because reality is better than any script you can ever write," White said. "A WWE writer might come up with some strong farm boy, but we've got Matt Hughes, who's the real thing. Or they might come up with a blond punk from California, but we've got Tito Ortiz, who really is that."

Boxing promoters have to deal with overly cautious managers, cost-conscious network executives and corrupt sanctioning bodies every time they seek to make a superbout. The UFC has its fighters under contract and produces its own television programs.

"If a guy gets hot, they can really move him," said Kevin Iole, a longtime boxing writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal who now covers the UFC. "I think boxing would be more popular if it followed that mode."

White got the attention of the boxing establishment when he hired Marc Ratner away from the Nevada State Athletic Commission to spread the UFC's reach. Ratner was a familiar player in the boxing scene who had once appeared on Larry King Live as a critic of the UFC.

But he has spent recent months educating his former colleagues on mixed martial arts. "There's still a perception that this is barroom fighting with eye gouging and what not," he said. "So I try to get through that these guys are real athletes and that the sport is much more technical than people realize."

Ratner senses an understanding in the boxing industry that the UFC is gaining popularity, especially among younger fans. His 17-year-old son's friends, for example, have seen him on The Ultimate Fighter and want to know about the martial artists. By comparison, they could not care less about Floyd Mayweather Jr. or Hasim Rahman.

"Certainly, they're making their mark," Lampley said. "In its way, it may have the potential to attract a larger audience, because it's a more accessible style of fighting.

The UFC cleared a major hurdle last year when California agreed to sanction mixed martial arts. The company has already run two well-attended shows in Los Angeles and Anaheim. New York and Illinois are the next big targets.

Experts such as Lampley might believe that a Liddell or a Hughes would have no chance against elite boxers. But that misses the point, according to Meltzer, who has studied wrestling promotion for decades.

"The UFC is doing a better job of making fights feel special," Meltzer said. "What people buy is the hype, the characters. They frankly don't know whether they're seeing the best fights or not. What they're doing right now is the same thing that has sold boxing and wrestling in the past."

UFC fights now get big billing on the Vegas marquees, bettors stream to sports books on fight weekends, and combatants appear at lush after-parties in the city's swankiest clubs.

In the end, of course, it all comes back to the octagon. That's where the passions of White and his fellow fans crescendo around fighters such as Liddell.

The 36-year-old is known as "The Ice Man" because of his preternatural calm before big fights. But the fire he showed in discussing a potential matchup with Silva captured what many love about UFC.

"People say that if I would take him down, I'd have a big advantage," said the former college wrestler. "But that's not what anyone wants to see. So I'm going to go out there and knock his head off."


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