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A fighting chance

College-educated combatants aim to strike blow for mixed martial arts on new reality TV show

He may or may not have the fight of his life on live television April 9, but Kenny Florian appeared to be training for it.

After boxing exercises, his hair matted with sweat, Florian threw whipping kicks at body pads, producing blunt smacking sounds on impact. He then honed his jujitsu skills by grappling on the mat for control of his sparring partner's limbs.

"You have to be as well-rounded as possible so you can exploit any weakness," Florian said during a break at a boxing gym onL Street in South Boston. "The grappling and the striking are not always the most beautiful things to watch, but that gets the knockouts and the submissions in a real fight."

Florian, a genial 28-year-old Boston College graduate from Dover, is a contestant on the Ultimate Fighting Championship's new reality fighting show, "The Ultimate Fighter," which premieres Monday on Spike TV. Only Florian and a few producers know whether he came out a winner in the show, which finished taping in October.

The show focuses on 16 men who train, live, and fight with one another over 13 weeks -- one is eliminated each week -- for a chance to compete in the UFC, the leading showcase of mixed martial arts in the United States. After three months of taping, four fighters remain, and they will face off in two bouts in a live TV special April 9. The winners each receive a $350,000 contract with the UFC, which will present six pay-per-view events this year.

Florian is one of three Massachusetts-born mixed martial artists on the show, all of whom attended college in the state. Mixed martial arts is a fusion of boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, and other fighting forms into one repertoire. Fights end by time-limit decision, knockout, or submission. The UFC, which averages $1 million in ticket sales for each live event, is hoping the winners of the show will wield box-office appeal once they step into the chain-link, octagon-shaped cage where UFC scores are settled.

The stakes may be even higher, though, for the UFC than for the show's contestants. Through the show, the company hopes to move toward the mainstream acceptance that mixed martial arts enjoys in Japan, where astronomical television ratings and charismatic fighters have moved the sport to the forefront of the culture in recent years. Part of reforming the sport's coarse image in the United States is to feature fighters with backgrounds like Florian's.

Five years ago Florian was translating financial documents for a living. The son of a judo black belt, Florian trained in martial arts across New England and in Brazil. In 2003 he quit his job to learn how to win a fight in as many ways as possible.

"I think that people are going to see that these aren't guys who don't have anywhere else to go," Florian said of the show's fighters. "I could have done a lot of things in my life. But MMA is what I love doing."

UFC officials are hoping viewers uneasy about ultimate fighting will be pleasantly surprised to learn that 11 of the show's 16 fighters attended college, some freely quote Socrates and Nietzsche, and others own their own businesses -- hardly barbarians.

"That's the refreshing thing about this sport," said Dana White, one of the UFC's owners. "It's a combat sport, which a lot of people perceive to be very brutal. They think a lot of these guys are a bunch of animals who rolled in off bar stools or whatever. But most of these guys are college-educated."

'Repugnant' reputation
The UFC's image issues are partly its own doing. The first UFC event in 1993 was promoted as an experimental powder keg in which fighters trained in a range of disciplines were placed in one cage to determine which style was the most dominant. UFC marketers embraced the visceral appeal of no-holds-barred wars between fighters who would, and could, do anything to win. Eye gouging and biting were the only attacks outlawed in the bare-knuckle fights. In this incarnation, the UFC was a pay-per-view phenomenon, attracting as many as 260,000 buyers at $20 a pop.

But a combination of political pressures and a developing understanding of different styles of fighting led to drastic changes in the sport. In 1996, Senator John McCain sparked a wave of scrutiny when he wrote letters to the governors of all 50 states calling ultimate fighting "a brutal and repugnant blood sport . . . that should not be allowed to take place anywhere in the U.S." The New York Legislature had recognized the sport in 1995 but then banned it after an outcry. Different forms of bans exist in several states; the sport is legal in Massachusetts. As a result of the negative attention, major cable distributors began dropping UFC pay-per-view events, the company's bread and butter.

As the experiment with different styles continued, officials found that boring stalemates between cautious fighters often resulted. In one instance, dragged-out fights exceeded the pay-per-view broadcast time limit and forced the UFC to refund customers' money. Rules were adjusted to speed up the action, but the UFC appeared to be in critical condition. But when Las Vegas-based Zuffa LLC purchased the UFC in 2001, a crucial agreement was reached with officials in Las Vegas to hold the fights. Athletic commissions regulated the sport, fighters were forced to wear gloves, and a series of moves including elbows to the spine and strikes to the groin were outlawed. Cable companies began carrying UFC pay-per-views again.

"A fight can't be totally safe, but I think they've developed a relatively safe and pretty exciting sport after 11 years of testing it out," said Dave Meltzer, editor of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which covers mixed martial arts.

Critics say they are suspicious of any claim that ultimate fighting is safe.

"Any sport where the ultimate way of defeating your opponent is by knocking him into unconsciousness has to be extremely dangerous and not something that we as a public should condone," said Dr. Peter W. Carmel, chief of Neurological Surgery at University Hospital in Newark, N.J., and trustee of the American Medical Association, which has called for the outlawing of boxing and for studies of progressive brain injuries to football players. "I think that it is impossible to say, 'This is safe hand-to-hand combat.' That's like saying, 'This is a safe suicide' . . . If you're allowed to deliver high velocity blows to the head, the damage to the brain is very real."

Though no one has died in a UFC fight, Carmel said gradual damage to the brain is equal cause for concern. Said UFC spokesman Jim Byrne: "We respect a diversity of opinions about the sport. We know it's not everyone's cup of tea. But a combat sport is a combat sport."

Despite rule changes, UFC officials say the sport's barbaric image endures. Advertisers still shy away from the sport, and few have bothered to track its evolution.

For promoters, there is no better model for success than Japan. On New Year's Eve, the Pride and K-1 fighting organizations produced live fighting spectaculars on Japanese television. The K-1 show drew 34 million viewers, about 31 percent of the country's population. Some fights draw higher ratings in Japan than the Super Bowl draws in the United States.

Alpha male roommates
White, who ran a local boxing gym after graduating from UMass-Boston, recruited Florian for the show after seeing him lose a close fight in Revere last summer. White has drawn on the fledgling New England mixed martial arts circuit he started in for fighting talent. The UFC has signed Boston Police officer Sean Gannon, who recently drew controversy for his participation in a no-holds-barred fight video that was widely discussed on the Internet. White said Gannon has signed a three-fight deal and will appear in a UFC event this summer.

Alex Karalexis and Christopher Sanford are the other Massachusetts men fighting for a UFC deal on the show. Karalexis, 27, was raised in Hyde Park and Whitman. He attended Massasoit College, where a knee injury ended a blossoming soccer career his freshman year. He dabbled in construction and contracting, but fighting took over his life after he signed up for jujitsu training at a Whitman gym.

"I walked in the door and said, 'Teach me how to fight,' " Karalexis said. "Before I knew it, I'm out in Las Vegas fighting for a living."

At 36, Sanford is the oldest fighter on the show. Born in Roxbury, Sanford lived in Japan as a high school exchange student and absorbed the language and culture. When he wasn't training in tae kwon do, kung fu, and boxing, he was studying economics and Japanese at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He was lured into business ventures before graduation.

"The college experience doesn't really agree with me," he said from his current home near San Francisco. "I'd rather have money in my pocket."

The show was a new, but familiar, experience for Sanford. It had been about 15 years since he had last lived with roommates, and the return of domestic tiffs -- "It was like, 'Dude, who drank the milk? Who ate the last of the asparagus?' " he said -- was hard to tolerate. Plus, living under the same roof as 15 other fighters in a luxurious home in Vegas's Southern Highlands could be tense.

"It was a house of 16 alpha males jockeying for position," he said. "Everybody is like, 'I'm the baddest man I know, I don't know about you.' But that was more for show than anything else. They got to promote themselves."

The fact that all the fighters were sequestered throughout the show exacerbated the competitive tension. No television. No newspapers. No phone calls. Communication with the outside world was so limited that local cast members couldn't witness the Red Sox winning the World Series.

"I think that it was just to torment us, try to get us to kill each other," Karalexis said of the sequestering. "All we did was train and fight each other. We got back to the house [and] there was nothing to do but sit around, look across the room at each other, and talk about fighting. Everybody flipped their lid at least once."

Not all the local participants on the show are battling for a fighting contract. South Boston's Peter Welch, raised in the Old Colony Housing Project and a boxer since age 9, was the show's boxing coach. Welch runs his own training facility in the city and fully supports the meshing of boxing with other fighting disciplines.

"From my standpoint, boxers seem to be a dying breed," he said, "Boxers that I came up with would be cringing to hear me say it, but it's the facts. You hate to see any one thing fall off, but this is an evolving sport."

White said that conveying the difference between an ultimate fighter and a boxer, or any other type of person, is key to producing a successful show.

"It takes a certain type of person to be a fighter, especially a guy that went to college, to say that he wants to be a fighter -- they're not what normal people would consider normal," he said. "In boxing, you hear the same old story all the time: 'I came from the mean streets of so-and-so. If it wasn't for boxing I'd be dead or in jail. UFC guys have a completely different story. These guys could be doing anything they want to do. They chose to fight, they chose to be fighters."

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