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Ultimate Fighting Championship packs a wallop

Kenny Florian (top) went from college soccer player to Ultimate Fighter. He got the best of Sam Stout in this bout.
Kenny Florian (top) went from college soccer player to Ultimate Fighter. He got the best of Sam Stout in this bout. (Globe Staff Photo / John Locher)

LAS VEGAS -- Ken Shamrock, one of Ultimate Fighting Championship's best-known and most gnarly figures, was trying to explain why a UFC neophyte named Wes Combs had just ``tapped out," which is the mixed martial arts way of avoiding with honor the prospect of dying on your sword, 3 minutes 10 seconds into the first round of a June 24 fight with Mike Nickels. Survival would always seem the wisest course given the alternative, but as the crowd roared its blood lust, one had to wonder exactly what Combs had been thinking.

To the untutored eye, it appeared he had quit for no overriding reason while lying on a matted floor inside ``The Octagon" (the fenced-in ring of the UFC) with Nickels astride him in a wrestling hold. But Shamrock, who dates to the infancy of the fastest-growing combat sport in the world, knew differently for he understands the difference between a wrestling hold and a submission hold, having applied plenty of both over the years. The difference is less than subtle once one grasps that mixed martial arts is, in a strong sense, the art of violent persuasion.

``Why'd he tap out?" the 42-year-old Shamrock asked his inquisitor, a smirk crossing his face as the tattooed folks at The Joint, the Hard Rock Casino's main music venue and the home of a UFC reality show on Spike TV, roared their approval. ``Probably because it's hard to breathe when someone's choking you to death."

Combs's decision to surrender after Nickels got him in what is known in the mixed martial arts trade as a ``rear naked choke" now seemed a wise one. Certainly the ``rear naked choke" didn't sound as imposing (or as final) as ``the Guillotine choke" but it was enough to force Combs to tap out, knowing that, unlike in boxing, he would suffer no dishonor retiring in one piece.

Combs's choice was wise and the same can be said of the one made by Las Vegas casino operators Frank Fertitta 3d and his brother Lorenzo, and former Boston boxing aficionado Dana White, the three men who in 2001 resurrected UFC from the scrap heap of bad marketing and no-holds-barred mayhem when they bought the company name from Bob Meyrowitz for around $160,000. At the time ultimate fighting had a sullied reputation. No state would sanction its bouts because it had no rules and boasted of its refusal to cooperate with state regulatory bodies. Not even cable television would carry its bouts, having dropped it in part because of pressure from people as powerful as Arizona Senator John McCain, a prize-fighting fan who termed the no-holds-barred form of mixed martial arts ``human cock fighting."

Enter White, a former UMass-Boston student and bellman at the Boston Harbor Hotel, and the Fertitta brothers, operators of the Station Casino properties off The Strip. ``Smart guys wouldn't have bought the business," admitted the charismatic, 36-year-old White. ``We all loved boxing and once we got exposed to UFC, we fell in love with it. It's the sport of our generation. It's fast-paced. It has characters. It has so many different ways you can win or lose a bout.

``We believe in the sport. We feel it's better than boxing. It has all the entertainment value of wrestling but the fighting is real, like boxing. Young people have embraced these guys. Boxing is your father's sport. This is for a generation that grew up playing Mortal Kombat video games."

A fighting chance
Barely five years later, UFC has mushroomed into a powerful threat to the long-term economic health of boxing. It has become a force on cable television, where it has four shows on Spike TV, and on the Internet, where it regularly makes Yahoo's sports buzz index leading up to a major pay-per-view event, such as last Saturday's rematch between Shamrock and rising star Tito Ortiz on a card fittingly entitled ``Bitter Rivals."

That show sold out the Mandalay Bay Events Center, even with ringside seats going for $700 and the cheapest seat $100. With interest so high, White added three closed-circuit sites in Las Vegas. He had no concerns that it could affect a paid gate he estimated upward of $4 million.

The main event didn't last long as the 31-year-old Ortiz stopped Shamrock in just 1 minute 8 seconds. It was Shamrock's fifth loss in six fights. On Saturday, former world champions Fernando Vargas and Shane Mosley, bitter rivals themselves and two of the boxing's most recognizable names, will square off across the street at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The fight will not be sold out. There will be no closed-circuit sites because promoters fear it would reduce the live gate. Unlike UFC's show, it won't be available via streaming video on the Web.

The marriage of the Internet and UFC has been an integral part of the sport's stunning rise because when White and the Fertittas bought the business they had no other outlet with which to keep their dying product viable. Thus a sport of choice for a new generation subsisted on that same generation's favored form of communication.

``We have over 2 million people a month checking us on the Web," White said. ``For the `Ultimate Fighter' finale [the June 24 episode on Spike in which 16 competitors vied for a six-figure promotional contract] we had more hits the day of the weigh-in on Yahoo than they had for World Cup.

``If there was no Web when we started we wouldn't have been able to sustain it. UFC stayed alive on the Web. Our [demographic] could never have found out about us without it because the mainstream media was ignoring us."

Not any longer. UFC has been spotlighted over the last year in Time, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and many major daily newspapers around the country. The Las Vegas Review-Journal now has its chief boxing writer regularly cover UFC events and media outlets debate over how much space to devote to the results.

What the Fertittas and White did was come up with a formula to change both the sport and the world's view of it. They added rules. They embraced regulatory bodies in states such as Nevada, New Jersey, and California, which had refused to acknowledge UFC. And they plotted ways to get back on cable TV, which would prove to be the transfusion the sport needed.

By 1997, no-holds-barred events had been relegated to smoke-filled rooms in unregulated states. Mixed martial arts had become a fringe sport even by the lowly standards of fringe sports. But by using Lorenzo Fertitta's connections as a former Nevada boxing commissioner, doors began to open within the regulatory community when UFC came up with a set of rules. Where once anything was allowed, turning events into bloody barroom brawls without the cocktail glasses, White and his associates added strict adherence to such things as weight classes, five-minute rounds, judges, mandatory drug testing, and, perhaps most importantly, the banning of kicking, kneeing, or head-butting a downed opponent, downward striking elbows, strikes to the spine or back of the head, and strikes to the groin or throat.

This tamer version of the sport Shamrock first appeared in at its opening match in 1993 slowly grew into a cable-ratings bonanza and an obsession for testosterone-fueled young men like Kenny Florian, a former Boston College soccer player from Dover, Mass., who survived the first season of ``Ultimate Fighter" to earn a contract that pays him $6,000 a fight with another $6,000 if he wins, part of a three-year deal that will increase to $8,000 each fight in its second year and $11,000 in the third.

Florian fought the main event on Spike last month underneath two fights that crowned the latest Ultimate Fighters, light heavyweight Michael Bisping and middleweight Kendall Grove. The show's 16 competitors spent 12 weeks living together in a house in Las Vegas that was regularly visited by Spike's cameras. This led to personal revelations, documentary-style filming of their training sessions, and chronicling of growing rivalries that, in one case, led one fighter to urinate in the bed of another.

The final episode was a more important reality for UFC. It was the most-watched show among men 18-49 the night of June 24. NASCAR's Dodge/Save Mart 350 on FX drew 1.4 million viewers. The ``Ultimate Fighter" finale drew 2.8 million, making it the most-watched event in UFC history and the highest-rated original telecast in Spike's history among men 18-49. The show peaked at 3.4 million viewers when Grove squared off with Ed Herman in a three-round fight so filled with nonstop action White ended up offering both men contracts.

The Mandalay Bay Events Center was rocking last Saturday long before Shamrock and Ortiz squared off because unlike boxing, most of the crowd comes for all of the fights, not just the main event. Reflective of both the growth of the sport and the devotion of its fans, Las Vegas casinos post odds on every fight on the card, not just the main event, as is customary in boxing. It's a far cry from the early days of UFC's resurrection when White wondered if leaving his bellman's stand had been the right move and the Fertittas were considering pulling the plug on a dream that was struggling to become a reality. Ironically, that's what saved it. Reality. Or at least reality TV.

Witness character
UFC's first show under its new management, UFC 30, was at Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City in 2001. Only 2,500 tickets were sold for the 5,000-seat arena, grossing around $115,000. UFC 61 last Saturday was expected to gross $3.5 million to $4 million at the gate and an equal amount on pay-per-view.

``We built this thing with smoke, mirrors, and cash," White recalled. ``Frank and Lorenzo had a lot of guts. We weren't making any money. It was looking bad. Then Spike came along and kept pumping that it was a men's network. We knew we needed to be there and we came up with the idea of a reality show to find the next Ultimate Fighter. It cost $10 million, including the marketing, to produce. We put it up and owned the show outright.

``We weren't confident at all. We were on the ropes and starting to get nervous. If `Ultimate Fighter' hadn't worked, we were finished. But we believed if we could get a show on cable TV, UFC would be huge!"

Apparently, they were right. The show caught on in large part because of a raw-boned ex-cop from Georgia named Forrest Griffin, who had quit his job to come to Vegas and pursue his dream of becoming an Ultimate Fighter. Same was true of Florian, who had been translating 401(k) plans into foreign languages for a company in Boston when he decided his devotion to Brazilian Jujitsu needed to be tested inside The Octagon.

When Griffin defeated Stephan Bonnar in the 2005 season finale the fight was watched by 2.8 million people, a number topped by only the best of cable boxing events, and a sport was born. A year ago, UFC received perhaps the ultimate in relevance affirmation when Creative Artists Agency signed it as a client with a movie project in circulation, videos selling wildly, and a two-year contract extension with Spike.

The show's ratings keep increasing within its target audience and its pay-per-view shows have sold out arenas in Los Angeles, Anaheim, Calif., and Las Vegas, and done well at other venues such as Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. A rival organization based in Japan, PRIDE, regularly sells out in Asia and is considering entering the US market, although it would require adopting rule changes.

UFC's growth comes at a time when boxing appears on life support. Unwilling to invest in its future by creating a viable breeding ground for young attractions, the sport continues to rely on marquee names like Oscar De La Hoya, Bernard Hopkins, or Evander Holyfield while making few plans for the future. That, as much as anything, is the difference between the sports outside of the obvious: One controls its product and acts in its own interest with White as a nonstop advocate, while the other seems to have little self-control and no idea how to act on its own behalf.

One very public blow to boxing's pride came in May when 61-year-old Marc Ratner, the longtime executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, left to take over as UFC's vice president of government and regulatory affairs. Although Ratner denies leaving because of fears about the future of boxing, it was a defection ballyhooed in at least one boxing magazine as: ``Ratner leaves sinking ship?"

``It was a hard decision," Ratner acknowledged. ``I'd been there since 1985. I love boxing but this was a fantastic opportunity for me and my family. For anyone to claim my leaving is a sign of the death of boxing is such a silly thing to say. They're two different sports."

``Marc coming to UFC doesn't mean boxing is dead," said White, who maintains boxing ties that date to when he was running his gym in South Boston. ``What the sport needs is better fights and better marketing. `The Contender' reality show could have been the right thing but they edited the fights. You can't play around with the fights. That's the show. That's what our fans love. The rest is an opportunity for our fans to see inside the world of an Ultimate Fighter. See what the training is. See what life is like. See if they're scared or not. It builds interest in our fighters but you can't play around with the fights. We're like a middle child. We're always looking for attention."

In a crowded sports marketplace, they've begun to get it.

Generating change
Florian had waited nearly a year for his main event against Canadian Sam Stout, missing out on a March date because of a strained back suffered, believe it or not, while throwing a T-shirt into his suitcase. It was a moment unlike his first big one in UFC, when he lost his shot to become an Ultimate Fighter in the show's first season.

Florian fought well enough to land a three-year contract to work smaller shows while the public decides if he will become popular enough to make big money on pay-per-view. Guys such as Ortiz, industry standard Chuck Liddell, or recently retired Randy Couture can make a million dollars a year fighting a few times on pay-per-view but most Ultimate Fighters remain forced to do what White believes produces the kind of action the fans can't get enough of.

``These guys are hungry," White said. ``They get bonus money for winning. They get bonus money for the best fight of the night and the best knockout. They're motivated guys. Everyone in the sport wants to get to UFC.

``Our guys are accessible. You go to a UFC match you'll meet Chuck Liddell. You go to an Oscar De La Hoya fight you won't meet Oscar De La Hoya. Our guys are not jaded. They love the fans."

Where once young men dreamed of becoming heavyweight champion, today's younger generation may dream, as Florian did, of fighting not for Don King or Bob Arum, but for the Fertitta brothers and White.

``One problem for boxing today is that kids aren't totally about boxing like I was growing up watching `Tuesday Night Fights' on USA Network," White said. ``I wouldn't miss one. Today's kids are about UFC. When I left Boston to come back to Vegas in 1995, there were 10 or 12 boxing gyms here. Now there are three. Today more kids want to try mixed martial arts."

Evidence of change is everywhere at a UFC event. In the makeshift locker rooms behind the stage at The Joint, Bert Watson is running the show. A longtime boxing site coordinator and promoter dating to his days with Joe Frazier and Michael Spinks, Watson still has his hand in boxing but for the past 4 1/2 years he's also worked for UFC, keeping things running smoothly in the back.

A lifelong Philadelphia gym rat, Watson sees the difference between boxers and mixed martial artists both in how things run outside The Octagon but also in how young people react when they learn of his association with UFC.

``Martial arts teaches you respect for your opponent," Watson said. ``That's why there's no stigma to the tap-out. It just means you got into a hold there's no escape from. You didn't quit. It's a gentler, softer aggression than boxing, I guess. We still go to the hospital but we've never had a serious injury or a death, like in boxing.

``Boxers disrespect each other, go kick each other's asses, and then disrespect each other again after the fight. In UFC they respect their opponent, kick his ass, then respect him again. Boxing is still my sport but I don't agree with a lot of what goes on now. A lot of it is unprofessional.

``I don't know where boxing's headed but when I do a UFC weigh-in we'll have 2,500 people at Mandalay Bay hollering. I've done Mike Tyson, Oscar De La Hoya, Kostya Tszyu, big fights, and I don't think I've seen that kind of response. I walk down the street in the 'hood in Philly wearing a UFC shirt and people are hollering. The T-shirts. The DVDs. The hats. It's turned into what looks like big business to me. Like it says on our shirts, `As real as it gets.' These guys truly are modern-day gladiators."

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