By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It began with the battle of the big men--a bloody scrap they'd still be talking about months later.
In one corner was David "Tank" Abbott. A 280-pound 6-footer, Abbott looked the part of the classic barroom brawler--big, with an enormous beer belly, buzz-cut hair, and no discernible neck. His martial "art"--pitfighting--was a motley blend of whatever worked.
Across the 32-foot Octagon stood John Matua, 6 feet 2 and 400 pounds. His close-cropped, black curly hair and glowering almond eyes gave him the look of an avenging Polynesian god. Indeed, his skill was kuialua--described by commentators as "the Hawaiian art of bone breaking."
In the normal world, the scales of fighting justice would tip to the heavier side. But this was the sixth Ultimate Fighting Championship, one of America's hottest new sports attractions--where rules, like bones, are meant to be broken.
After the referee growled, "Let's get it on!" to signal the start the fight, Abbott made short, destructive work of Matua. The Tank came out steaming, flailing his naked fists and landing a punch to Matua's head. Two more jabs followed.
Matua fell, but quickly got back up. Abbott was ready and unrelenting. He pummeled Matua's head. An uppercut. A jab. A roundhouse punch. Abbott finally landed a solid whack square on Matua's jaw, and the 400-pound man toppled backward. His head slammed against the ground, and Matua stopped moving, save for a tremor in his outstretched legs.
But Abbott wasn't finished yet. He fell on top of the helpless Matua, giving him one more head-shaking punch straight to the jaw, just to be sure.
By this time, the referee had run over and pried off the victor. While the ref checked Matua's condition, Abbott stood over the bloodied, fallen body. He stretched out his arms, made a teasing face, and mugged for the crowd.
The crowd, mostly young white men, roared. The Tank had won by a knockout in less than 30 seconds.
"Cakewalk, baby," he'd crow to the ringside commentator soon afterward.
Just 20 minutes later, Abbott faced another challenger in a semifinal bout of the round robin tournament. This time it was Paul "Polar Bear" Varelans, a "trapfighter" from Alaska, another big man--6 feet 8 and 300 pounds. This was a longer, more grueling fight. Both men drew blood.
But Abbott eventually pinned the Polar Bear against one of the gates that fences in the Octagon. He pounded Varelans' protruding head. He grabbed the downed man's nostrils and yanked his head back. Varelans' nose bled, covering his face and Abbott's fists with red.
At one point, Varelans tried to kick the Tank in the back. Abbott was merely jazzed by the resistance. He shoved his knee in Varelans' bloody face and pressed down, then looked up and smiled to the crowd. Even the commentators were taken aback by Abbott's ruthlessness.
"You usually see more respect here," one said, "but this guy is a street fighter."
The crowd in Casper, Wyoming loved it. They cheered.
They cheered more.
Abbott punched harder.
Finally, the referee stopped the match. The Tank had won again. It had taken just over a minute.
In the after-fight interview, Abbott let his braggadocio overflow. "I just wanted to tickle his brain a little bit."
While watching a replay, the gap-toothed brawler said, "Oooooh, I'm starting to get sexually aroused. Better turn that off."
Abbott strutted away from the Octagon, awaiting his fate in the evening's final matchup with The Bear--Oleg Taktarov, an expert in sambo, a Russian military fighting art.
It was a fight that promised to be more than just a letting of bad blood: This was shaping up to be a contest of skill.
In the world of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, better known as the UFC, Abbott and Taktarov have become superstars.
No-holds-barred "ultimate fighting," which combines elements of all the martial arts, is the fastest-growing spectator sport on television. The UFC's quarterly tournaments are perfectly suited to pay-per-view cable, where the 2-year-old UFC event has carved out its domain. The winners have to fight three times in two hours, and the viewer gets seven bouts for one admission price.
The UFC touts its lack of rules. These fights aren't the sissified, costume-clad, choreographed spectacles seen in professional wrestling. They are real: the blood, the knocked-out teeth, the battered jaws, and the concussions.
And the fans love it, rewarding Semaphore Entertainment Group, the New York-based creators of the UFC, with ever-increasing audience shares for pay-per-view events as well as brisk video sales and rentals.
But with success comes controversy. As the sport went from being a cult favorite to a full-fledged hit, spawning several low-rent imitators, complaints arose. Opponents decried the lack of rules, some likening the fight-till-you-submit event to "human cockfighting." Lawmakers protested the violence of the sport and what they saw as a lack of safety precautions. Some have tried to find ways to keep UFC tournaments out of their states or at least create rules that soften the sport's vicious side.
But UFC participants say all of this is shortsighted and mistaken. They argue that the sport is safer than boxing--which, they point out, has seen four deaths in the two years the UFC has been operating, while the UFC has experienced none. And the UFC has proven that people want to watch it.