Just don't bite

In the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the biggest rule is survival of the fiercest

"There are a lot of reasons" for the UFC's growing popularity, says Campbell McLaren, vice president of programming for Semaphore Entertainment Group. "If the '80s were the overblown era, the 1990s seem to be about what is real. People like what is more real, what is more gritty. The UFC is real fighting in a sport form."

In Dallas, three young fighters have set their sights on the UFC's upcoming tournaments. Guy Mezger, 28, owner of Free Style Martial Arts studio in downtown Dallas, has already fought in two UFCs. For him, the UFC has been a chance to jump-start his sagging professional fighting career. Anthony Macias, 26, head of security at Cabaret Royale, has also fought in two UFCs--IV and VI--and is itching for another shot in the Octagon. Tra Telligman, 30, owner of Pavers Plus contracting in Dallas, is training for a chance to get into the next tournament--UFC IX in Puerto Rico, scheduled for February 16.

The men differ in martial-arts specialties and social backgrounds, but are united in their need to convince themselves that all the years of training as fighters means something.

The UFC has become that redemptive proving ground.
"This is a chance to showcase what I do," Mezger says, "a chance to show that I am the best."

Despite the UFC's promotional claims to the contrary, there are rules in the Octagon. No biting or eye gouging is allowed, but that's about it for order.

In UFC tournaments, there are no rounds. Each quarter- or semifinal bout lasts a maximum of 20 minutes. The final match and the "superfight"--an exhibition clash of past UFC champions--both have a 30-minute limit, with a five-minute overtime period if the match ends in a draw. Matches have typically been held once every three months, although in 1996, SEG will expand to stage five tournaments.

During a match, the referee can restart the fight if the action has come to a standstill, which often happens in final matches, when the fighters have tired somewhat and technique tends to override brute strength. A fight may be won through knockout, submission hold, or disqualification. A fighter's corner can throw in the towel and stop the fight, or a referee can order a halt to the match.

Semaphore came to produce ultimate fighting purely as a fluke, McLaren adds. SEG is an entertainment company that has tried to create shows for pay-per-view cable. It produced the rock opera Tommy, a New Kids on the Block concert, and the Martina Navratilova-Jimmy Connors tennis match. SEG found that boxing and wrestling consistently did well with paying television audiences, but the company was hesitant to enter that arena because the market was already saturated.

Then McLaren heard of a Brazilian family, the Gracies, who were willing to fight anyone, any way, for $100,000. SEG thought it was a great idea. Thus, in 1993, the first UFC was launched. The main event pitted a 600-pound sumo wrestler against a 190-pound member of the Gracie family. And David beat the Goliath.

Actually, according to McLaren, ultimate fighting is a modern version of the very ancient Greek sport of "pankration," which combined wrestling with boxing. It, too, was a no-holds-barred sport, and was one of the events in the first Olympics of 648 B.C.

Even then, this style of fighting was considered brutal. Ancient accounts show that the more battered the winner, the greater his fame. But this was classical Greece, where blood and sport were elevated to a level of popularity perhaps matched only by the Aztecs and their practice of human sacrifice.

A modern-day UFC fight has eight contestants and four alternates. The rounds are broken up into quarterfinal, semifinal, and final matches. The fighters battle it out round-robin-style until two remain. Then they go for the championship.

The monetary stakes are attractive to martial-arts aficionados. A fighter gets $5,000 for showing up, and alternates, who can take the place of contestants unable to complete all their matches, make $2,000. The usual champion's purse is $50,000, although the Ultimate Ultimate tournament, held in Denver last month, offered a grand prize of $150,000. While the UFC offers nowhere near the millions at stake in big-name boxing, its prize money makes it one of the highest-paying martial-arts tournaments in the country, McLaren says.

UFC pay-per-view productions are designed for maximum entertainment value. Participants make video resumes that show them fighting and talking about what they hope to do in the Octagon. They enter the arena in a billowing cloud of fog, complete with black-clad retinues carrying banners. An announcer familiar to boxing fans, Michael Buffer, stokes the crowd, introduces the fighters, and touts the lack of rules. He then asks his trademark question: "Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to rrrrrumble?"

SEG designed the UFC to appeal to a largely male, young audience. A quick pan around a fight venue shows hundreds of baseball cap-wearing twenty- and thirtysomethings calling for blood.

Even though the UFC's obvious appeal is violence, McLaren plays down the danger of the sport. Most of its critics have taken incidents from the first few matches and used them to characterize the entire, evolving sport. It's not fair, McLaren complains.

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