Just don't bite

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

Critics never acknowledge the changes SEG has made, McLaren says. So a guy's tooth was knocked out in UFC I; now, all combatants are asked to wear mouth protectors. Yes, Matua was briefly knocked unconscious from Tank's final, nasty blow to the head; but a ringside doctor and ambulance crew immediately attended to him, and he eventually left the Octagon on his feet.

Another no-no in the UFC is padded gloves--the kind boxers use. "Boxing gloves are a weapon," McLaren says. "They allow a man to hit another man in the head over and over again." Without gloves, he adds, the head is a lot harder than a person's hand, and that fact will naturally bring some caution to a barefisted brawl.

Gloves, however, are a necessity if one wishes to fight in a state with a boxing commission--like Texas. In Oklahoma, a boxing commission was launched in 1995, right after UFC IV had been staged in Tulsa. That move effectively banned the sport in that state. Jim Hall, Oklahoma's boxing administrator, said at the time that he was concerned about the no-rules nature of the UFC. Hall, who is also past president of the Association of Boxing Commissioners, sees no problem with today's UFC matches, but worries about the safety of the fighters--even if they don't themselves.

Although the UFC has never staged an event in Texas, a recent change to the state's boxing rules could be used to bar the event because contenders are now required to wear gloves.

Some lawmakers object to the sport altogether, and have tried to ban it. In Arizona, Republican Sen. John McCain has advocated starting a federal boxing commission to prevent UFC-style events. Newspapers across the country have condemned the fights as barbarous. Yet these same critics defend boxing, because of the commissions that watch over it.

This riles UFC advocates. To hold boxing up as the standard that all fighting events should equal is akin to holding up a criminal as a model citizen, McLaren says.

"Boxing stinks," he says. "It seems rigged. The best draw in boxing is a convicted rapist...who is held up as the epitome of the sport. To be like boxing would be a step down for us."

Pay-per-view numbers show growing audience appreciation for the UFC. Since its first pay-per-view broadcast in 1993, the UFC has increased its audience by leaps and bounds--from 80,000 to more than 300,000 for the Ultimate Ultimate.

Hugh Panero, CEO of Request Television, the largest pay-per-view distributor in America, says the UFC has pulled impressive numbers in its short run. He ranks its matches third in ratings of all pay-per-view events, behind major boxing matches and major professional wrestling matches. But he doesn't see ultimate fighting surpassing boxing anytime soon.

Those who don't want to pony up the UFC's $19.95 pay-per-view fee can pick up a video if they can find it. Rentals of UFC videos have been strong, making them the most popular sports titles in the country for Blockbuster Video, according to a company source.

Why do it?
It's the first thing you want to ask someone who has fought or aspires to fight in the UFC. For Dallas' Mezger, Macias, and Telligman, the answers differ, but the sentiment is the same. The Octagon gives them a chance to show off.

"After being in that ring, I'm afraid of nothing and no one," Guy Mezger says. "I got a chance to face death, so to speak. I lived. I won."

Nowhere else in martial arts is there a tournament that pits the different fighting disciplines against each other, Mezger says. The UFC also showcases some relatively obscure martial arts. Most people are familiar with kickboxing, but not many have heard of Muay Thai fighting, the full-contact version of kickboxing that allows elbow and knee blows to the body and legs.

You may be tops in your respective fighting art, but the UFC is the way to know how you truly rate, Mezger adds.

Mezger is a philosopher in the body of an action hero--6 feet 1, lean, 205 pounds, with a face like a saint and long black hair pulled into a ponytail. His manners are old-fashioned: He holds doors open and pulls out chairs for women, for example. And for him, fighting has been a means to several ends: first, to channel his youthful exuberance; next, to make money; and now, to own and operate his own freestyle martial-arts studio.

Mezger got into martial arts at age eight--when he began wrestling. Later, at 13, he got into karate. The two sports kept him too exhausted to cause much trouble, he says.

Fighting in the UFC was the break he needed to advance his professional ambitions. As a result of his two UFC appearances, Mezger now fights monthly in Japan, where the money is good and steady for UFC-style sports. "To be honest, the notoriety has been good," Mezger says. "I think it suits me."

For Anthony Macias, who fights under the name Mad Dog, participating in the UFC is living his lifelong dream: a chance to fight on television. "You know, like the Bruce Lee movies," he says. "That's why I'm so happy."

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