By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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.
"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.
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."
Macias was born and raised in Oklahoma, and fought in his home state for his first UFC appearance in UFC IV. He has been named both American and world champion in Muay Thai. His fighting record is 38-4--with 28 won by knockout.
Macias looks like a fighter. He's a lean 205 pounds on a 5-foot-10 frame. His head, with its closely cropped hair, is pockmarked and angular.
Macias came up the hard way. He says his mother gravitated toward "terrible" men who would beat her or Anthony's two older sisters. Macias says he tried a number of times to defend his family, but "didn't do too well."
"I just had a line of abusive father figures," he says. "I've always fought. I am going to be around violence one way or the other. I'd rather get paid for it than be in prison."
There is a deep contrast, however, between Macias, the fighter, and Macias, the man. Though he says fighting is like breathing or walking--an extension of his being--he considers himself a nonviolent person with a high regard for life and living things. He appears to treat his wife, Lisa, a petite, delicate woman who weighs less than 100 pounds, with the utmost care and gentleness.
For an interview, Macias changed into a suit after a hard practice earlier this month. Lisa wears an elegant long black velvet skirt with a ruffled white shirt. They look as if they are going out on the town.
"Anthony likes to make sure that he makes a good impression," Lisa explains. "He doesn't want people to think that he is a thug."
Macias is also a practicing Christian. His sensei back in Oklahoma was also his pastor. When he fights, his wife and family set aside a certain time for prayer to give him strength. They pray no matter where he is. He sees no incongruity between what he does and being a Christian. What matters is what is in your heart, he says.
"I've always been able to turn it off," Macias says. "When I leave the hotel room [for a match], I become Mad Dog rather than Anthony Macias."
To Tra Telligman, 30, fighting is a sport, but not a way of life. His life, so far, has been his contracting business and his work with the Polytechnic Main Street, a volunteer organization that does repairs to low-income housing. Fighting is his secret life. "Most of my friends don't know I'm doing this," he says.
Telligman is a native Texan. Tall, with long blond hair ("which gets cut off this week," he says), he looks more like a gentleman rancher than a fighter. He has practiced flowing circles-style jujitsu for 10 years, and the martial arts in general for 20. He fought in a UFC-style tourney in Russia, where he won by knocking out his opponent.
Telligman has been training for the last month or so on the slim chance that he will get a berth among the eight contestants for the Puerto Rico UFC in February.
"It's hard to explain," he says. "It's...it's a big deal. It's a chance to prove that you are better than they are, and you are matched with some of the finest fighters in the world."
To critics, someone like Tank Abbott, the bare-knuckle bruiser of UFC VI, epitomizes the UFC. He's ruthless. He gloats over the fallen bodies of opponents with a ghoulish glee. He has no front teeth. He likes to pound his opponents into submission or unconsciousness.
But if you ask the fighters, Abbott is the decided minority.
"Ohhh, that guy," says Mezger, rolling his eyes. "He gives the sport a bad name."
Macias agrees, saying that 98 percent of UFC fighters are "great guys. But Tank, he is the 2 percent who are not."
McLaren, who remained mum on the subject of Abbott, says people would be surprised at how calm and positively businesslike the typical UFC fighter is. "Fighting is what they do. They are focused and relaxed," he says.
So how does one get to be a UFC contender? It is a tedious process.
McLaren says he receives anywhere from 300 to 1,000 applications from men wanting one of the eight berths in a UFC tournament. (Women are not permitted to fight in the Octagon.) From there, SEG winnows out the real contenders.
Every fighter must be recognized by a national or international martial-arts body as a champion in his field. Contestants must be at least 21 years old, and a fighter must have full-contact experience and go through a medical evaluation.
Once a fighter meets those criteria, the selection becomes subjective. McLaren says he tries to mix it up, bringing in fighters from a variety of disciplines to face each other in the ring. He looks for exotic styles. He also looks at the sorts of recommendations a fighter gets.
Having an agent helps. Buddy Albin of Denton has become promoter extraordinaire for the UFC. Albin started his career as a professional wrestling and kickboxing promoter 15 years ago. He saw a good thing in the UFC, and latched onto the infant sport soon after it was organized. Since then, he's supplied the UFC with some of its better-known fighters, including Taktarov and Macias.
Albin sees money to be made in the UFC. Taktarov, one of the UFC's biggest stars, now gets $25,000 just for showing up at a match. Albin, of course, takes a cut, though he won't say how much. In addition, Albin goes to the Ukraine from time to time on scouting missions--in search of the next big man in the Octagon. The Ukraine has "120 schools for UFC fighting," he claims.
Albin plans to import two Ukrainian fighters who are world sambo champions and have beaten Taktarov. "These guys are 6 feet 9 and 7 feet, 300 pounds, and less than 8 percent body fat," Albin says with relish. "They have never been beaten, and they are brothers."
The controversy surrounding UFC-style events couldn't be more advantageous for Albin. The more the politicians hate it, the more publicity it gets. "These guys [the media] sell out my shows," Albin crows. "We don't need to advertise anymore. I sent them all Christmas cards."
Guy Mezger got involved in the UFC through Albin. Mezger was a national kickboxing champion with a 22-2 record, with 19 wins by knockout. The UFC was looking for a kickboxer to fight in a challenge match--an exhibition pairing of two fighters of different disciplines. Albin thought Mezger was perfect. Mezger wasn't so sure.
"Buddy took me to UFC III, and I thought, 'This is nuts. No way.'" Albin explained to him that to the victor comes the spoils of fame. So Mezger agreed to participate.
The weeks leading up to his debut match were harder than Mezger thought. Here he was, a man who had fought and won countless kickboxing matches and had never backed down from a fight, but found that the thought of going into the Octagon disturbed his rest.
"I could not sleep for weeks," he says. He didn't worry about getting hurt--he worried about losing. "I mean, if I lose, then the whole world would see it," he recalls thinking then. "The first time Guy Mezger fights on television, and he loses in front of everyone." That thought kept him pacing and training.
The night of his fight, Mezger says, an eerie calm fell upon him, as though he had burned up all his nervousness in the previous weeks. He met his opponent, Jason Fairn, a 225-pound jujitsu expert. Both men had long hair. At the beginning of the match, Mezger and Fairn made a gentlemen's agreement: no hair pulling.
Mezger took the long walk down the hall to his corner of the Octagon and waited. Then he heard the tell-tale scrape of the bolt locking the two inside the ring.
"Let's get it on!" the ref said.
Mezger and Fairn went at it.
The match lasted about two minutes. At one point, Mezger had Fairn pinned to the ground, trying to get a choke hold on him. Fairn could have reached up and pulled Mezger's locks, but he didn't. He was a gentleman to the end. Fairn eventually tapped out, signaling that he was in a hold from which he couldn't free himself.
Anthony Macias' forays into the Octagon came through determination and a bit of fibbing. Two years ago, he watched one of the first UFC matches on television. He decided right then that he was going to do that. He found an application for the UFC in the back of Black Belt magazine, and sent it in, including a list of his titles, his win ratio, and notes on his expertise.
But he lied about his weight. He said he was 190 pounds; in reality he was 165. "They wouldn't have let me in otherwise," he explains.
Macias was picked from among the 300 applicants for UFC IV in Tulsa, Oklahoma, because of his connection to Albin, the fighter says. He was pitted against Dan Severn, a 35-year-old, 250-pound Greco-Roman wrestler who's a darling of the UFC. Macias was unknown and underweight. But he fought valiantly, he says.
"The oddsmakers had it at 100-1 that I would last past 30 seconds," Macias says, laughing at the memory. "The match went one minute, 48 seconds." He lost.
After two years, the UFC is becoming its own small world, where a bond often develops among the men who have fought in the Octagon. Macias, Mezger, and Telligman met through the UFC and have trained together for a year now. Friends who have trained together, however, may find themselves at the opposite ends of the ring. The results can sometimes leave those friendships in tatters.
It happened to Macias in UFC VI. He was an alternate, who decisively won his bout against Bill "He-man" Gibson. One of the semifinal contenders was unable to go on, and Macias replaced him. He was to fight against Taktarov. Taktarov and Macias had trained together for more than a year and were both managed by Albin. The two fighters were also friends.
Macias doesn't like to talk about what happened in the ring today. What viewers saw was Macias running at Taktarov and Taktarov grabbing Macias and immediately taking him to the ground. Taktarov then placed Macias in a choke hold. The entire fight took less than 20 seconds.
"I won't say that I fought Oleg, but I won't say that I didn't, either," Macias says, "but it won't happen again. That took a lot out of me. It's not a problem for me to fight anyone [in the Octagon], not even my mother."
A recent practice finds Mezger, Macias, and Telligman in Mezger's Oak Lawn studio practicing their punching and kicking. Macias is on the heavy bag, double punching, kicking, double punching. "High, low, high, low," he says in cadence.
Giving a hit, these fighters say, is much like swinging a racket or a bat; it's all a matter of finding the sweet spot.
"You know when you get a good hit," Telligman says.
"Yeah, it causes your arm to vibrate--like a bat against a telephone pole," Macias adds.
Another practice has the three grappling on the cold mats of a judo studio off Northwest Highway. Before a fight, the men practice their ground work, because a fighter can have all the high kicks and swift punches in the world, but if he can't work on the mat, he's defeated.
Grappling on the floor takes a great deal more skill than just being able to bash someone with a good right cross, Mezger says. "There is an intellectual side to this. It's skill and technique. A large percentage [of UFC fighters] look at it from that aspect."
Once an opponent is on the ground, the idea is to get him to submit. This can be done through a variety of submission holds, many of which were made famous by professional wrestling--"only they're real" in the UFC, Macias says. The figure four, figure eight, ankle hook, leg lock, and arm lock are all used.
The three men trade off fighting each other, and three others are present to spar. Macias says they need the extras; otherwise they'd wear each other out.
Grappling, with its reliance on technique, is the irony of the UFC. While critics complain unceasingly about the competition's violent nature, most of the matches don't end in the bloodletting seen in the UFC VI's Abbott-Varelans pairing. Most end up on the ground, with little discernible action.
You wonder what the big deal is.
In the final bout of UFC VI, "Tank" Abbott faced Oleg Taktarov. Abbott came out swinging, trying to take Taktarov down with head punches. He didn't count on the Russian being so hardheaded. Taktarov barely budged.
Taktarov, who had defeated his two earlier opponents, also found Abbott difficult to take down. Taktarov got Abbott on the ground a few times, but couldn't get a hold on him to make him submit.
In the end, the audience was treated to the sight of two grown men--who at times did little more than lie inertly on top of each another--throwing halfhearted punches in response to a referee's prodding. Twice, the referee broke up the fighters' embrace to make them start again. Both times they ended up in the same position: punch, pant, punch, pant, punch and pant some more.
Seventeen minutes after the start of the fight, Taktarov won the match by finally forcing Abbott into a choke hold. The Tank tapped out.
Abbott and Taktarov collapsed on the mat. Medics ran to their sides, administering oxygen and aid. A few minutes later, Abbott got up and left the Octagon.
Taktarov had to be helped to his feet and held like a child while he raised an arm in victory.
But he did it. For this one night, he was The Man.