A Real Bangfest

Pounded by state regulators and rabbit-punched by promoters, the gladiators at Fighter's House struggle for legitimacy

"I'm off like a prom dress," says Shannon Ritch, finishing an afternoon of 330-pound bench presses--not bad for a guy who weighs 190 tops. He brushes back his bleached-blond flattop, adjusts a black T-shirt over his T-bone shoulders, and swaggers toward the door. The aggressive blare of Limp Bizkit and DMX rattles the boombox in the corner as a few students continue working out. At the center of the storefront gym, a skinny guy is mashing away at a heavy bag. On the floor beyond, two heavyset men grapple on a mat, fighting for the top position in a contest that looks at first glance like rough sex.

On the walls around them are a couple of Ritch's trophies and belts from the bush leagues of his sport: the Absolute Face Off in Phoenix in 1999; Super Brawl IX, held in El Paso in September 1998; the World Free-Fighting Championship at Dallas' Bronco Bowl. There's also a slick, fat program, housed in a glass case, from Ritch's October trip to the big time, the Pride11 fighting championship in Osaka, Japan.

Appearing before a crowd of 20,000 fans at a ring built next to an ancient Samurai castle, Ritch got his shot at Kazushi Sakuraba, a reigning prince of the sport. In Japan, where the cable TV audience for the fights numbers 2 million or more, Sakuraba's popularity extends to TV spots for Kirin beer, clothing endorsements, and a fast-selling autobiography. That's considerably above its standing in the United States, where mixed martial arts--also known as no-holds-barred, extreme fighting, or vale tudo (anything goes, in Portuguese)--has been limping along for the last several years in the fringe world of satellite TV, specialty videotapes, and small-time shows staged in second-tier venues.

Fighter-trainer Joe Garcia unloads on a heavy bag. Thai kickboxing is one of the big, flashy weapons in mixed martial arts.
Mark Graham
Fighter-trainer Joe Garcia unloads on a heavy bag. Thai kickboxing is one of the big, flashy weapons in mixed martial arts.

Entering the Osaka ring through a gaudy blast of fireworks and smoke, Ritch looked fit and game as he stripped off his black wrap-around sunglasses and red T-shirt, exposing the crucifix tattoo on his back. In contrast to Ritch's rippled physique, Sakuraba looked almost soft. But the difference in their skills was another matter altogether.

After circling the ring like two barefoot boxers, fists covered in light, fingerless gloves, Ritch and Sakuraba traded two vicious leg kicks--weapons borrowed from Thai kickboxing. After another rapid-fire exchange of thigh-high kicks that sent Sakuraba briefly to the mat, Ritch rushed his opponent, lunged slightly, and offered the champ the only opening he needed. Sakuraba grabbed Ritch's knee, levered him to the ground, and, employing a move borrowed from Brazilian jujitsu, applied a harmless-looking but agonizing hold to Ritch's foot. The challenger had no choice but to tap his opponent's leg, signaling submission and the end of the match.

The fight lasted 68 seconds, although it left a more enduring impression on Ritch and his friend Todd Handel, a fighter who flew with him to Japan and served as his corner man.

Stoked by the money and sporting prestige no-holds-barred fighting commands across the Pacific, Ritch and Handel returned to Fighter's House, their gym in suburban Farmers Branch, ready to ramp up the local action. Fighting-wise, it was time to start heading Dallas up the long road to world class.

Rather than simply train the several dozen students who work out at Fighter's House, they began hosting twice-monthly amateur matches on Saturday mornings and charging spectators $5 a head. "We wanted to give people a chance to show what they've got," says Handel, who won five regional pro fights before injuries set in.

Little did they know they were about to pick a fight few think they can win.

Within six weeks, Texas boxing officials declared the fights illegal, and state Attorney General John Cornyn moved swiftly and publicly to shut them down. Ritch and Handel were threatened with jail if they refused to comply.

Although they obeyed the state's order, they argued to anyone who would listen that the sport's heavyweight critics--Arizona Sen. John McCain, columnist George Will, the American Medical Association, to name a few--simply don't understand. "We're fighting for our sport. This is a way to do it," says Handel, the gym's chief trainer and part owner, who argues his game is no more dangerous than boxing or football.

Over the last two years, aspiring pros from Fighter's House have gone to Indian reservations and Mexican bullrings, put up with sleazy promoters and missed paydays to punch, kick, and grapple guys as tough as, or tougher than, they are. With the same crazy nerve, they weighed in to extreme fighting's uphill battle for legitimacy and acceptance, a contest it has been losing in the United States for the last three years. Decried as a barbaric spectacle, no-holds-barred fighting has generated a lot of hand-wringing from pundits and politicians who say America is heading straight to a brutal, blood-spurting hell.

Texas made clear where it stands on the issue in October, when it installed a new set of highly restrictive rules. "You start talking about no-holds-barred fighting, and you automatically throw up a red flag," says Dick Cole, Texas' top boxing official. "It sounds like somebody is gonna get hurt."

Using the same "anything goes" marketing hype that helped knock the sport's top American event--the Ultimate Fighting Championship--off cable TV in 1997, Fighter's House dubbed its Saturday-morning matches the "Back Yard Brawl...in your yard, in yer face." The name grew out of backyard mixed-martial-arts fights Handel and some friends used to hold at a friend's house in Irving, before they began training in a gym. "It was like, watch out you don't fall into the dog house or hit your head on the boat," Handel remembers.

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