A Real Bangfest

"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.

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.

For rules, which can change from contest to contest in the still-developing sport, Handel and Ritch outlawed the most radioactive feature of no-holds-barred fighting: closed-fist punches to the head. Those are taboo in Texas without the use of regulation boxing gloves, which have no use in ultimate fighting. They also banned the cheap shots that are prohibited in most contests: fish-hooking (grabbing inside the mouth), head-butting, and eye-gouging, the moves that made the Three Stooges every mother's curse. But Handel and Ritch permitted liberal use of kneeing, as well as blows by a standing fighter directed at his opponent on the ground, which are outlawed under Texas' new rules.

Because they were charging a nominal admission, they also were violating a raft of state regulations governing commercial fights. They had no promoter's license, no licensed referees, no ambulance, no emergency medical crew, no approved ring, and on and on.

"I told them what they were doing was against the law," says Cole, the state boxing official who was among 30 paying customers on hand in early December for Back Yard Brawl III and its four amateur matches.

What happened next brought down the state's regulatory fist, he says. They began promoting and putting out flyers for another Back Yard Brawl.

"Yup, they were trying to shut us down," Ritch told the small band of adherents reading the gym's Web site in advance of Back Yard Brawl IV, which he promised would be "a real bangfest." "I guess we will see what happens next."

Attorney General Cornyn answered Ritch's question on December 15, the day before the fight. Acting at Cole's request, his office obtained a temporary restraining order. "Unfettered and unprotected fight contests such as these surely don't always have a happy ending," Cornyn said in a release that sent TV crews and newspaper reporters scurrying north to see what this "fight club" was all about.

Fighter's House was hardly conducting unfettered fights, words that bring to mind images of men stripping down and beating one another to a pulp. But it was pushing its brand of sport fighting beyond what is allowed in Texas and all but a handful of states that have either banned or strictly regulated full-contact mixed martial arts.

"I know these young men want to be successful in their sport. They love it, like people love boxing. But sometimes you have a love that bites you in the ass," says Cole, who has been in boxing since 1948. "You know the expression. They have a paddle to fit every backside, and everyone gets a chance to expose it."

To Handel, Ritch, and a handful of others who train at Fighter's House, mixed martial arts is not only a sport, but the ultimate sport. To do it well, they explain with missionary zeal, an athlete must be strong, flexible, quick, endurance-hardened, and cross-trained in a variety of skills, including the most practical elements of the martial arts.

"People who make this spiritual, they're just wasting their time," says Handel. "It's all strength and leverage...what works in a real fight."

And these guys should know. A core group of them work as bouncers at Laura's Last Chance, Zubar, Cuba Libre, and other Dallas-area clubs, jobs that leave the afternoons free for hitting the gym. They've wrapped so many rowdies around the neck and tossed them out of Jack's Pub that they joke about giving out T-shirts: "I was jacked at Jack's."

On New Year's night, five Fighter's House guys were at their posts at Jack's, a roadhouse near SMU with a reputation as the bar in town on Monday nights. Handel, a compact 26-year-old, worked the door, shivering against the cold in a windbreaker and thin stocking cap. The glibbest of the crew, he flirted with the young women in line ("Hey, what's your favorite water sport?") in between explaining a few things about his fighter-trainer-bouncer life.

A Farmers Branch kid who was drawn more to paintball and racing remote-controlled cars than making grades at R.L. Turner High School, he began learning kickboxing and the jujitsu "ground game" of locks, defense, and holds in local gyms, he says. He added other elements of mixed martial arts while stationed with the Navy in Southern California, the U.S. hotbed of the sport. After two years in the Navy, which Handel calls "the biggest bunch of losers I've ever seen," he returned to Dallas, moved in with his commercial-photographer father, and began training in earnest to become a pro. In his best fight, in McAllen a year and a half ago, he outclassed a bigger opponent and finished him off with a triangle choke, a leg lock around the neck that blocks the flow of blood to the brain, causing a temporary blackout.

"We're all poor right now. Eventually we'll be able to pay the credit cards off," he says.

After a while, as he talks engagingly about the bit TV parts, the screenplays-in-the-works, and prospects of moving to Hollywood to work in martial arts movies, he sounds like someone with a lot of big ideas, if not solid plans. His personality--think TV fitness trainer, plenty of fizz and enthusiasm--and knowledge make Handel a teaching draw at the gym.

His friend Joe Garcia, who has known Handel since he was a kid, is working this night at Jack's main bar, a cramped horseshoe-shaped space where all the nudging and shoving produce their share of drunken scuffles.

A husky, rounded, soft-spoken guy, Garcia moved to Handel's neighborhood from Oak Cliff, where his first introduction to fighting came on the streets. "My neighborhood was very tough. There were a lot of black kids who would beat me up, so I learned how to protect myself in a straight fight--you know, 'I'm gonna knock you out.'"

Learning kickboxing, tae kwon do, and jujitsu over the past six years with his friend Handel, he's now teaching students at Fighter's House and training every day. Garcia, 24, is undefeated in four pro fights, but holds few thoughts about making a living at the sport.

This fight game, like the old one it's trying to replace, is littered with sleazy promoters, false promises, and slim paydays, he says.

He fought in a bullring in Nuevo Laredo last year and was stiffed. He's fighting in Arizona this month and has been promised only airfare and $200. Because the sport exists in a netherworld between legality and illegality, the rules are spotty and unclear. In California, for instance, pro fights are staged on Indian reservations to get beyond state prohibitions. Out there on the fringe, there is no drug testing for substances such as steroids or uppers, making for fights that are less fair, he says.

"I like training with these guys. They're good guys. You can challenge yourself every day. That's the good part about the sport," Garcia says. "The bad part is, it's usually a big scam on the money side. They offer you a thousand, and you leave with a hundred. You're in the hole. That's what discourages me. You're not treated like a professional athlete."

So while he has ideas about making it to Pride or the UFC, which is trying to make a comeback on satellite TV, he spends four hours a day taking computer networking courses at Richland Community College. Garcia figures that's a more likely road to a steady job.

At 30, Ritch has already executed some of his career plans. For the last decade, he's been finding ways to get paid to fight, mixing it between jobs as a bodyguard, teaching self-defense, and, a few years back, working as a guard in an Arizona prison.

The son of a boot maker from rural Coolidge, Arizona, Ritch says he grew up ranch-work tough, and there were plenty of chances to match fighting skills with the local Mexican kids. He studied karate when he was young, wrestled in high school, and later became proficient enough at kickboxing to make $200 or $300 for a fight.

Scanning Jack's with quick glances, he says he's always been a little high-strung. "I think I had A.D.D. as a kid. The fighting's helped that. I just love to fight. One time a guy asked me to do a pit fight. Really, no rules, some secret location behind a warehouse. I fought in jeans and whatever, just fight."

In no-holds-barred, Ritch says, he's been in more than 70 "shows," with 51 wins. He says he has about five good years left and wants to return to Japan this spring.

On the bouncing side, Ritch is the guy his friends say can be counted on to wade in when fists fly. Just before closing time, he proves them right.

After tossing one shirtless guy out into the cold with a ferocious kick, Ritch headed back into the bar and soon was bursting out with another--an enormous man, at least 290 pounds and woozy from drink.

"He called me a midget!" the 5-foot-9 Ritch roared to Handel as the two began facing each other in the parking lot. After the guy told Ritch to commit an impossible act on himself, and Ritch came back with a phrase he illustrated by pointing to his zipper, the fighter opened his arms and crowed, "Come on, let's dance. They're playing my song."

Lucky for Ritch's would-be opponent, he just stood there for an impossible minute and didn't provide much resistance when a couple of friends nudged and pushed him toward their car.

"He would have rushed me," Ritch told Handel as he headed back into the bar. He circled his arms, feigning how he might have wrapped the man's neck into a nasty no-holds-barred headlock. "It would have been perfect for the guillotine."

The rise and fall of mixed martial arts in America over the past seven years has left local hopefuls such as the Fighter's House core group in an interesting place. They latched on to the sport as it was evolving and developing. But since it hit a wall of disapproval, their ambitions have few places to go.

The sport burst into view in the United States in 1993, when Brazilian jujitsu master Rorion Gracie teamed up with pay-per-view's Semaphore Entertainment Group to produce the first Ultimate Fighting Championship. With the slogan "there are no rules," the promoters built an octagonal chain-link cage and invited top martial artists to mix it up. Kickboxers vs. wrestlers. Boxers vs. karate champions. Using pretzel-like moves to tie up and submit opponents outweighing him by as much as 100 pounds, Royce Gracie, Rorion's brother, became the event's first star.

The fights, which promised the sort of ultraviolence that built the Roman Coliseum, were an instant success. The tension, electricity, and pure violence of it, much like a playground fight, provided a marketable spectacle. As many as 300,000 households paid $19.95 to watch the likes of former Olympic wrestler Dan "The Beast" Severn land more than 200 elbow strikes against 270-pound pit-fighter "Tank" Abbott, the king of head-butts.

In Congress, op-ed pages, and the executive suites of the nation's cable TV companies, pressure on the sport began to mount. In 1996, Arizona Sen. John McCain led a one-man crusade against ultimate fighting after someone sent him a fight tape. McCain called the sport "barbaric" and sent a letter to all 50 governors asking them to ban "human cockfighting."

Soon, the American Medical Association recommended a ban. Athletic commissions in important venue states such as Nevada and New York refused to sanction the sport. Cable TV pulled the plug.

Clyde Gentry III, an editor of a Dallas-based fanzine on Hong Kong kung fu films who is writing a book on no-holds-barred, says the early days of UFC hardly served the sport well. "The marketing elements got carried away with it," he says, pointing out that early UFC fights were billed as matches to the death, and that videotape boxes played up the blood and doom.

But the sport and the UFC have evolved, spawning contests no more dangerous than boxing--and very likely less dangerous because there are only occasional blows to the head, he says. And unlike boxing, where fighters are shamed into taking a beating, it's not bad form to surrender, to "tap out," in a no-holds-barred match.

Light gloves, which protect against cuts, and prohibitions against early UFC staples such as head-butting and elbow shots, have bred an organic, skill-driven sport, Gentry argues. After several initial exchanges of punches or kicks, the fight usually goes into grappling, take-downs, and holds. "On the ground you have to be pretty intelligent to know what to do. There's not a lot of flash," says Gentry. "With the athleticism and strategy that goes into these fights, it's a human chess match. You have three-dimensional fighting that to me is so much more entertaining than boxing."

That is how it is viewed in Japan, he says, and there are signs that the UFC, still the Nike of the sport in America, is making its comeback here. This fall the series held its first sanctioned fight in Atlantic City at the Trump Taj Mahal, where Olympic-grade wrestlers Randy "The Natural" Couture and Kevin "The Monster" Randleman, the current champ, faced off in the featured heavyweight bout.

After several rounds of grappling in which Randleman appeared to be in command, Couture climbed aboard his opponent's chest, struggled against several defensive maneuvers, then unleashed a flurry of punches to both sides of Randleman's head. As quickly as in an amateur boxing match, the ref jumped in, declared a winner, and stopped the fight.

At places such as Fighter's House, which is one of four mixed martial arts gyms in the area, guys are learning those moves as an integrated whole, Gentry says. Out of gyms like this the sport will be built--if they are allowed to practice it at all.

Todd Handel and Shannon Ritch drop down on a living-room sofa, rifle through a set of videotapes, and check how Fighter's House fared the night before on the TV news. "On Channel 4 we beat out George Bush!" Handel says enthusiastically, taking a bite from his burger-in-a-bag lunch before turning back to his giant TV. A big screen comes in handy for a sport that lives on videotape, the rentable kind as well as dupes of fight footage from Japan and Brazil.

Nearly every breaking-news report about the state's crackdown makes a reference to Fight Club, the Brad Pitt film about men exploring their savage nature in bare-knuckle brawls.

"People think we're like those kids pro-wrestling in the trailer park, you know, with their white-trash parents drunk on Keystone beer," moans Jason House, a Fighter's House regular. A few days later, someone at Fighter's House mockingly tacks a Fight Club poster on the gym's wall. Handel liked the movie, but says it was completely unrealistic.

Underground pit-fighting, to the extent it occurs, is about illegal betting, not abstract quests, he says.

Kirk Dudley, the gym's majority owner, ducked the cameras and stayed in the background last month when the state officials came to visit, letting Ritch and Handel wade into the fray. "Fighters have big egos," he says, talking in the middle of an evening workout. "They wanted to be out there."

On the business side, "the idea was for us to get a couple of hundred [dollars] for rent, generate a little interest, and attract a few new students," says Dudley, a 37-year-old construction contractor who turned a space formerly occupied by a Color Tile store into a clean, well-equipped gym.

Tanned, rock-hard, and blessed with movie-star looks, Dudley is as enthusiastic about no-holds-barred as the fighters, which is why he opened the gym about 18 months ago. Since then, he has taught his 6-year-old son, Drake, most of the basic moves, which the two run through on the mat. Dudley gives the commands: "Kick...Arm bar...Arm bar escape...Guillotine...Guillotine escape." He says he's teaching his son golf and hunting too. "I think it's good he learns a few basics about defending himself," Dudley says. "If he likes it, he can take it from there."

As much as anyone, Dudley is frustrated with the sport's quasi-outlaw status and the way state officials have tried to rein it in. "I've seen thousands of fights, and in my opinion, the more you water this sport down and try to make it less violent, the more you prolong the fight and actually make it more dangerous. Fatigue becomes a factor. A guy gets a little woggy, and that's when he gets hurt--after it goes round after round."

While not a pro, Dudley speaks from some experience. For the thrill of it, he fought a pro fight in Killeen last June. He won, but only after his opponent chinned him and blackened his eye. "I was completely gassed," he says.

As a business built on students who pay $100 a month to train, Fighter's House has been a rough proposition, Dudley says. "I hear on TV we have 60 or 70 students. We've had 30. It's been a long, hard ride to push this over the top."

Younger guys recruited out of the bars think it's simply a show of macho, he says. They either brag and don't show up, or drop away fast when they learn it's demanding and complex. Older students pull muscles or sprain shoulders and take time to heal. "There are a lot of injuries," he says.

As for aspiring pros, Dudley says he would like the gym to be part of a growing farm league, which every sport needs. "I want an active gym. But you see guys get chumped out of their money, which is this sport's dirty little secret."

Dudley says the gym tested the state's boxing authorities at least partly out of frustration. Like most people in no-holds-barred, he thinks boxing people have no business regulating it. They don't know or understand it, he says, and its potential popularity and young audience could put boxing out for the count.

Once the state issued its injunction last month and threatened possible criminal penalties for violations, though, Dudley and everyone else at Fighter's House backed off.

That included Gary Warren, their lawyer, who trains at Fighter's House most nights and happens to have been one of the fighters in Back Yard Brawl III. "Since I've been working out here, I've lost 40 pounds," says Warren, a 36-year-old who wrestled in high school in Garland and boxed in frat tournaments at Texas Tech. At the fight gym he's broken his nose, sprained an ankle, and hurt his shoulder--"just minor things...You just have to want to do it really badly. There are guys who can bend you up."

Warren, who usually practices as a corporate counsel and in white-collar criminal law, says the gym wants to put together an amateur program under the state's guidelines and stage fights as a nonprofit. He hopes they can "tweak the rules a bit and see if we can get something that still maintains the integrity of the sport. The problem is, you can't be tough and comply."

At a meeting in Austin last week between Cole and the principals at the gym, Cole said he made it clear that the state plans to enforce all of its rules.

"The biggest problems are the gloves and the ring," Handel said after the meeting. Without being able to throw punches using the sport's light, open-finger gloves, "the fights end up being a lot of slapping...it winds up being boring. You can't please a crowd with fights like that." Without the closed-fist shots, it becomes something called pancration, a grappling match with kickboxing and open-hand slapping thrown in.

Guy Mezger, the most successful no-holds-barred fighter in Dallas and winner of the UFC middleweight title in 1997, has been working with a promoter and staging pancration events at the Bronco Bowl for the past two years. He calls the Fighter's House "a bunch of morons" for thinking they could face down the state.

"They don't even understand how much trouble they're in," says Mezger, who runs his own training gym. "They thumbed their nose at the state and got their 15 minutes of fame. Now they're gonna learn how much power these state regulatory commissions have. You can't piss off the powers that be."

One day, no-holds-barred will supplant boxing, he says, but it will take small, careful steps and a show that the sport can be safe. "You have to spoon-feed it to them," Mezger says. "You can't shove it down their throat."

Carlos Muchado, a cousin to the famed Gracie brothers who runs a well-regarded jujitsu studio in Dallas, says he, too, thinks the sport has a big future. He respects Handel and Ritch, both former students, for "their great skill" if not for their judgment, he says. "It's hard to upset the status quo."

Handel says Fighter's House bucked the rules and is "taking a beating for it. I hope five, seven years down the line, people will say this was where someone took a stand. Not to sound trite, but this is our little Alamo."


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