Ultimate Fighting Championship shows Dallas why boxing suddenly feels more like the ballet

No place to hide: Vitor Belfort( left) pummels the heavily favored Rich Franklin into submission during the main event of the Ultimate Fighting Championship on September 19 before a sellout crowd at the AAC.
Matt Nager

Imagine the Byron Nelson Pavilion on steroids. And ecstasy. Then, about every 10 minutes, a fight breaks out.

Welcome to Ultimate Fighting Championship 103, better known as the best place to see bullies, boobs, brawls and good ol' blood on a Saturday night in Dallas. Scooch a bit, boxing.

"Boxing," says the 20-something fan in the crooked hat with the straight bill who wants to be identified only as Pure, "is for pussies. UFC is the shit."

From its fitness-freak followers to its pushy president to its next evolution of brutality, there's nothing subtle about UFC.

America's fastest-growing sport—a violent confluence of punching, kicking, choking and everything other than biting—brought its rogue rebellion to American Airlines Center last weekend. Bored by the collapse of the Texas Rangers and with time to kill before the curtain was raised on Cowboys Stadium, I checked it out. What I got was a sensory overload roundhouse kick to the kisser, an unfiltered infusion of testosterone, tequila ads, tah-tahs and tapouts.

Bottom line: Your first time at a UFC event will be like your first experience rifling through a Playboy. Not exactly sure what you saw, but irrationally and eternally convicted to see more. Yeah, I'm hooked.

Because in this unprecedented, unnerving environment littered with recession and depression, there's something therapeutic about UFC. Live vicariously through a fighter in the fenced-in octagon, and next thing you know you're delivering a debilitating arm-bar to your unemployment officer. And unlike boxing, the fights are quick, to the point. If boxing is a chess match, UFC is Jenga at three paces.

Of the 13 three-round bouts at AAC, only four required judges' decisions. Among the resolutions: Knockout, technical knockout, verbal submission, rear naked choke, dislocated shoulder, arm triangle and the ever-popular face pummeled into the floor. Of the night's six featured fights—including Vitor Belfort's upset knockout of Rich Franklin in the main event—only two made it past the first round.

Senator John McCain once referred to Mixed Martial Arts (UFC is simply a brand of MMA—what True Religion is to blue jeans) as "human cockfighting." More like bulls with hemorrhoids, trapped in your china armoire.

Like it or not, UFC is a stern step toward the bloodthirsty brutality of Rollerball. The object of the game: submission.

In the first 45 seconds of the night's first fight, there was more action than in the entirety of boxing champ Floyd Mayweather's unanimous decision over Juan Manuel Marquez. The night's biggest groan/loudest cheer was the reaction to Junior dos Santos (who earlier in the fight had to take a one-minute break after absorbing a kick to the crotch) delivering a full-throttle knee to the face of Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic. So stunned and blooded was Cro Crop that he could barely surrender. In the nightcap—a fight that started around 11:15 p.m.—Belfort sent the favored Franklin to the mat with a left-handed punch to the temple, then pounced on top of him and began pummeling the back of his head. Twice he delivered blows that bounced Franklin's dazed chin/face/head into—and off of—the floor like a basketball.

And therein lies the difference: Knockdowns are the end in boxing, but only the beginning in UFC.

After savagely beating another man, Belfort took the microphone and exclaimed "Jesus, I love you!," prompting all of us to wonder what the pay-per-view ratings were for this fight in the big media room upstairs. Belfort then signed autographs, shook hands and posed for photos before making his way to an interview room for a 30-minute press conference.

Another reason for UFC's escalating popularity: The fighters have attitude, but they are—thanks to UFC President Dana White—also accessible. Last week the contestants held open workouts at the Anatole hotel and signed autographs for three hours at the Dallas Convention Center.

White, who bought the sport for a measly $2 million in 2001, has transformed it into a nine-figure business by connecting to his fan base. A combo of wrestling's Vince McMahon and former Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, White shows up for press conferences in blue jeans and has 2 million customers per week watching UFC on Spike TV, hundreds of thousands buying his pay-per-view shows and more than 17,000 shelling out $100-plus for tickets to the AAC extravaganza.

He even has the envy of Mark Cuban.

The Mavericks' boss also owns high-definition cable network HDNet, which is considered a hub of MMA despite not televising any UFC. HDNet's Inside the MMA is the sport's version of ESPN SportsCenter, and fans of UFC are watching.

"If you like MMA put on by UFC, you will very likely want to watch any and all fights we show on HDNet. Which is exactly what has happened," Cuban said in an e-mail. "[MMA and UFC] aren't competitors, they [UFC] just happen to have a TV deal with Spike and not HDNet."

White's real genius is in realizing—despite a live fight November 7 on CBS and former champ Chuck Liddell's appearance on Dancing With the Stars—he couldn't sell blood-and-guts fighting to mainstream America. Instead, he took former schoolteachers like Franklin, members of Croatian Parliament (Cro Cop) and Olympic wrestlers (heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar) and created a cable niche, from which sprouted the planet's most popular fight club.

How's UFC doing?  Quick, name the boxing heavyweight champion of the world. While you try to remember which Klitschko owns what belt, consider that UFC's Saturday appearance in Dallas was the highest-grossing sporting event in the history of AAC and No. 2 all-time gate behind only the Rolling Stones concert in 2005. And to think, UFC 103—void of a mega-star or title fight—was akin to the New Orleans Saints hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars.

It's not just the sport, it's also the spectacle.

While in the ring, UFC fighters are an amalgamation of muscles, tattoos and second-skin underwear strategically slapped with advertisements; the crowd consists of fans convinced they're movie extras, if not altogether co-stars. Everyone plays the part: Men puffed up from creatine cupcakes don costumes of tight Affliction T-shirts and surgically enhanced women boasting curve-hugging outfits bedazzled with sequins and sex appeal. Crowd demographic: 80 percent male. 100 percent hot.

The boys are wannabe fighters, constantly comparing biceps and arm candy. The girls are coulda-been ring girls, clinging to the hope that plunging necklines will prompt rising futures.

Here's how the game-outside-the-game plays out: You dress up in flirty fashion that screams look at me, then spend the night scouring the joint for people who might look at you the wrong way. Example: After dos Santos' victory, four men in the lower bowl took swings at each other and wound up tumbling down the aisle headfirst. An impromptu undercard, if you will.

You'd think such a sweaty sport would attract a blue-collar crowd but, at least ringside, the AAC was filled with beautiful people sporting gorgeous pecs. Cuban was there, as was porn star Jenna Jameson, former Cowboy Herschel Walker (who has since signed to be an MMA fighter) and "McLovin'" from Superbad. Music, mayhem and, yes, machismo.

After a night groovin' with the gladiators, I have but one question: When's UFC 104?

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