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The New Main Event
L. JON WERTHEIM
May 28, 2007
The rising interest in mixed martial arts is tied to ULTIMATE FIGHTING, which changed its ways to gain acceptance. Now its success is changing the sports landscape
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May 28, 2007

The New Main Event

The rising interest in mixed martial arts is tied to ULTIMATE FIGHTING, which changed its ways to gain acceptance. Now its success is changing the sports landscape

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The fighters inside Lumberyard II aren't paid a dime and don't get a cut of the $10 cover. They sign a waiver before they even remove their shirts. The ringside EMT and the defibrillator kit suggest a potential for injury. Still, Cox has to cap the card at a dozen fights. "Otherwise," he says, "we'll be here till the morning." Unlike Toughman contests--those box-offs that pit rank amateurs against each other and make news every couple of years when a contestant dies from injuries suffered in the ring--amateur MMA night attracts experienced and skilled fighters. Muscles bulging and ears cauliflowered, the combatants are mostly former high school and college wrestlers who have learned taekwondo, jujitsu and kickboxing. A number of current UFC stars got their start at events like this, including middleweight "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler, an Iowa native who has fought on seven UFC cards. "These are the kind of kids who once wanted to be professional football or baseball players," says Cox, a burly former boxer in his mid-40s. "Now they all want to be MMA stars."

Iowa has become a fertile crescent of sorts for MMA, a distinction that owes largely to one man. Long before he became a UFC lightweight and welterweight champ, Pat Miletich was a minor legend in the MMA subculture. A former high school wrestler and football star, Miletich spent most of his 20s barnstorming the Midwest, fighting in underground no-holds-barred events. Miletich often spotted his opponents 100 pounds, but--mostly on account of his Brazilian jujitsu training and singular intensity--he invariably gave worse than he got.

In the late 1990s Miletich opened a training academy in his hometown of Bettendorf, and aspiring MMA competitors from all over the country converged on the gym. Former lightweight champ Jens (Lil Evil) Pulver, for instance, took a train to Iowa from Washington State in 2001 and slept on a karate mat in Miletich's gym until he could earn enough by fighting to afford his own efficiency apartment. "Best move I ever made," says Pulver, now UFC aristocracy. On any given morning Miletich's gym, a few blocks from the banks of the Mississippi, is home to a MMA all-star team-- Sylvia, former welterweight titleholder Matt Hughes, light heavyweight Jeremy Horn--whaling away at punching mats and rolling each other around on sweat-saturated mats. Like a Buddha clad in a silk karate gi, Miletich sits cross-legged, speaking only when he feels he has something profound to say.

Now 39, Miletich is a bridge between MMA's past and future. He's heard the explanations for the sport's surging popularity. MMA has siphoned fans who are alienated by corrupt boxing promoters and the choreography of WWE, pay-per-view ripoffs and unsympathetic fighters.... MMA is of a piece with Red Bull and instant messaging and video games, a sport for an ever-coarsening culture that deplores subtlety and patience.... MMA has some international flavor, but at a time when other sports are globalizing, the stars are predominantly American males--white ones, at that.... Violence sells.

Miletich thinks it all points to something more primal. "It seems like there are fewer and fewer opportunities to find out who you really are," he says. "With this combination of violence and discipline--brains and brawn--you have a hell of a way to find out. Same thing from the fans' perspective. There's no b.s. Two guys are stripped down. One wins, one loses. Where else do you get that anymore?"

It's as much a part of human nature as the impulse to watch two men fight: thriving enterprises breed competition. In addition to training fighters, Miletich coaches the Quad City Silverbacks of the International Fight League ( IFL), a 12-team MMA circuit. A publicly traded company, the IFL has a weekly television show on Fox Sports Net and plans to expand internationally. While the IFL fighters are mostly up-and-comers, the franchise coaches--Frank and Ken Shamrock, Don Frye--were top UFC fighters of the previous era. There are other MMA leagues too: EliteXC, England's Cage Rage, Strikeforce, Bodog Fight and SpiritXC. On June 2 in L.A., Johnnie Morton, a former Detroit Lions receiver, and Brock Lesnar, a former NCAA heavyweight wrestling champ turned professional wrestling star, are fighting on a K-1 Dynamite card. Even Meyrowitz, the UFC founder, is apparently looking to get back in the game, recently pitching networks on a new MMA league.

White, as one might expect, fights ruthlessly against the competition. In March, UFC purchased its Asian rival, Pride, for a reported $70 million, with designs on creating Super Bowl--style megafights. UFC fighters under contract are strictly forbidden from fighting in other organizations. In the past, fighters at odds with White have seen their names and achievements removed from the UFC's official website. "Dana," says one UFC employee, "doesn't always play nice." (White is also smart enough to know that if there's one MMA fatality, even if it's on some unsanctioned card and not in an official UFC bout, the whole enterprise could be sunk.)

White cuts the figure of a stage parent, fiercely proud and protective of his offspring. As he sees it, the UFC is on the verge of becoming the next NASCAR, and he'll be damned if he's going to loosen his grip now. White picks the new fighters and negotiates their contracts on the UFC's behalf; he determines most purses; he helps make matches; he selects venues; he handpicked the broadcast team of college football play-by-play announcer Mike Goldberg and former Fear Factor host Joe Rogan. Inevitably, UFC cards will be broadcast on premium channels, but talks with HBO are said to be held up in part because White was unwilling to cede control of the production. Negotiations are still on-going but HBO does not see UFC as a replacement for boxing. "This is the s--- I'm passionate about," says White. "I'd say one of the best things about me is how aggressive I am, and it's also probably the worst."

And while analysts conservatively value the league at more than $100 million, don't even bother asking White if he'd ever consider taking the UFC public. "Never!" he says. "Have a bunch of pencil necks in New York telling me how to run my business? Guys who went to college, and Bear Stearns, who are like, The numbers don't make sense?" he says. "I'm going to f------ do it the way I want to do it."

When UFC 69 concluded, White held court at the postfight press conference. He offered a candid assessment of the bouts. With a pained expression, he declared the much-anticipated fight between Diego Sanchez and Josh Koscheck a disappointment. "They didn't let their hands go as much as they should have," he said. On the podium alongside White, Koscheck looked down ashamedly. White praised an electrifying fight between Roger Huerta and Leonard Garc´┐Ża. "Roger's a good-looking kid, the ladies love him, and more important, he speaks Spanish!" White said. When it came time to announce the gate, an impish smile stole across his face. "Two-point-eight million," he said. "Who's your daddy?"

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