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SATURDAY NIGHT WAS ALL RIGHT FOR FIGHTING. But the pageantry for the 69th card in the Ultimate Fighting Championship's tough-and-rumble existence began much earlier that week. Long before the fighters unhinged the latch of the steel Octagon on April 7 and fought on a card titled UFC 69: Shootout, thousands of fans had converged on Houston, tribalists on a pilgrimage. The prefight weigh-ins drew massive crowds. The line for the fighters' autograph show wreathed the girth of the Toyota Center, the venue for UFC 69. The downtown bars and restaurants were overrun by fight fans.
Some were your typical badasses, lacking a full complement of teeth, wearing shirts adorned with messages the likes of FIGHT ME, I'M IRISH. But most were like Romeo Nava, 26, an aircraft mechanic from Edinburg, Texas. Nava and two buddies had gotten up at an ungodly hour the morning of the fights and made the five-hour drive through dust-choked towns to get to Houston early. They'd each paid $250 for the seats and considered neither the early wake-up nor the ticket price a sacrifice. In another era three amigos from the guts of Texas would have made such a road trip for an Aerosmith concert or an NFL game. But now ... "pretty much everyone I know is into UFC," says Nava. "You get an adrenaline rush even watching it."
The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), of which Ultimate Fighting Championship is the most popular enterprise, has penetrated the defense of the mainstream and applied a choke hold to that golden 18-to-34 male demographic. The UFC's weekly reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, on Spike TV, often eclipses the television ratings of the NBA and baseball playoffs in that target audience. The names of UFC fighters are some of the most popular entries in Internet search engines come fight time. UFC events do bigger pay-per-view numbers than any pro wrestling event or boxing card this side of Mayweather--De La Hoya. ( UFC's 2006 PPV revenues were almost $223 million, compared with $177 million for boxing on HBO and $200 million for WWE.)
All that marketing info was embodied in the UFC 69 prefight tableau. The fighters, managers and other plenipotentiaries stayed at the Hilton, lodging arrangements that were publicized on the UFC's message boards; and so it was that the lobby was thronged with dudes old enough to vote but too young to be president, armed with camera phones and Sharpies, hoping for a memento from the weekend. The St. Louis Cardinals were playing the Astros a few blocks away, but no one cared--Pujols, schmujols--at least so long as, say, Josh Koscheck was in the house. And Koscheck is only a borderline star. From the moment the crowd spotted Randy Couture, the current heavyweight champ, the membrane of admirers around him became so thick that it spilled into the hotel's Easter display. Thereafter he needed to use secret routes to get to his room, at one point cutting through a kitchen.
Early on Saturday evening, UFC Nation left the Hilton en masse, crossed the street and entered the Toyota Center, where it was greeted by a predictable rotation of loud, aggressive "psych-up" music--White Stripes, Slipknot, Linkin Park--and an elaborate light show. The first fight pitted welterweights Luke (the Silent Assassin) Cummo against Josh (Bring the Pain) Haynes, both of whom were alums of The Ultimate Fighter show and, thus, were known quantities to the crowd. Cummo, 27, is a vegetarian from New Hyde Park, N.Y.; Haynes, a 29-year-old father of three from Oregon, weighed more than 300 pounds before discovering MMA and whittling himself to his present fighting weight of 170.
The fight (there are three five-minute rounds in UFC; five in title bouts) was competitive and fairly typical of any MMA competition, a marriage of the "striking" of boxing and kickboxing with the "ground game" of jujitsu and wrestling. Wearing the requisite trunks and four-ounce, open-fingered gloves, Cummo and Haynes spent part of the first round boxing toe-to-toe and the rest of it grappling on the ground. In Round 2 Cummo began dialing in his punches and finally clocked Haynes with a right hand. Kneeling on the canvas, Haynes lunged for his opponent's legs, the textbook MMA response of a downed fighter. Problem was, his neurological wiring having short-circuited, Haynes grabbed the legs not of Cummo but of the referee, who promptly waved off the fight.
So it went for the next four hours. The fights were awkward at worst, exhilarating at best. Two bouts were won by knockout, two others by submissions (one induced with a choke, the other with a pretzeling ankle lock), a few more by anticlimactic decision. Among the combatants were former NCAA wrestlers and professional boxers, plus black belts in martial arts, all of whom had picked up additional disciplines. But, unmistakably, each fighter was endowed with technical skills.
Admittedly, the Octagon--with its medieval two-men-enter, one-man-leaves echoes--can be a jarring sight. But the action in the ring was something beyond glorified street fighting. Violent? Unquestionably. There were whooomphs and craaaacks, as well as rivulets of blood running down fighters' faces. Two weeks later, at UFC 70: Nations Collide, Brazilian heavyweight Gabriel Gonzaga would bloody the face of his opponent, Mirko Cro Cop, with elbow shots and then deliver a roundhouse kick to the head. Cro Cop (real name: Mirko Filipovic), a former Croatian antiterrorism officer and member of parliament when he's not fighting, was instantly knocked out, and as he collapsed, his right knee and ankle bent at such hideous angles that even hard-core UFC fans recoiled. A little.
But as UFC officials say with almost evangelical conviction, the sport is safer and less violent than boxing--and after watching both sports up close, it's hard to disagree. (Within a few minutes Cro Cop, for example, had regained his senses and walked out of the Octagon.) Boxing doesn't permit fighters to change tactics by clutching or wrestling. And one could even make a credible case that UFC and other MMA competitions are less brutal than--dare we say it?--the NFL. "It's a combat sport, and injuries can happen," says Couture. "But what a lot of people don't realize is that you're not there to hurt the other guy. Your adversary isn't your enemy. It's a kinetic chess kind of thing."
In the main event in Houston, welterweight champ Georges (Rush) St. Pierre, a quiet French Canadian, fought Matt (the Terror) Serra, a squat New Yorker known as a submission expert. An 8-to-1 underdog--naturally, there are Vegas lines on UFC fights--Serra cracked St. Pierre with a right cross midway through the first round. As St. Pierre fell to the canvas, Serra pounced on him and unleashed a flurry of haymakers. When, mercifully, the referee stopped the fight, Serra celebrated with a round-off. Hardly appearing like a man who'd just had his brainpan battered, St. Pierre showered, changed into a dapper suit and sought out the media to apologize to the fans "for my deeply disappointing performance."