TODAY'S PAPER
Good Afternoon
Good Afternoon
Lifestyle

A Savage Appeal / While organizers of extreme fighting events contend the combatants rarely get injured, the sport's perceived brutality is its main attraction

INSIDE THE CAGE, Ricco "Pretty Boy" Rodriguez sat on the

belly and chest of Andrei Arlovski and pounded away at his face with both

hands.

The 6-foot, 237-pound Arlovski shielded his visage and tried - without any

leverage - to counter the 6-foot-4, 245- pound Staten Island-born Rodriguez.

Arlovski's meager attempts to protect himself grew more and more infrequent,

until finally Rodriguez was able to tattoo the face of his prey unopposed.

The official name of this move is the "ground and pound," but the violent

exchange wasn't some barroom throwdown, two liquored-up toughs trading blows on

the beer-soaked floor of the Dewdrop Inn during a Saturday night slugfest.

Nor was the violence the featured attraction in an underground fight club,

taking place in an abandoned warehouse while burly men of ill repute wagered on

their favorite combatant.

Rodriguez and Arlovski were squaring off in the Ultimate Fighting

Championship heavyweight bout on a muggy summer night at the Meadowlands in

front of nearly 12,000 roaring fans. The action took place inside the Octagon,

an eight-sided ring of fencing set atop a canvas floor. The corners are lightly

padded to prevent soft body parts from striking hard posts.

UFC, conceived in 1993 as a made-for-TV pay-per- view spectacle, was

designed to pit practitioners of all fighting disciplines - sumo wrestlers,

jujitsu experts, pro boxers - against each other to determine which discipline

would emerge as the most effective fighting style. Back when the organization

ran its first event in November 1993, there were only a handful of rules, like

no gouging an opponent's eyes or striking him in the groin. Today, the list of

no-nos for its combatants has grown to 27, as the new owners of the UFC, Las

Vegas casino owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, move toward more mainstream

popularity. No head butts, throat strikes, hair pulling or biting is allowed.

Matches can end by knockout, tap out (when a fighter taps the canvas, signaling

surrender), judge's decision, or referee or doctor's stoppage.

Other innovations to try to assuage opposition to extreme fighting by those

who see it not as a sport, but as human cockfighting, include the inclusion of

weight divisions and time limits for each fight.

Opponents of the sport still cite elements of extreme fighting that border

on barbarism. It's not unheard of for a fighter to get a foe in an ankle lock

or twist his arm and exert sufficient pressure to snap a bone. While blood

spillage is fairly prevalent in extreme fighting, proponents of the sport like

to point out that there is not a single documented fatality stemming from

participation in extreme fighting. The same can't be said of pro boxing.

On June 26, for example, Beethavean Scottland suffered a hematoma in a pro

boxing bout on the USS Intrepid. He died six days later.

"When ultimate fighting came out, it was advertised as no-holds-barred

street fights," said Larry Hazzard, commissioner of the New Jersey Athletic

Control Board, which sanctioned the Showdown in the Meadowlands and regulates

pro boxing in New Jersey. "But mixed martial arts seems less brutal than

boxing, because boxers take sustained barrages, round after round. In UFC, a

lot of the activity takes place on the mat and with a submission hold, the

fight is over quickly. And most fighters are evenly matched with equal

experience, and the matchmaking doesn't allow for someone with no experience to

fight."

Hazzard said he has seen fewer dilettantes in ultimate fighting than in

boxing. "In boxing, a guy can train six months off the street, and then he's in

the ring," he said. "In martial arts, that's not likely to happen."

It remains to be seen whether mixed martial arts fever will infect U.S.

audiences as it has spectators in the Far East. Rodriguez has seen firsthand

the devotion Asian fans hold for extreme fighting. His fourth, fifth and sixth

extreme bouts took place in Japan for a Japanese organization called Pride,

similar to the group that runs the UFC events in the United States. Other

organizations of various sizes also put on shows; one is likely to find an

ultimate fight show, like HooknShoot, King of the Cage and World Extreme

Fighting, somewhere in the United States or abroad on any given week.

But one place Rodriguez won't be fighting is in New York; Gov. George

Pataki made his stance on extreme fighting clear in 1997, when he signed

legislation banning these combat exhibitions in the state. "It's barbaric where

you use things like choke holds that can truly kill somebody immediately," he

said.

John Burns, the director of boxing for the Connecticut consumer protection

athletics unit, also viewed the UFC with distaste. "I am extremely doubtful

they could convince me with the present mechanism they have in place," he said

in a late-fall interview. Among Burns' points of dispute are the lack of

headgear and the lack of padded gloves in UFC contests. "I don't think

Connecticut would buy it," he said then.

Fast forward to today, as Burns has reversed his position. Tomorrow, an

event dubbed "UFC 35: Throw Down," will take place at an arena at the Mohegan

Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn.

Long Islander Phil Baroni was readying himself to fight at Mohegan before

he had to bow out with a broken hand, an injury that came during a sparring

session while prepping for the show. Baroni has a 4-1 record in his extreme

fight career. The 23-year-old middleweight, a resident of Copiague, has several

concrete goals in mind as an extreme fighter.

"My goal is to be the UFC middleweight champion," he said. "I want to be

the richest and most famous fighter in the world. I'm already the best looking

and have the best body. But I want to be considered the best by the so-called

experts, as well as the most popular fighter in the UFC. I wanna be the main

event. You could say I want a lot. ... Yeah, I want it all. I want to be known

as the sexiest, and, pound for pound, best fighter in the world."

Cablevision, which services Long Island, the Bronx and most of Brooklyn,

will carry tomorrow's event on pay-per-view for $29.95, as will several

satellite TV companies. "In the past, Cablevision felt it was too dangerous,"

said Danielle McAuley of Cablevision. "Apparently, things have changed. It's

more professional."

At last summer's "Showdown in the Meadowlands," 11,976 fans paid from $15

to $200 to see nine bouts. A scan of the crowd found a predominately white,

male audience, rowdy and in their 20s and 30s. A decent number were dressed

with casual flair - lots of midlevel labels, such as Guess and Calvin Klein in

evidence - and were hooked, arm in arm, with a significant other, some of whom

looked like they'd rather be grooving on a dance floor and sipping a

Cosmopolitan.

JAMES FOSTER, 20, paints himself as a hardcore UFC fan. The Lake City,

Tenn., resident, a high school graduate, works as a manufacturing tech at a

pillow factory and has been a fan of UFC since its inception. "I like the skill

and the sportsmanship," he says, and the fact that the various martial arts

are "all together in a melting pot. And before and after the fight, the

fighters are respectful to each other."

"I wouldn't say that UFC is too violent for me," says Steve Cohen, 46, a

librarian from Brooklyn. "In fact, it's the violence that really differentiates

UFC from ordinary martial arts events and it's something about it that the

fans really appreciate.

"UFC is not something that I had to grow to like. I took to it from the

very first pay-per-view event some seven or eight years ago. I thought the idea

was long overdue, and it seems a lot of others agreed with me. Boxing never

appealed to me: Guys in gloves and baggy shorts trading jabs at each other was

just too tame."

Those sentiments seem to echo the actions of people at the Meadowlands

event. There were occasions at the arena when people were on their feet,

screaming in approval at a strike or a takedown. But there also were several

points throughout the evening when a shower of boos rained down on the

combatants, especially at times when the fighters resembled Deborah Kerr and

Burt Lancaster rolling around on the beach in "From Here to Eternity."

Dana White, 31, is president of Zuffa Sports Entertainment, the company

that runs UFC. "We think we have the entertainment value of pro wrestling and

the realism of boxing," White said. "We're in the middle." White conceded that

educating the American consumer to appreciate the art of grappling and

submission holds is necessary.

Would the people who run UFC make concessions to the American audience to

help eliminate some of the grappling, largely the art and science of the sport,

and encourage more upright action (read: toe-to-toe tussling)?

"We're open-minded, sure," said Lorenzo Fertitta, co-owner of Zuffa, who,

with his brother Frank, took control of the UFC more than a year ago. "The

sport will need to please the fans."

The UFC hierarchy could be in a Catch-22 situation when it comes to

marketing the sport, because the unfiltered brutality is what its target

audience seems to treasure (if you go by the pro-blood-and- guts exclamations

found on UFC-centered Internet message boards), but it's the perceived

brutality that riles critics. White points out that a cut that needed stitches

was the worst injury stemming from UFC 32.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have not put off Zuffa from aggressively

marketing their brand of hyper-aggressive, violence-soaked sport with newspaper

and magazine ads, and meet-and-greet sessions with press in key markets, most

featuring UFC posterboy Tito Ortiz. He is marketed as the "Huntington Beach

[Calif.] Bad Boy." Former Baywatch beauty Carmen Electra, in all her augmented

glory, has been a focal point of print adds, posed in skimpy garb while

surrounded by UFC fighters wearing their fight gear and stony stares.

"I agree with President Bush," White said. "We need to return to normalcy.

I feel watching the UFC is a great way to escape from the daily grind."

One staunch voice against extreme fighting, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), has

recently softened his stance. "I am pleased that the new owners of the UFC

have adopted rules to better protect the safety of its fighters," McCain said

in a statement for Newsday. "I hope this change signals that this previously

barbaric and exploitative style of fighting will evolve into a true sport."

The fact that UFC has been approved and is sanctioned by at least 10 state

athletic commissions, including Nevada, helped to appease McCain.

In his short tenure in the snap, crackle and bone- popping world of extreme

fighting, Rodriguez has torn tendons in both knees and elbows, and has

shredded his anterior cruciate ligament. He isn't certain how long his body

will cooperate and allow him to participate in the bruising discipline. "Ice is

my best friend," he says, laughing. "But I have good insurance. You come in

knowing injuries are going to happen."

For now, the money isn't bad: Rodriguez took in more than $100,000 in 2000

and made $12,000 for fighting Arlovski.

Extreme fighting is a pure, noble form of competition, he'll argue, and an

honest way to make a buck.

The 9-to-5 world of office cubicles and stressed-out slave-drivers

masquerading as bosses is brutal in its own way, the fighter says.

"My office is the octagon, yours is a cubicle, mine's a 20-by-20 cage,"

Rodriguez says. "Everybody uses their office differently."

More Lifestyle