Slugging Its Way Into the Arena

Times Staff Writer

Music screamed, colored lights flashed overhead and nearly 12,000 people howled as Rich Franklin, a math whiz from Cincinnati, shattered Nate Quarry’s nose with a left hand.

Franklin, the middleweight champion, moved in. Quarry, a 33-year-old challenger from Oregon, circled warily. His nose flopped to one side, but he was still standing, still competing.

Franklin delivered another left, snapping Quarry’s head back. Unconscious and bloodied, Quarry tumbled straight back, felled like a tree in the forest.

“This is as pure as it gets,” shouted Paul Skifter, 20, of Oakdale, Calif., “a pure adrenaline rush.” Added Ken Clement, 27, of Toronto: “It’s the best thing in sports.”

The Nov. 19 event at the MGM Grand was not a boxing match. It was a relatively new event known as mixed martial arts, or MMA, which incorporates wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, karate and jiu-jitsu.


Excoriated at first as gratuitous mayhem, extreme fighting toned down the violence to a degree, and since 2000 has been sanctioned in 20 states, including California, and has seen its popularity and TV ratings rise.

Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, is the leading U.S. brand name in mixed martial arts, in which fighters compete barefoot, wearing shorts and small gloves, protected only by a mouth guard and a cup.

Rules ban biting, hair-pulling, spitting, eye-gouging, groin strikes, abusive language and “small-digit manipulation.”

What remains still might cause boxing purists to blanch, though promoters and some regulators say it is safer than boxing because the bouts are shorter, head blows are discouraged and “tapping out” -- how a losing fighter signals that he wants to quit -- is an accepted part of the sport’s culture.

Fans in growing numbers, in person and at home, apparently crave seeing what happens when a boxer and a karate master collide. Over the last year, UFC has presented two editions of “The Ultimate Fighter,” a reality series on the male-oriented cable channel Spike TV. The second season’s finale, on Nov. 5, drew 2.6 million viewers, said Nielsen Media Research, making it cable’s highest-rated program that night among males 18 to 24. Casting is underway for a third season.

The sport’s competitive legitimacy is spelled out in New Jersey’s state rules: “The contests are not scripted like most professional wrestling events.”

Last month, the California State Athletic Commission became the latest to give its approval. The new rules take effect today, with the first bouts expected in March.

Armando Garcia, executive director of the California commission, said his small staff had been inundated with inquiries about how soon and under what conditions mixed martial arts contests could take place.

In an early December letter to would-be fighters, managers and officials, Garcia said the onset of the bouts in California was an “exciting moment for mixed martial arts” but a “challenging one” for the commission.

He said the agency initially sought an allocation of about $46,000 to “run the [mixed martial arts] process,” which includes the processing of licensing applications and oversight of the training of referees.

Garcia said a commission priority was fighter safety. He said he had asked for a budget increase and at least two more staff members, anticipating the sanctioning of dozens of mixed martial arts bouts in 2006 throughout California -- on top of perhaps 100 boxing events.

Promoters such as Darrin Dotson of West Hills can already hear the jingle of ticket and merchandise sales.

“People will be able to go ... see the UFC, and it’s going to blow up here in California,” Dotson said. “It’s going to be a huge, growing sport.”

Four years ago, a UFC event in Las Vegas drew about 4,000 spectators. Now, attendance is regularly triple that, according to Nevada state records.

The move into California caps a comeback few would have predicted nearly five years ago when brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, who own Station Casinos in Las Vegas, and Dana White, a longtime friend with a boxing background, took over UFC. Their company is called Zuffa -- an Italian word meaning “to fight.”

Mixed martial arts contests first appeared in the 1990s, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), after seeing a match, urged a ban on what he called “human cockfighting.”

McCain’s remark instead prompted states to move toward regulating it.

By 2001, when Zuffa bought in, UFC had slipped into the shadows. But Lorenzo Fertitta had served on the Nevada State Athletic Commission, and where others saw pandemonium, he and White saw opportunity in a some-holds-barred version.

“While other groups run from regulation, we run toward it,” Fertitta said, adding that such government sanctioning bestowed legitimacy. “I want to be regulated.”

White said that if not for McCain, “this could still be a freak show. He helped take this to the next level.”

A spokesman at McCain’s office declined to comment.

UFC action takes place in an eight-sided chain-link enclosure that sits on a raised platform.

Pride Fighting Championships, the leading mixed martial arts promoter in Japan, uses a boxing-style ring with ropes along the sides. California permits only the cage-like setup, but executives at the Los Angeles offices of Pride’s parent company, Dream Stage Entertainment, are pushing for a broader rule.

“Obviously, if California is serious about wanting our business, like they say they are, they’ll be able to make this amendment,” said Turi Altavilla, a company vice president.

The UFC octagon has a “menacing” feel that might suggest spectacle rather than sport, Lorenzo Fertitta acknowledged. But he and other Zuffa officials insist the cage heightens safety, saying a fighter might otherwise fall through the ropes.

Competitors sometimes end up in a hospital. But boosters say this is no different than football and reflects the sport’s commitment to safety.

Quarry was examined in Las Vegas’ Valley Hospital Medical Center after being knocked out. He said a scan determined his brain functions were normal; doctors confirmed the obvious, that his nose was broken, and sent him back to his hotel.

Quarry said he felt fine the day after his knockout, and that critics who focused on violence missed the tactics and strategy of a well-fought match: “This is literally a chess match in motion.”

Peter Carmel, a New Jersey neurosurgeon and American Medical Assn. trustee, isn’t buying it. The AMA has called for boxing and mixed martial arts to be banned on the grounds that their primary goal, Carmel said, is to “to damage, maim or incapacitate your opponent.”

State regulators say the evidence doesn’t support that claim -- especially regarding mixed martial arts.

This year, two boxers have died in Nevada. In the roughly four years since Nevada approved the sport, the most serious mixed martial arts injury has been a broken arm, said Marc Ratner, the Nevada commission’s executive director.

Nick Lembo, counsel to the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, said there had been no major injuries since the sport was sanctioned there in 2000.

“In MMA, you’re going to see there’s more violence in their advertising and marketing, and to the casual observer it does seem more primitive and more violent,” Lembo said. “But in terms of serious injuries, it seems safer than boxing.”

Bouts include fewer rounds than in boxing, and mixed martial arts referees tend to end fights more quickly than their boxing counterparts. In addition, gloves offer only minimal hand protection -- a design meant to discourage repeated pounding of an opponent’s head, a form of contact that worries regulators and medical experts.

Moreover, fighters and officials say there is no shame in conceding defeat. Boxer Roberto Duran may have earned enduring infamy against Sugar Ray Leonard years ago when he was reported to have said, “No mas,” but the honor code among mixed martial arts fighters enables a loser to “tap out” -- and to come back to fight another day.

The sport is receiving a boost from “The Ultimate Fighter,” which places 16 rivals in a house for weeks while they train and battle in elimination fights. Winners earn six-figure UFC deals.

Zuffa, privately held, does not disclose financial results. But White said pay-per-view buys were 20 times higher than four years ago and DVD sales were “stellar.”

“Right now, the business is working,” Lorenzo Fertitta said.

The fighters have helped by making themselves accessible to fans, pausing for autographs and pictures after every show.

“I cannot do anything but express my gratitude to these people,” said welterweight Diego Sanchez, 23, of Albuquerque as fans clamored for his signature.

Light-heavyweight Chuck Liddell, 35, perhaps the sport’s biggest name, has a Mohawk that shows off tattoos of Chinese characters that he says mean “place of peace and prosperity.”

A college wrestler at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Liddell said he graduated in 1995 with a business degree. He has a daughter, 8, and a son, 7.

“We’re just normal guys,” he said. “I’d do this for fun on weekends if I had to.”

Franklin, 31, said he holds a master’s degree in education and undergraduate degrees in math and education from the University of Cincinnati.

After knocking out Quarry, he was asked how his mother felt about her son’s unusual career path. “I just got off the phone,” he replied, “and she’s really proud of me.”