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Punch Drunk

It’s fight night at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. A crowd of 10,362 Visigoths has come to see Ultimate Fighting Championship 58, a mixed martial arts bout promoted as the “U.S.A. vs. Canada.” Oh, when will this senseless conflict with our northern neighbors end?

At the moment, Canadian David Loiseau is having his head handed to him by Rich Franklin--not really his whole head but his face, which is a pulpy purple and wet with blood. When they are not on their feet slugging and kneeing each other, the two are on the mat--ground fighting, it’s called--in a weird kinetic embrace, each looking for and guarding against a match-ending joint lock or chokehold. The two are reportedly good friends outside the Octagon cage. Considering their frequent belly-to-belly posture, I should hope so.

No denying the sport is fascinating to watch. For one thing, because many of the competitors wear baggy knee-length trunks, it looks like the best-ever bar fight breaking out at a beach volleyball tournament.

Franklin goes on to win by unanimous decision in the fifth round and retain the UFC’s middleweight title. In a video clip played over the arena’s giant monitors, he says, “I hope you guys are entertained,” which ominously echoes Russell Crowe’s line in “Gladiator.”

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Mixed martial arts is exactly what it sounds like--a combat sport combining the punches, kicks, flying elbows and knees of kickboxing, the grappling of collegiate wrestling, and the joint locks, chokes and submission holds of Brazilian jujitsu (and you thought they only did the samba). For most of the 1990s, such no-holds-barred contests wandered in the wilderness of their own barbarity, the stuff of “Fight Club"-style contests and Toughman underground shows. Arizona Sen. John McCain famously dismissed the sport as “human cockfighting,” an epithet with more precision than the senator probably intended.

But it has gone legit, more or less. In 1999, the UFC--the major league of arena combat--imposed new rules: no head butts, no groin strikes, no stomping of a downed opponent, and other Marquis of Queensbury-type measures. Around that time, Nevada’s athletic commission sanctioned its first MMA contest, and now UFC events are threatening to displace boxing as Las Vegas’ leading sports draw. It even has its own reality TV series: Spike TV’s “The Ultimate Fighter,” which looks like a cross between “The Real World” and “Spartacus.”

Up next for a whupping: California. Last fall the state sanctioned MMA fights, joining a large handful of states where such contests have met with approval. On April 15, the UFC will debut in front of a sellout crowd of 18,000 at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim. On May 27, Brazilian jujitsu master Royce Gracie--whose family is a legend in the world of cage-fighting--will battle welterweight titleholder Matt Hughes at Staples Center.

So I’ve come to Las Vegas to get a look up close, to see if it’s as appalling as its opponents say. As a fine mist of blood settles over the ringside press tables, I’m thinking, Yup!

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Of course, disapproval is the default position for a person like me. I mean, I buy cage-free poultry; is it likely I’ll approve of cage-fighting?

Maybe there’s something good here.

I’m willing to stipulate, as the organizers of the UFC say, that this sport is inherently less dangerous than professional boxing, which tends to scramble the eggs of its athletes with endless punches to the head. Also, a fighter may surrender--tap out--without shame and return to fight another day. Roberto Duran, one of the hardest men ever in the boxing ring, uttered the words “No mas!” and was forever marked as a coward.

There are also, amid the vicious beatings, displays of camaraderie and good sportsmanship, a refreshing change from boxing’s smack-talking idiocy (paging Zab Judah).

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Conclusion: There’s nothing wrong with this sport. It’s the fans who are mental.

Boxing is, after all, stylized combat, that with its familiar rituals and rules--no hitting below the belt, neutral corners, breaking up of clinches--is fairly abstract from the experience of actual honest-to-God fisticuffs. The ultra-realistic UFC plays like methadone to the heroin of street violence. Rue verite, if you like. You would have a hard time convincing me that these fans--mostly men ages 18 to 35, though it’s hard to tell with their neck cords straining like they are--aren’t more likely to take a poke at a cop or DMV worker than your average civilian.

Also, boxing fans appreciate the game, the setup, the strategy developing round after round. Not UFC fans. If the fighters in the Octagon aren’t whaling on each other every second, this crowd gets bored and starts howling. So this is what Rome’s Coliseum sounded like.

That’s the trouble with blood sports; there’s never enough blood. For a generation virtually cured of empathy by MA-rated video games, the question is what comes after UFC--celebrity knife fights, chain saws at dawn, public crucifixion?

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I appreciate seeing two nearly naked men beat the hell out of each other as much as the next guy--but that next guy, boy, does he have issues.


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