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Fight Club

Mixed martial arts is surging in popularity and could be the salvation of sports.
Joel Drucker
From the Print Edition:
Tiger Woods, May/June 2008

(continued from page 1)

At last it's time for Lesnar-Mir. There's more music and a sound bite from Lesnar: "The first thing that will go through Frank's mind is 'Holy bleep.'" Draped on the ropes behind Mir is a towel that says "Hostility." On Lesnar's shirt are the words "Death Club." Barry Bonds is on his feet.

Lesnar starts strong, flinging Mir to the floor, a harsh sound that echoes through the Events Center. Lesnar rains elbows on Mir's head. Referee Steven Mazzagatti stops the fight. Is it over this quickly? Not quite. Lesnar is penalized for hitting Mir on the back of the head (sorting out the legal from the illegal in combat sports has always been difficult). Eighty seconds into the fight, and it's all Lesnar.

Mir recovers. His martial arts training does him well, as he slips his left foot inside Lesnar's right leg and drops him to the canvas. The thudding sound is loud, amplified when Mir hops on the ground too—520 total pounds of sinewy flesh, 255 of which are now primed to inflict pain. Ten seconds after it appeared Lesnar was on his way to victory, Mir has him in an unbreakable kneebar. The fight is over. Says Lesnar afterward, "I could see the lights getting dimmer and dimmer."

The brevity of the Lesnar-Mir bout only increases expectations for the finale between Nogueira and Sylvia. While most UFC fights are comprised of three rounds each five minutes long, this one's a five-rounder. The 241-pound Nogueira, who resembles the kind of Latin fighter you'd see played by the hulking Anthony Quinn, lumbers to the ring, accompanied by the Rolling Stones' classic "Gimme Shelter." Next it's the 255-pound Sylvia, draped in American flag. His previous song, "Jesus Walks," by Kanye West, has been replaced by "Hillbilly Deluxe," a song that starts with the lyrics: "Hey, up in the backwoods, down in the holler/Old boys feelin' like a dog on a collar/Keepin' that chain pulled tight/Waitin' on Saturday night."

Buffer grabs the microphone, waits for the crowd to go quiet and then declares, "It's T . . . I . . . M . . . E!" When the bell sounds, Sylvia goes on the prowl. Nogueira looks weak and tries to get Sylvia down on the ground so he can make it a jujitsu fight, but can't do it. Sylvia is a formidable boxer, scoring several takedowns in the first two rounds, cutting Nogueira near the eye. Nogueira's face puffs up. As the third round starts, Sylvia's clearly ahead on points.

But after reversing another takedown attempt, Nogueira whips Sylvia to the side. Sylvia wriggles out of an armbar but is unable to escape a choke. One minute, 28 seconds into Round 3, and Nogueira is the victor. He holds the gaudy gold belt up in the air. A humbled Sylvia afterward will admit, "He takes a beating and keeps on ticking."

Lesnar earns $250,000. Mir takes home $140,000, while Nogueira gets $260,000 and Sylvia wins $160,000. Lesnar's going home to Minnesota to ice-fish and to "learn how to lose" so he can "learn how to win." Sylvia nods towards Lesnar. He plans to head home to Texas to "kill some pigs and work on my damn jujitsu."

So how best to grasp UFC? B.J. "The Prodigy" Penn is a 29-year-old lightweight from Hawaii who's come to Las Vegas to be photographed for a video game. Penn's authored a book titled Mixed Martial Arts: The Book of Knowledge (Victory Belt Publishing, 2007). He has the cauliflower ears of a fighter who's been cuffed a few times, but also the extensive discipline and devotion of a professional athlete. Besides drinking two gallons of water a day, Penn eats 300 grams of protein each day—just over two pounds of filet mignon—and claims that "oatmeal isn't for breakfast." He practices mixed martial arts at least five hours a day. "This is the reality show generation," says Penn, "and this is the reality sport for this generation. This is real emotion, not just something with a ball. Fighting was the first sport. It's the most important." If you agree, then UFC will satisfy your craving.

Joel Drucker is the author of the book Jimmy Connors Saved My Life.


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