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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 3)

By the time the main events arrive, the stands are filled. Booming out of the speakers is The Who's signature song, "Baba O'Riley," the raging sound of the electrified, rapid-paced synthesizer jacking up the audience. As Roger Daltrey sings, "I don't need to fight/To prove I'm right," the six big screens show quite the opposite—highlights of head kicks, punches and knockdowns deftly choreographed to match such lyrics as "Don't cry" and "It's only teenage wasteland."

"Teeth will get swallowed" is a phrase used prior to one UFC 81 fight. There's also been a reference to "rolling eyeballs" and the desire to "take his head off." While Lytle has bludgeoned Bradley so swiftly that no molars were digested, the likelihood of more spilt blood is in the air. As the music ends, up walks tuxedo-clad announcer Bruce Buffer. "Ladies and gentlemen," he says in the voice that is so recognizable to fight fans. "We are live!"

Everyone knows what Buffer means: UFC 81 is being televised. For White, this not only means that UFC is financially viable, but that it is credible. At the end of the evening, a big smile will come on White's face when he announces that he's hoping for an even bigger TV deal for UFC. An agreement with HBO was progressing but fell apart last year when UFC's biggest advocate within HBO, CEO Chris Albrecht, was arrested on assault charges after attending a boxing event and left his position. (Elite XC signed a deal with CBS this past February, a major credibility-enhancing step for all MMA organizations.)

Fighters emerge for each of the televised fights cocooned by their entourages, but close enough to be touched by fans lining the aisles. Each fighter enters to thumping music, ranging from the harsh but urban sounds of rap to such pop standards as "Staying Alive" and, invariably, "Eye of the Tiger." One fight ends nearly as quickly as Lytle's—it takes just 68 seconds for middleweight Ricardo Almeida to dust off Rob Yundt—while another middleweight, Nate Marquardt, needs six minutes and 37 seconds to close out Jeremy Horn.

Almeida and Marquardt owe their victories to the guillotine choke. Using the arms to encircle the opponent's neck in a fashion similar to a guillotine, pressure is applied to the trachea and airflow to the lungs is dramatically curtailed. Skillfully executed, the guillotine choke can cause unconsciousness.

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.

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