Fighting to be the RING LEADER

Ultimate Fighting Championship has withstood a lot of hits and now is ready for a staredown with boxing and wrestling


When Chuck Liddell first fought in an Ultimate Fighting Championship octagon, he was a 28-year-old bartender with backgrounds in amateur wrestling and karate and a fervent hunger to scrape out a living doing what he loved - fighting.

Eight years later, Liddell is the face of the country's fastest-growing combat sport. He's a millionaire. He endorses exercise supplements on cable television. His angular visage, adorned with tattoos and topped by a tightly cropped Mohawk, is known to thousands upon thousands of men, ages 18 to 34. And when he walks out for his next fight at the end of August, those men will pay handsomely - whether $700 for a ringside seat in Vegas or $39.95 to tune in from their couches - to watch his fists fly.

"It's all worked out a bit better than I thought," said Liddell, on a cell phone from California, where he was training to brutalize a Brazilian limb twister named Renato "Babalu" Sobral on Aug. 26.

The light heavyweight champion isn't the only one amazed by what has happened since he first fought. The UFC was a company on the run back then. Sen. John McCain had labeled it "human cock fighting" and had leaned on contacts in the cable industry to force mixed martial arts off the air. The sport wasn't sanctioned in big fight towns such as Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles. It seemed an oddity whose brief time in the spotlight had passed.

But the UFC has risen from near oblivion to become a sports and entertainment force. It sells out arenas in Las Vegas and generates $3 million live gates that would be the envy of most boxing promoters. Several cards have drawn more than 400,000 pay-per-view buys this year, totals that beat all but the biggest boxing and pro wrestling events. The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC's cable reality show, draws some of the best cable ratings anywhere among young men. Celebrities, from Shaquille O'Neal to Paris Hilton to Leonardo DiCaprio, have shown up to watch the combat.

UFC president Dana White wants more. He wants the sport licensed in all 50 states. He wants to be covered on ESPN and in the country's largest newspapers. He wants to open offices and cut TV deals in countries around the world. He wants his fighters to be sports stars, respected for blending centuries' worth of fighting styles and for training like demons. He wants people to know that the sport he loves, not boxing, is the choice of a new generation.

"The things we're going to do in the next 10 years are going to blow people's minds," White said.

In harm's way

The UFC still has its detractors. Many states, including Maryland, don't sanction mixed martial arts. Doctors decry the sport's brutality. And some boxing aficionados say that UFC fights - which blend Brazilian jiu jitsu, amateur wrestling and striking arts such as boxing and kickboxing - are still very crude.

"The technical profundity of boxing is a product of its 115-year pedigree in this country and to compare those two is like comparing a mole hill to a planet," said Jim Lampley, who has called boxing on HBO for 19 years. "What I see with the UFC are bar fights. They may be very good bar fights, but they're still bar fights."

The sport is immoral, said Dr. Pete Carmel, a New Jersey neurosurgeon and board member for the American Medical Association.

"It's a sport whose principle aim is to harm an opponent and if possible, knock him out," Carmel said. "As a neurosurgeon, I find that reprehensible."

A study published this year by Johns Hopkins physicians found that mixed martial arts organizations have reduced risks by accepting regulation and that injury rates are very similar to those in boxing and other combat sports. The risk of traumatic head injury may be lower, the study concluded, because fighters take fewer strikes to the head.

But Carmel predicted that given enough time and enough fights, a death or severe injury will occur. "I just don't think you play a sport to damage people," he said.

Mixed backgrounds

The UFC is the most visible outlet for a realm of fighting known as mixed martial arts (Japan's PRIDE organization and numerous smaller promotions sell the same sport). Lovers of the form trace it to the ancient Greek sport of Pankration, which also combined grappling, striking and submission holds.

UFC fights can be confusing to watch for the uninitiated. They bear no resemblance to the high-flying sequences from kung fu movies.

Fights are broken into five-minute rounds - three for a regular contest and five for a championship match - and can end in a decision, a referee's stoppage or a submission to punches or holds.

The combatants usually begin on their feet exchanging blows like boxers. Some bouts end quickly when a fighter catches his opponent with a punch to the chin. But more often, one fighter dives through the punches, cinches a leg and takes his opponent to the mat.

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