From the Cincinnati Enquirer

MMA fights for respect
Once considered barbaric; now big at arenas
E-mail | Print | digg us! |!

Mixed martial arts - which combines boxing, karate, wrestling and more - has afforded teachers, construction workers and businessmen the opportunity to fight their way to national and international fame.

It's a big reason why MMA, which features two combatants in a ring or cage with each trying to win by knockout, submission or points, is "America's fastest growing sport," as proclaimed on a cover of Sports Illustrated last month: You and your neighbor can relate.

Violent as it is, MMA has "applied a choke hold to that golden 18-to-34 male demographic," according to SI.

Some fighters think that is because the primitive, mano-y-mano nature of MMA helps men relate to their inner being better than any other sport.

"I personally think that there is a fighter inside of everyone," said Levi Adams, of Covington, scheduled to make his professional debut in the MMA Big Show event tonight at Cincinnati Gardens. "Every time they watch a fight, that fighter comes out just a little bit. Everyone wants to fight their enemies, whether they are people or just problems. Everyone wants to face that fear. I think MMA lets them live that little dream out."

Greater Cincinnati gradually has jumped on the MMA bandwagon, with former Oak Hills High School teacher-turned-fighter Rich Franklin emerging in recent years as one of the faces of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the major leagues of MMA. Tonight, aspiring Rich Franklins will fight in the first big MMA event in Greater Cincinnati.

The event organizer expects a crowd of 5,000-6,000, and fans will witness a sport that critics, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have called human cockfighting and barbaric. Kicking and elbowing to the face are legal, but only at certain angles and in certain positions. So is choking. McCain's efforts, along with other politicians, have helped keep MMA banned in some states. Ohio is one of 32 states that has sanctioned MMA.

"(McCain) said it only appeals to the lowest spectrum of society," said Jorge Gurgel, an Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter who owns an MMA training center in West Chester. "... In the beginning, it was the construction workers and blue-collar people watching the sport. Now, doctors are having (fight-watching) parties at their houses. I went to get a haircut, and there was an 80-year-old lady who said, 'I watched your fight on TV!' Kindergartners want our autographs."

Indeed, MMA has come a long way in the United States since it emerged from the underground in the early 1990s. In fact, critics gradually have been hushed, and MMA has rapidly become more mainstream with the implementation of, well, a set of rules. The Ultimate Fighting Championship debuted in 1993 with essentially two rules: No eye poking and no biting.

Under new ownership, which took control in 2001, Ultimate Fighting helped spearhead an effort to bring unified rules to MMA, which has dozens of fledgling "minor leagues." Ultimate Fighting implemented 28 rules - it has grown to 31 now - and added weight classes, decisions that helped launch it from a struggling enterprise early this decade to an organization that in 2006 rivaled World Wrestling Entertainment and boxing in pay-per-view revenue.

Gurgel said MMA has become appreciated for the discipline and athleticism involved in a sport that is a combination of judo, boxing, karate, kickboxing, jiu-jitsu and wrestling, among other disciplines.

"The initial draw probably was the brutality, the shock-and-awe of it," said Jason Appleton, president of Cincinnati-based MMA Big Show. "But it's transformed from being barbaric into a clean, pure sport. You're not watching 15 rounds of guys beating each other in the head."

MMA proponents take pride in the fact that no known deaths have occurred during sanctioned events in the United States, unlike boxing. And they say MMA is safer than boxing.

"If we're boxing, the goal is to hit you in the head as many times as possible until you fall asleep," Appleton said. "In MMA, I can hit you in the head one time, you fall down and then I grab your arm, lock you up and you tap out - and the match is over. You can win (an MMA fight) without throwing a single punch. MMA is chess. Boxing is checkers."

Boxers have a reputation as punch-drunk trash-talkers. Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters, on the other hand, typically are personable and accessible to fans and media. Franklin, for instance, has built a reputation as fan-friendly and is an ambassador for MMA, having attended several state-sanctioning hearings and discussed the sport on such national TV shows as FOX News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor."

"I've talked to several (state athletic) commissioners who have said, 'I just can't believe the level of professionalism that is involved, the respect the fighters have for each other,' " Franklin said.

Said Gurgel: "But like every sport, we have punks."

Gurgel worries that MMA's meteoric rise could be setting the sport up to fail. He said too many MMA organizations and events are popping up. He also has noticed that there has been a wave of bar owners setting up makeshift rings and having amateur patrons sign on-the-spot insurance waivers to fight.

"We train all day, we don't drink, we don't smoke, we eat six times a day," Gurgel said. "But now everybody wants to be a fighter. It's such a huge wave, and everything that grows that fast crashes. I just worry about it getting watered down. I wish it was still just the best-of-the-best."