Orlando Sentinel – Apr 8, 2007 – Shannon J. Owens – Once perceived as a niche sports with a narrow audience, mixed martial arts has proven that it’s popular and Out for blood.

KISSIMMEE — Columns of smoke billowed from the ground, and multicolored lights swirled around fighters as each marched to the center of a 10-sided metal gate.

For six hours, Silver Spurs Arena resembled a modern-day Roman coliseum as it hosted men competing in one of the fastest-growing sports in America: mixed martial arts.

The fighters kicked, choked and struck each other until blood poured from noses and foreheads. The more blood, the more cheers from the rowdy group of just more than 2,500 fans.

It was a scene ripped from a Bruce Lee film. But the blood wasn’t fake, and the fighting was real.

And judging by the legion of fans beginning to follow mixed martial arts across the country, there’s more blood on the way.

“This is like a new sport for a new generation,” said Paul Rodriguez, a UCF graduate and one of the Orlando-based World Extreme Fighting championships’ top competitors.

Silver Spurs Arena hosted the first of three mixed martial arts events two weeks ago in Kissimmee, spearheaded by local World Extreme Fighting promoter and founder Jamie Levine. Levine’s association is one of many fight associations to sprout up since Ultimate Fighting Championships catapulted the sport into a multimillion-dollar business, thanks in part to its broad popularity among men ages 18-35.

Two weeks ago, the UFC hit a benchmark when it purchased Tokyo-based rival Pride in a deal estimated to be worth close to $70 million. The impending deal would merge the two largest MMA organizations and create the potential for major pay-per-view television dollars. Also, a deal with HBO could be on the horizon.

But as the sport continues to gain momentum with the public, some wonder whether it has become the marquee fighting event for a new generation or is simply a cult phenomenon.

‘Human cockfighting’

The 1999 movie Fight Club, starring Brad Pitt and Ed Norton, introduced a younger generation to underground, no-holds-barred fighting. The movie sparked controversy for depicting gory, garage fight scenes where men would beat each other to unconsciousness, but it also stirred interest.

Levine, also a retired fighter, said the film wasn’t far from reality. While Levine attended Waynesburg College in Pennsylvania on a wrestling scholarship, a friend asked whether he wanted to fight, mixed martial arts style.

He fought in parking garages, the basements of dormitories and backyards, combining his skills as a wrestler and background in martial arts.

“That [film] was 100 percent true,” Levine said. “Some of that is still going on today.”

Before Fight Club, there was the Gracie family. The Gracies, of Brazil, are credited for staging fights in the early 1900s that combined Asian-influenced martial-arts skills such as karate, tae kwon do, jiu-jitsu and judo, and elements from wrestling and boxing to birth mixed martial arts.

Word of these gladiator-style fights grew in the early ’90s, and the sport found new popularity when promoters marketed the events as near-barbaric events with few rules and regulations. The winners, for the most part, were the fighters who still could stand.

After watching an event, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) branded it “human cockfighting.” McCain urged states to ban mixed martial arts fights.

Instead of folding, the UFC turned the perception on its head. The company came under new management in 2001 and created structure, added weight classes, judges, rounds and time limits. That was enough to sway former Nevada sports commission executive director Marc Ratner.

“You’re seeing a rebirth,” said Ratner, vice president of regulatory affairs for the UFC. “It’s much better received, but there still needs to be a lot of education done.”

Inroads in Florida

Twenty states and two Native American reservations sanction mixed martial arts events. Ratner expects that number to grow. Florida is considered one of the top three supporters based on the volume of fights it hosts, he said.

The UFC fought twice at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood, the last in October. That event sold out the 5,500-seat arena in one day, with tickets from $50-$200.

Ratner said there are plans to bring more UFC fights to the Tampa-St. Petersburg and Orlando areas. With World Wrestling Entertainment’s WrestleMania 24 coming to Orlando next year, a UFC fight is the next logical step.

Until then, several smaller mixed martial arts companies have taken root.

The Combat Fighting Championships averaged 3,000 fans at UCF, while the World Extreme Fighting event March 23 attracted 2,779 fans to Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee. The WEF has plans for two additional fights, the next on May 19. Both businesses entered the Orlando market for the first time this year.

“It’s certainly a charged atmosphere,” said Rodney Reese, general manager for Global Spectrum, the company that hosts the fights at UCF. “Many fans know the fighters; it’s a rowdy crowd, but very respectful, and we enjoy having them.”

Reese said MMA events generally fare better than boxing matches in Central Florida.

Two weeks ago, both the WBO Latin Lightweight Championships and WEF promoted fights on the same night at two venues in Kissimmee. The boxing match sold an estimated 2,200 tickets at the Kissimmee Civic Center, according to the arena’s event manager — 579 less than the WEF event.

Soon, the larger mixed martial arts events could become larger than marquee boxing, observers say.

The UFC is a privately held company by Zuffa LLC and does not release financial results, but an industry executive said the company’s 10 pay-per-view events in 2006 generated more than $200 million in customer retail revenue, according to SportsBusiness Daily and The Associated Press.

Ratner said his company earned, or will earn, nearly $3 million each in gate sales at two venues. Last month in Cleveland, more than 19,000 tickets were sold for a UFC show, one of the biggest events at Nationwide Arena since a Rolling Stones concert, he said. Houston is close to selling out 13,000 at the Toyota Center, also home to the NBA’s Rockets.

Challenger for boxing?

Despite the sport’s rising popularity, critics wonder whether it will last.

“I think it’s a little more than a fad; I think it’s here to stay,” said Marcus DiNitto, managing editor of Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Daily, a trade publication for the sports industry. “I do think there’s an appetite for this combat sport for certain demographics.”

DiNitto’s company started tracking the growth of mixed martial arts two years ago. The interest in the sport will continue to expand, but is not likely to replace boxing’s audience, he said.

“Is MMA going to wipe boxing off the map? I don’t think so,” DiNitto said. “Is it going to erode some of its numbers? Yeah.”

The Ultimate Fighter, a Spike TV reality show that tracks the behind-the-scenes steps to becoming an UFC competitor, is a hit with the 15- to 20-year-old crowd.

The show appeals to teens such as state champion wrestler Joe DeLisle from Olympia High School, who said he’s watched every bout. DeLisle, 17, has practiced jiu-jitsu and plans to study this summer at Gracie Orlando, a gym in Ocoee named after the Gracie family that caters to mixed martial arts training.

“It’s awesome to see people choking each other out,” DeLisle said.

Brutal sport has critics

But where DeLisle sees a guillotine choke — a move where a fighter wraps his forearm around the opponent to cut off his air — others see graphic violence.

Several of the fighters who competed in the WEF event last month said they have family members who refuse to watch or support their careers.

Bill Vucick, a 27-year-old fighter from Pittsburgh, said his mother-in-law, Debbie, won’t watch his fights. The blood and brutality are too much.

Fighters say the sport takes a toll on their bodies, but it isn’t as rough as it appears.

“Boxing is more dangerous because of all the hits to the head,” said Rodriguez, who owns a gym less than two miles from UCF

Tom Molloy, executive director of the Florida State Boxing Commission, which oversees mixed martial arts, disagrees.

“They [MMA fighters] can use their elbows, knees, foot and a lot of power is generated out of their legs,” Molloy said. “It could be dangerous, I think, when somebody doesn’t know what they’re doing.”

Molloy said it’s too early to detect long-term damage that could be associated with the sport. There haven’t been any reported deaths related to mixed martial arts in Florida, he said.

Some followers of martial arts think the damage is more psychological than physical.

Chris Robinson and his wife, Laura, sat ringside at the WEF event at Silver Spurs Arena.

“[Some people] enjoy it for the wrong reasons,” said Robinson, 38, from Ocala. “I noticed some people in the back were yelling ‘knee him in the groin’ or ‘why are those two guys hugging?’ They don’t know that’s a defense move. It’s like, ‘Where’s the lions [and gladiators]?’ ”

But as long as there’s blood, there will always be an audience, said sports psychologist John F. Murray.

“Throughout history, we’ve been enamored with blood, guts, gore,” Murray said. “So I think that’s always an easy sell.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.