Abe Javadi has yet to enter the cage, but he has already made his first mistake. The lanky 20-year-old has braided his long brown hair instead of shaving it off. It's a small concession to vanity, but as anyone who's seen ultimate fighting can testify, he might as well have installed a handle on his head.
Doug "The Dog" Hiles is a bald, tattooed brawler who looks like a Hollywood arch-villain. He gives up plenty of height and reach, but it hardly matters in this kind of fight. Hiles is heavier and has a lower center of gravity. More important, this Dog is a human pit bull.
The bell rings and The Dog charges across the mat. Javadi stands frozen in a fighting stance, his knee lifted to protect himself. The Dog swats it aside, wraps up Javadi, and slams him to the ground, then mounts his opponent and rains punches to his face.
The crowd erupts. They came to Metropolis in the Flats to see blood, and The Dog does not disappoint. Javadi's nose explodes like a water balloon.
When the referee pulls The Dog off, Javadi is wearing a crimson mask. A cut man applies cotton to stanch the bleeding. Everyone assumes the fight is over. Everyone except Javadi.
Tears stream from his eyes, but he's ready for more. The cut man steps away, the referee mops blood from the mat, and the cage door closes. The fighters tie up, but Javadi slips free and drives a knee into The Dog's face. Pissed, The Dog scoops him up and drives his back into the steel cage, then falls on him.
Javadi wraps his arms and legs around his opponent, hugging him close to guard against more punches, but The Dog is too strong. He pushes Javadi's head to get distance, then grabs a fistful of hair and starts punching.
One wonders how much more Javadi will endure before the ref calls for the bell. This isn't a fight; it's a public execution.
But unbeknownst to the crowd, Javadi has seized the advantage. The Dog is on top, but Javadi has snaked his arm around his opponent's elbow. He's pushing it the wrong way in a painful lock that threatens a compound fracture.
The Dog relents and lays down on Javadi, exhausted. Javadi easily rolls over and mounts him, then puts his hand on The Dog's throat. The crowd jumps to its feet, ready for retribution.
But The Dog shakes his head no. He holds his hands out, appealing for mercy. The crowd can't believe it. "Hell no! Hell no!" someone is screaming.
But it's true. The Dog has given up.
The sport goes by many names -- no-holds-barred, mixed martial arts, cage fighting -- but it's most popularly known as ultimate fighting, a name derived from Ultimate Fighting Championship's pay-per-view matches. Rules differ between organizations, but basic elements remain the same: Two men are locked in a cage made of aluminum fencing. They wear martial arts gloves, which leave the fingers free for grappling. A fighter wins by knocking his opponent out, forcing him to submit, getting the referee or the other fighter's corner to stop the fight, or by decision if the fight exceeds the allotted time, usually 15 minutes.
It's been billed as "anything goes," but that's more hype than truth. The UFC's rules list 31 fouls, including eye gouging, groin attacks, throat strikes, grabbing the clavicle, and kicking or kneeing a grounded opponent. Beyond that, it's a free-for-all.
The sport has struggled to win legitimacy. Most state athletic associations, including Ohio's, refuse to sanction it. Which left the Cleveland competitors to take their lumps for free, since paying them would put them under the purview of the athletic commission, says Corey Tomasso, a promoter for the Hammer House Fight Club, which organized the event.
The lack of a paycheck caused at least one fighter to quit early. Dartrell Miller tapped out soon after his opponent took him to the mat. "When my two teeth get knocked out, or half my mouth gets knocked out, what am I going to do next?" he asks. "Who's going to pay for my dental coverage?"
Still, the risk of injury and lack of cash didn't dissuade 16 men from stepping into the cage. They were there to test their martial arts skills in real combat, to beat somebody's ass without legal ramifications, or to be seen by someone who can lead them to The Big Show: a UFC pay-per-view.
"Everybody sits there watching, and they never get a chance to do it," says Tierre Hall, a 26-year-old fighter and security guard. "It's like if someone were to come to Cleveland and say, 'We're drafting for the NFL. Who wants to come on down?'"
Ultimate fighting is as old as mankind itself, says Marcus Marinelli, who trains competitors at Tracy's Karate in Independence. "They had it long before they had basketball and baseball and shit. Cavemen were beating each other up."
But it wasn't until UFC staged its first brutal pay-per-view in 1993 that the sport took off in America. It was a simple idea, the kind of thing a comic book fan might dream up: What would happen if a boxer fought a wrestler? If a shootfighter took on a jujitsu artist?
One thing became clear after the first match: It would be bloody.
The fight pitted a sumo wrestler against a man schooled in savate, a French form of kickboxing. When the bell rang, the sumo lumbered across the ring, went for a tackle, and fell down. The savate fighter regarded his fallen foe for a moment, then unleashed a wicked kick that sent a tooth flying from the sumo's mouth.
That first show had the mark of an amateur affair: Lighting was bad, football legend Jim Brown provided inane commentary, and a boxer entered the ring wearing one puffy red boxing glove. He not only looked ridiculous, but was as ineffectual as a one-handed man.
Yet it also had the ingredients Americans look for in sports: violence, bravado, and a triumphant underdog. Royce Gracie, a puny Brazilian schooled in jujitsu, won the $50,000 purse by defeating much larger opponents with pretzel-like submission holds.
Bloodshed was the draw. Here was a sport that didn't cloak its violence with oblong balls or cartoonishly padded gloves. It was just two men beating the hell out of each other to see who was tougher, the closest one could get to the gladiators of ancient Rome.
The formula worked. Pay-per-view numbers mushroomed from 80,000 for the first show to more than 300,000 by 1995 -- a buy rate that rivaled major boxing matches and the WWF. "They were making millions overnight on pay-per-view," says Joel Gold, founder of Full Contact Fighter magazine, the industry bible.
But the over-the-top violence also proved to be the UFC's undoing. At the height of its popularity, boxing fan and U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) viewed a UFC tape and found it "barbaric." He branded it "human cockfighting" and sent a letter to all 50 governors asking them to ban it.
The UFC's owner, Semaphore Entertainment, did little to make the sport palatable. It touted fights as the "bloodiest, most barbaric show in history." Highlight reels splashed only the most brutal punches and kicks.
The death blow to the UFC came in early 1997, when McCain became chairman of a Senate committee that oversees the cable industry. Fearing they would lose influence in Washington, the major pay-per-view companies balked at airing UFC events.
UFC lost exposure and revenue. New York and other states either banned the sport outright or added so many prohibitions that it couldn't possibly go on. Practically the only way to see it was live at auditoriums in Japan or in more permissive southern states.
But the genie would not go quietly back into its bottle. Dozens of small fight clubs like Hammer House sprung up around the country. Now the UFC is attempting a rebirth. Two and a half years ago, casino magnates Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta bought the company. They brought on board Dana White, a boxing manager and gym owner, to be company president and make the UFC profitable again.
White convinced Nevada, New Jersey, and Connecticut to sign on after he agreed to a slew of new rules, including a prohibition against kicking when a fighter is down.
"This isn't Bum Fights," he says, referring to the underground videos of homeless people squaring off. "These guys are real athletes, and I don't want to see any of them get soccer-kicked in the face. It's just not safe, and it's not necessary."
The rules assuaged critics, including McCain. In 2001, the UFC held its first major pay-per-view in three years. Last November, UFC 40 drew 135,000 buys, the third largest pay-per-view crowd of the year, behind only the Vernon Forrest/Shane Moseley and Lennox Lewis/Mike Tyson boxing matches.
Last summer, the UFC took a major step toward the mainstream when it showed a fight on Fox Sports Net's Best Damn Sports Show Period. The show yielded such spectacular ratings that the league is now in negotiations with several major cable outlets to produce a weekly show, White says.
But if the UFC is to succeed, ultimate fighting will have to shed its loutish reputation. Combatants must demonstrate that they compete not because they like hurting people, but for the same reason other athletes do: for money, for pride, or for sheer love of the game.
They must prove that the brutes have the souls of sportsmen.
Promoters try to downplay the violence. One fighter told a reporter that ice skaters also risk injury -- never mind the distinction between a botched triple Lutz and a kick to the face.
But it's also true that the fights look more dangerous than they are. No one has died from a UFC fight in the league's 10-year history. The same cannot be said of boxing or NASCAR.
"I was a professional boxer," says Gold of Full Contact Fighter. "We used to get punched in the head for 10 or 12 rounds. You want to talk about brutal? I'll tell you about concussions and black eyes and broken noses. I got all that in boxing."
The lighter gloves used by the UFC make it look more dangerous than boxing, but in fact the opposite is true. Heavy gloves protect a fighter's hands and allow for repeated punches to the head, which can lead to death or punch-drunk brain damage. Breaking a hand on an opponent's skull is a relatively common injury in ultimate fighting, and it provides an obvious disincentive to head blows.
Most UFC fights end not from a neck-snapping knockout, but from submission forced by a choke or an arm bar. You'd never know it from the pay-per-view hype, however, and for obvious reasons: No one pays $30 to watch two guys roll around on the floor.
"American fans are impatient," says Mark Coleman, a former UFC champion. "They wanna see knockouts. They want to see blood. What they got was a lot of strategic fighters trying to win a very violent chess match."
Still, the brutality that McCain decried is in ample supply as Coleman stands before the big-screen TV in his Columbus home, which shows one of his more stomach-churning bouts.
The victim is Alan Goes, a middleweight Brazilian jujitsu fighter who gives away 40 pounds. Goes begins with a series of wild, aerial kicks as beautiful and harmless as a butterfly flapping its wings. Then Coleman gets down to business. He grabs Goes and takes him to the mat, where Coleman is a specialist, famous for his "ground and pound" technique.
Coleman drives his knee into the top of Goes's head with such violence that it seems the man's skull might shatter. After several more vertebra-crunching blows, Goes slumps unconscious. Coleman keeps kneeing his senseless foe until the ref pulls him off. "See, he's already out," Coleman narrates. "The referee's way late."
His home is bachelor-pad bare due to an impending divorce, and Coleman in person doesn't appear nearly as imposing as he does on TV. Wearing a red Ohio State jersey and baseball cap that make him look like an overgrown frat boy, he delights in horsing around with his daughters -- two blond moppets who seem too cute to share his genes. "When the children are born, it ups the fear quite a bit," Coleman admits. "This is how I support my family. You worry about what are you going to do if you can't fight?"
Coleman has been a sportsman all his life. He took a wrestling scholarship to Miami of Ohio, then transferred to Ohio State, where he became an NCAA champion.
After graduation, Coleman set his sights on the Olympics. He made the 1992 team, but finished a disappointing seventh place. Four years later, he tried again, but fell in the trials. That year, Kurt Angle -- who Coleman had previously beaten -- won the gold medal. He's now a pro wrestler.
Coleman's Olympic dream was dead, but a trainer approached him with salve for his wounded pride: a $50,000 offer to compete at UFC 10.
Coleman took the bait. At the tournament, Coleman dispatched his first two opponents with relative ease, then faced UFC veteran Don "The Predator" Frye in the finals.
Remembering that fight brings Coleman as close as he comes to remorse. Before the match, his trainer, who had previously worked with Frye, psyched up Coleman by telling him that Frye once purposely blew out a guy's knee at practice. It was a lie, but Coleman didn't know it at the time.
"So I took it to him," Coleman says. "I felt like the fight should have been stopped way sooner than it was. And there was a couple times I can remember looking down at him and wondering why they weren't stopping this fight. The guy still had life left in him, the guy still is fighting back, but it was one-sided from start to finish.
"At that point, I just wanted out of there. I wanted the win, and I wanted my paycheck. He had had enough, but I had to keep going because the cameras were rolling. I was just right on top of him, in the dominating position. Most of my punches were getting through, and headbutts were legal. The headbutts . . . they didn't look so pretty."
Coleman won the tournament. He successfully defended his title two months later at UFC 11, then took on Dan "The Beast" Severn -- a former collegiate wrestler and one of the UFC's first breakout stars -- at UFC 12. Coleman maneuvered into a side choke, and Severn was forced to tap out in under three minutes.
Coleman seemed invincible. Ultimate Fighting was at the peak of its popularity, and Coleman's stock couldn't have been higher. Although he declines to reveal how much he was earning, he says that in those heady days, "it was very feasible that someone was going to make a million dollars at some point."
Then McCain stepped in; the paydays went south. The best fighters were lucky to eke out $30,000-$40,000 a year.
Money wasn't Coleman's only problem. "I got lazy. I got cocky," he says. He started paying more attention to endorsement deals and training others than staying atop his game.
At UFC 14, Coleman fought Maurice Smith, a smaller man whom many thought would lose. But Smith weathered Coleman's smothering attack and wore him out. By the end of the 21-minute fight, Coleman couldn't even lift his arms to defend himself. A professional kickboxer, Smith repeatedly booted Coleman in the leg, each time sending a sickening thwack echoing through the arena. "I compare his leg kick to Mark McGwire swinging a ball bat to your leg 50 times," Coleman says. "The whole leg was completely black." Smith won by unanimous decision.
The next match was even worse. Coleman fought Pete Williams, a supposedly lesser foe than Smith. But Williams knocked Coleman cold with a kick to the head. "It'll be on the highlight films of the UFC probably forever," Coleman says with an odd touch of pride.
After another loss -- this time a split decision -- Coleman's UFC juice was at an all-time low, so he went to Japan. After a few warm-up fights, he entered the 2000 Pride Grand Prix.
The tournament offered Coleman an opportunity to regain his stature. He made it to the championship -- an arduous 23-minute fight, in which Coleman forced his opponent to tap out. He won the $200,000 grand prize, his biggest payday yet.
Today, Coleman is 38, and some wonder whether he will ever step into the cage again. He hasn't fought since he kneed Alan Goes unconscious two years ago in Tokyo. But Coleman sloughs off the rumors, saying he plans to return to Japan soon. "I've been able to buy a house, and do this and do that, but I still need to work."
Although the UFC hasn't returned to the halcyon days when a million-dollar fight seemed possible, top competitors are making good money again. Tito Ortiz, the heavyweight champion, makes up to $225,000 if he wins. Even a ranking lightweight can make $30,000 to show and another $30,000 to win -- more than what many boxers make.
But contracts like that are few. UFC recently trimmed its roster from 52 fighters two years ago to 13 today. "We can build stars that way," says White. "It's kind of hard to turn 52 guys into stars."
That leaves many fighters to toil in the minor leagues, hoping to catch White's eye and win a coveted UFC contract or get recruited by Pride, a similar organization that operates in Japan.
One of them is Dan Bobish, a 33-year-old from Maple Heights. "I was the toughest bouncer in the Flats," Bobish says. "I never got beat one-on-one in a fight. Even two-on-one."
It's a brave boast, the kind one makes after too many LaBatts, but Bobish looks like he can back it up. This 340-pound slab of a man is known as "The Bull." His bald head bears a scar from a shattered Jack Daniel's bottle, a souvenir of his time as a bouncer at the Beach Club.
A wrestling standout at Mount Union, where he won the Division III national title his senior year, Bobish soon learned that his skills didn't translate to the corporate world. He tried out as a nose tackle for the Browns in 1994, but didn't make the team. From there he took a job bouncing at the Beach Club, where he was introduced to ultimate fighting.
The bar would order UFC pay-per-views; customers and co-workers alike told Bobish he should give it a try. "You're crazy," he scoffed, though he knew they might be right.
He got his chance in 1996, when he met Dan "The Beast" Severn. Bobish told him he wanted to compete. A scant six months later, Bobish got the call. "You wanna fight?" Severn asked.
By the next week, Bobish was on a flight to Brazil. In his first fight, he took on a jujitsu fighter and forced him to submit with a choke hold. He won his next fight, too. But Bobish lost in the final to Kevin Randleman, a squat, chiseled fighter who trains with Mark Coleman in Columbus. Randleman tripped him, then scored two good punches and dislocated Bobish's jaw.
"I was nervous a little bit, but it's a fight to me," Bobish says. "You're in a cage, with a referee, no weapons. I'm not worried about nothing. It's nowhere near fighting in the street, which I used to do all the time."
After a few more fights, Bobish got called to the big time: a berth at UFC 14. But it ended in disappointment when he was called out for his second fight before he was ready. His opponent, Mark Kerr, jammed his chin in Bobish's eye, busting blood vessels and forcing him to tap out.
When he got back home, Bobish fell in love. After a six-month courtship, he got married. Soon, his wife gave birth, and Bobish quit the fight game to make better money working three jobs. "I'm being Mr. Dad, not Mr. Tough Ass like I've always been," he says.
But the marriage didn't work out, and it wasn't long before he was yearning to step back into the cage.
Bobish drew a mismatch for his first fight back. He took on a 403-pounder named Brett Hogg, who apparently thought his size would make up for his limited experience. It didn't. Within 23 seconds, Bobish locked Hogg in an arm bar that shredded the man's ligaments. "I could have broke his bones in half," Bobish recounts. "It went crack-crack-crack and it stopped. Next is bone."
The next fight brought Bobish a chance to earn a name for himself and make up for his unsatisfying performance at UFC 14. He competed for the world super heavyweight title in King of the Cage, a smaller rival of the UFC. His opponent, a 380-pound wrecking machine called Eric Pele, smashed Bobish in the eye with three thunderous rights. But Bobish won the title by crushing him against the fence and unloading several knees to his face, sending Pele to the mat, a bloody mess who could no longer stand.
One would expect a champion to be raking in money. Not so, says Bobish. For the title fight against Pele, he got only $2,500. Over his six-year career, he says, he's made just $30,500 for 11 fights. Moreover, promoters don't provide insurance, and even winners are likely to need surgery, if only to repair a hand broken on an opponent's head. A torn hand ligament once cost Bobish $1,800 out of his own pocket.
That's one reason that The Bull is charging in a new direction. On March 1, he competed at a pro wrestling pay-per-view in Japan, as the tag-team partner of Don Frye, the same man Coleman pulped at UFC 10. Last fall, Bobish flew to California and met with Vince McMahon of World Wrestling Entertainment, but was told that the WWE isn't hiring green talent right now.
But Bobish isn't about to quit ultimate fighting. He's been negotiating with Pride, the Japanese league. "It's going to be the first good payday I'm ever going to get," Bobish says, giddy that he may make $20,000 for his first fight.
Bobish says he probably has five good years left in him before wear and tear sideline him. That's assuming that nothing catastrophic happens.
It almost did in August, when Bobish nearly got his teeth knocked out while losing his King of the Cage title belt. Jimmy Ambriz punched him in the jaw and knocked him out for a split second, then mounted the dazed Bobish and unloaded a series of punches that dislodged his mouthpiece and bent his teeth inward.
Before the fight, Bobish told his girlfriend, Nicole Began, not to worry. "Don't ever cry," he said. "No matter what happens."
An athlete herself -- Began was a volleyball star at Cleveland State -- she thought she could handle the violence. "I'm tough," she told him.
When she saw Bobish tap out, she wondered what happened. She was even disappointed, because she didn't know why he quit. Then she saw his face.
"His one eye was swelled shut, and he had a lump over his other eye. His lips were fat. There was blood. And he looks at me, and he goes, 'Baby,' and threw the mouthpiece over the cage. And I caught it, and there's blood dripping down my arm. He turned around and tears just fell down my face."
Rage Against the Machine blares from the stereo as a dozen men pair up on a maroon mat to practice how to block a knee to the face, trip an opponent, then put him in a leg-breaking submission.
If you're looking for the future of ultimate fighting, Tracy's Karate in Independence is a good place to start. Here, children as young as seven train. "They're going to be phenomenal when they're 18," trainer Marcus Marinelli says. "If there's still a sport."
Unlike traditional karate programs, which emphasize character-building and avoiding fights, Marinelli's school teaches students how to survive a street fight. "They don't have to get in a uniform, don't have to bow to nobody," he says. "Come in your shorts, put a cup on and a mouthpiece, and you can actually start learning how to fight right now."
Bobish is Marinelli's most successful alum, but tonight he's touting 27-year-old Forrest Petz. "Forrest is on the verge of really making the big time."
Petz, an office supply salesman by trade, seems an unlikely brawler. At 185 pounds, he's no weakling, but he's slight of frame, friendly, and quick with a smile. A disjointed nose provides the only clue that he's been in scraps.
He also has heavy hands, which he learned in his first ultimate fight. He came out swinging, and to his surprise, quickly knocked his opponent down with a hard right. "I remember thinking, 'What the hell's he falling down for?' I just didn't realize that's all it takes." He has since forged a career as a knockout artist, owning a 7-0 record, with five KOs.
If Petz is to have a future in ultimate fighting, the sport will have to last long enough for him to develop. That's far from a given, but there are hopeful signs.
In addition to a weekly TV show, UFC president Dana White is working on a host of ways to expand the brand. He's planning a soundtrack album and says he's in negotiations with Matrix producer Joel Silver for a movie based on a fictional fighter. Three UFC members are already featured in Cradle 2 the Grave, which is in theaters now.
With the right marketing, White hopes ultimate fighting can find the same young audience as the X Games. "This is definitely the sport of the future," he says.
It's also the most exciting thing going on pay-per-view. Absent the homicidal theatrics of Mike Tyson, boxing has been a snoozefest of no-name fighters jockeying for a slew of championship belts awarded by a Byzantine array of organizations. Yet ultimate fighting will also have to look to boxing if it hopes to achieve any kind of mainstream success, argues Gold, of Full Contact Fighter. He says the sport will need a promoter with the savvy of Don King and fighters with the draw of Tyson, but without the attendant psychological problems.
Gold hopes for a day when the media covers ultimate fighting as it does boxing -- reporting the results without emphasizing its barbaric nature. Even then, money will be a problem, he concedes, noting that few businesses other than breweries feel comfortable having their brands associated with the sport.
Until ultimate fighting finds a mainstream audience, if it ever does, guys like Petz will have to slug it out in dimly lit arenas. He's lucky to earn $500 or $1,000 for a win, and at the Hammer House event in Cleveland, Petz got nothing for beating his opponent.
That hardly matters. Amateur bouts are good practice, and the UFC trolls small leagues looking for the next big star. Besides, Petz has discovered that fighting provides a more intangible pleasure.
"There's nothing like hitting somebody and watching them go down," he says. "Watching them fall, that's the best feeling. I guess it's a primal instinct you have. It's imposing your will or power on someone else."