The scene at the Radisson Twin Towers ballroom Dec. 20 is part boxing match, part "Jerry Springer" show. In the center of the ballroom is an elevated ring (the boxing part) cordoned off with 7-foot chain-link fence (the Springer part). Concentric rows of folding chairs circle the ring (boxing), one of which, to my left, is occupied by a middle-aged woman screaming encouragement and flashing her boobs every time the camera sweeps her section of the crowd (Springer).
In the ring two skilled, fit, muscular men are on the floor grappling like wrestlers. Unlike wrestlers, they are punching each other at every opportunity with hands that might as well be bare. The meaty "thud" of solid body punches -- a sound very much like a tenderizing mallet used on a steak -- can still be heard over cries of "Kill him!" "Hit him in the face!" and "You guys are pussies!" Both men are sweaty, exhausted and bleeding, but the fight continues. This bout is for the World Extreme Fighting championship, and it's no time to be a quitter.
There are nine fights on the card tonight, some better than others. In one match, a big, plodding bruiser sporting a healthy beer belly basically lay on top of his opponent until he submitted. In another, the referee stopped the fight 20 seconds after it started because one of the tough guys had something in his eye. The crowd loved that one.
Frankly, that's part of the appeal of the WEF; you may see skill, and you may see some dude prevail because he has a huge gut, but you're almost guaranteed to see some vicious punches thrown -- and taken. Plus there's cheap beer, a cage, loud metal cranking from a punishing PA system, smoke machines, colored lights, big-screen TVs showing the action from three angles, girls in impossibly short miniskirts and heels parading around the ring between rounds, people throwing garbage, more beer and instant camaraderie with whomever's sitting next to you. It's the ideal sport for a decadent and bloodthirsty culture. Boxing is genteel in comparison.
Officially, this kind of fighting is called "mixed martial arts." But that implies Eastern agility, speed and mental discipline. Mixed martial arts is really more like a bar brawl with rules but sans the bar, and the tougher you are, the more punishment you can take, the better you'll do. It's boxing, wrestling, kickboxing and street fighting combined. And it's the future of the pugilistic arts, says Orlando mixed martial-arts fighter/promoter Jamie Levine.
"It will overtake boxing in five years. All boxing is garbage. They are not true athletes, in my opinion. Mike Tyson gets a ridiculous amount of money to beat up a chump."
At least Levine hopes it will overtake boxing. He's not only the WEF reigning light/heavyweight champion -- so crowned after beating Chris Myers for the belt in the ninth and final match at the Radisson -- he's also the founder of the WEF. (If you're thinking "conflict of interest," you're on the right track, but the rules prevent him from promoting or organizing any fight he's in.)
Still, things haven't gone exactly as planned. A couple of mixed martial-arts promotions are making it big, while most -- like the WEF -- are limping along, putting on fights sporadically, selling DVDs of the matches and trying to crack the TV market. "Once you are on TV, it's a whole different ball game," says Levine.
So it's decision time. At 36, Levine is getting too old to fight and more in need of a steady paycheck all the time. If this thing is going to blossom, it had better happen soon.
As a sport, mixed martial arts is only about a decade old. It started with a simple question: If a kickboxer took on a wrestler, who would win? Standing, a boxer would pummel a wrestler, but what happens when the match goes to the floor?
From humble beginnings in basements and warehouses (think "Fight Club"), it has evolved into a multimillion-dollar spectacle with stars that earn six figures per fight and are immortalized in video games. A recent fight at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas drew 11,000 fans and had a box-office take of $1.8 million.
"This sport is growing in popularity, just like pro wrestling was," says Ryan Bennett, a writer for the online magazine MMAWeekly.com. "It is so close to being on TV, and once it gets to that point it will explode."
The Mandalay Bay fight was put on by Ultimate Fighting Championship, the granddaddy of mixed martial arts. If you've seen guys beating the crap out of each other on cable, you were probably watching the UFC.
UFC began as a one- or two-fight, pay-per-view spectacle in 1993. There weren't very many rules in the early days, says UFC president Dana White. "It was a two-men-enter, one-man-leaves kind of thing. It was great pay-per-view, but it ended up raising a lot of red flags with senators and heads of cable companies." U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., led the charge.
The suits had reason to be worried; the bouts were brutal back in the day. "When it first started, the only rules you had were no biting, basically," says Bennett. "It was cock-fighting."
Eye gouging? Legal. Fish hooking (grabbing your opponent by the cheek with your index finger and pulling really hard)? Sure. Knees to the face? Absolutely. Kicking an opponent in the groin? If that's what it takes. Just like sex, brutality sells. And instead of putting on one or two shows, the UFC churned out 30 of these gladiator matches before they were kicked off cable in 1997.
In 2001, the original owners sold UFC to Lorenzo Fertitta, president of Las Vegas-based Station Casinos, and his brother Frank. Together, the Fertittas formed a new management company -- Zuffa -- and pumped new life into the UFC. Perhaps the biggest single factor in the UFC gaining acceptance as a real sport was when it became sanctioned by the state of New Jersey in 2001. That paved the way for UFC to get back on cable and for other states to accept it as a legal sport. The Florida Legislature legalized mixed martial-arts promotions in April 2002, basing its rules on what was already legal in Nevada and New Jersey.
Mixed martial-arts contests may look lawless, but in fact the sport is highly regulated. The rules are essentially a hybrid of what you can and can't do in each of the disciplines mixed martial arts draws from: boxing, kickboxing, wrestling and jujitsu. There's no clawing or pinching, for example, no throat punching, no downward strikes with the elbow, no kicking the head of a grounded opponent, no spitting, no grabbing of the clavicle.
Believe it or not, the sport is safe. Bennett, who has been around since the beginning in 1993, says there has never been a fatality. "Compare that to boxing," he says.
Jason Penley is paid to do that, and he agrees. Penley is the associate executive director of the Florida State Boxing Commission, the state agency that oversees mixed martial arts. He notes that the goal in boxing is to wear down and knock out an opponent. That's only one way to win in mixed martial arts; forcing your opponent to submit is much more common. "The number of shots to the head is much less in comparison to boxing," says Penley. "Nobody wants to lose, but if you are caught and must submit, it's the honorable thing to do."
Yes, but the thing is, promoters would probably not like to yell that too loudly. See, they're fond of selling mixed martial arts as a dangerous blood sport just this side of legal; it appeals to the demographic and all. Hence the prolific use of terms like "extreme," "cage match," "ultimate," "no-holds-barred," etc.
"I think that's a marketing thing," says Penley.
Heads will roll
Success breeds imitation, and a host of other mixed martial-arts promoters have popped up all over the country: King of the Cage, Absolute Fighting Championship, Cagewarriors and dozens more.
Levine's WEF is one of the older members of the not-the-UFC crowd. He started it in 1997, he says, "because there were all these illegal fights where guys were getting the shit kicked out of them. The crowd loves to see guys get the shit kicked out of them, but enough is enough."
Levine is muscular, agile and talks as fast as a New York stockbroker. He's a divorced father of two boys, ages 4 and 9. Xander, the 4-year-old, drew the WEF logo, a jagged "X" that looks, well, extreme.
In the ring for the December title bout at the Radisson, Levine wore hot-pink shorts. For an interview, Levine has on a crisp white dress shirt, sharply creased slacks and polished dress shoes. His hair is jet black and perfectly combed. He exudes the nervous energy of someone in peak physical condition looking for an outlet to uncork a bit of it.
Levine lives in Windermere, in an expansive, tastefully decorated $1 million house overlooking a golf course. It's a manse befitting a world champion. Tiger Woods is a neighbor.
But Woods is a golfer, with all the money and name recognition that go along with that docile, endorsement-rich sport. Levine can kick the crap out of people, and does it well, but does anyone acknowledge that?
"Guys are congratulating `Woods` -- there's a banner `at the entrance to the gated neighborhood`. Here I win a world title in the most extreme sport there is and I get nothing."
As a matter of fact, he doesn't actually own the Windermere estate; it belongs to his uncle. Levine washes cars for a living -- he can do two an hour at $30 each -- because there isn't enough money in fighting at this level, and WEF hasn't yet turned into a moneymaker. He's starting to realize that perhaps it never will. So he fights when the money's good and washes cars when it isn't. Catch him on a good day, and he's one TV contract away from taking the WEF to the big leagues. Catch him on a bad day, and he's ready to chuck it all for a steady paycheck.
"I want to keep things on the straight and narrow, take care of my kids, be a good dad. I don't want to be punched in the face anymore for money."
He first fought for money as a college student in Pennsylvania, in the basement of a dorm. Levine was studying karate, and one night after class a friend approached him and asked if he'd like to make a little cash. "We go down to the basement and it is just packed full of people, low ceilings, sweating pipes, the whole thing. Someone says, 'OK, you're fighting this guy.' It was a tough guy from the football team. I kicked him in the stomach, punched him in the face, the guy went down and it was over."
He's punched for pay ever since, with breaks, retirements, jujitsu training, stints as a bodyguard and other jobs thrown in. If you look up his record at one of the mixed martial-arts sites that keeps fighters' stats (www.fullcontactfighter.com and www.sherdog.com are two of the most popular), you'll find he's 2-0-0 in sanctioned events. Levine says his overall record is 28-0-0, including fights that sanctioning bodies weren't keeping track of.
He considers himself a "technical" fighter, one who uses holds and moves -- rather than brute force -- to win. "I'm a pretty boy. I don't take too much of a beating ever. I don't allow people to do that. Whatever their game is, I stop it."
June 26, at the Miami Arena in Miami, is the next WEF fight Levine has scheduled, and it could be the last. In any case, it should be a good one. There are 10 fights on the card, and the feature is Levine himself defending his title against Marty Helwig. Levine says there's no love lost between them.
"I am coming out swinging, and I'll swing until I can't hit anymore. I don't like him, and he doesn't like me. I am going to rip this guy's head off." And if that sounds like pro-wrestling smack talk, check this out: "I'm going to give the crowd something to say -- 'Holy shit, did you see that guy rip the other guy's head off and kick it off his shoulders?' If somebody catches his head when I kick it off, tell them to throw it back in."
As an added bonus, a couple of fights down the card is a rematch between Miami fighter Patrick Assalone and Jamaican Franz Mendez. Assalone lost to Mendez in a 2003 WEF fight in Jacksonville that proved to be the most controversial fight in WEF history. The judges gave the fight to Mendez in a split decision, but Assalone appealed, contending that Mendez punched him illegally in the back of the head 141 times, and the Florida Boxing Commission reversed the decision.
"I beat him once, and I'll beat him again," says Assalone.
It's a business
Though Levine created the WEF -- building the first cage out of materials he bought at Home Depot -- by his own admission he's not a particularly astute businessman. "I say it the way it is. If I don't like you, I'll tell you I don't like you. In a business sense, that's not such a good thing. You should bite your tongue more. I realize that. I say the wrong things at the wrong time."
So he's hired Norma Jean Wellington to be the WEF director and concentrates on matchmaking and organizing fights. Levine would like to take the show on the road, make it a big rolling spectacle.
But you get the feeling that Levine is not going to able to stay out of the ring forever. When he talks business, he's quick and to the point. When he talks fighting, there's fire in his eyes.
"Jesus God I had that guy!" he says of the December championship match at the Radisson. "His veins were popping out of his forehead! I couldn't believe it. I wanted to see his eyes roll back in his head, but he didn't. He just didn't give up."