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No-holds-barred fighting debuted in 1993 to wild success on pay-per-view television; buy rates for the sport's premier event walloped the ratings of the popular World Wrestling Federation matches. But the new kid didn't last long in the ring: After a few years, declining audiences -- perhaps weary of the sport's low production values and inconsistent scheduling -- and heavy pressure from critics were the one-two punch that knocked it off cable, and prompted potential venues to blackball the sport.
Now, however, this raw new form of sports entertainment is making a comeback. Over the past two years, boosters have made headway in cleaning up its image. No-holds-barred fighting has regained a place on cable, debuted on prime-time network television, and found itself knocking on the threshold of mainstream acceptance. "Our sport is at a crossroads right now," says Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport's de facto NFL. "We have fans who are coming from boxing who are bored with what their sport has become, and we're also taking from wrestling fans who want something more, something real."
Indeed, two recent fights in Las Vegas sold out 10,000-seat venues. By comparison, the San Jose Earthquakes -- US soccer's reigning champions and its biggest draw -- struggle to pull in that kind of a crowd. Prior to this year's World Cup, the team's top player, Landon Donovan, was all but unknown in the United States.
Following the UFC's lead, a host of smaller fight leagues have sprouted up in the past two years, each hoping to cash in if the sport goes platinum.
Like most fighters, Caleb didn't jump into this sport overnight. His training started at home long ago. As the youngest of six siblings, his early years were spent as a punching bag for his older brother, Aaron. Caleb grew up suffering through all the classics: the squatting on the chest, finger-thumps to the forehead, and knee-drops to the gut. When he managed to worm away and break free, Aaron would call him Houdini. But the older brother kept after him.
"Growing up, I was always expecting to get punched," Caleb says, telling the story with a playful cringe. "Every time I turned a corner in my house, I expected to get hit. I walked around flinching all the time." Sitting over a salad at a Berkeley cafe, the young pugilist bobs quickly in his chair, and then weaves to the right and left to illustrate his point. "I had to be ready."
He still does. In just 24 hours, he will drive to an Indian reservation deep in California's Central Valley, walk into a cage surrounded by a thousand screaming fans, and brawl with another man until one of them can brawl no longer.
Caleb Mitchell is angry. Full of rage. And it's this anger that drives him to face off against another man to the cheers of a bloodthirsty crowd. Apart from the thrashings doled out by his older brother, life inside the Mitchell home was once rosy, Caleb says. Dad was the kind of guy who took the family on frequent fishing trips off the Mexican coast and peeled off $100 bills for the kids whenever they needed money. Artie was fun and laid-back and told Caleb he'd one day introduce him to his favorite baseball players, the ones who stopped by the family business.
Artie and Jim Mitchell made their greatest mark on pornography and American culture by filming Behind the Green Door, starring Marilyn Chambers. The movie was Artie's idea, and according to several accounts, the porn classic turned the siblings' $60,000 investment into $25 million. The worldwide success of the film launched the Mitchell brothers' career as porn-movie producers and adult-theater operators. The duo embraced First Amendment issues and got cozy with the media -- who knew sex could be a family business? Artie was nicknamed "Artie Party" for his drinking and drug use, while Jim, the elder brother, was characterized as the penny-pinching orderly, Artie's keeper.
In the months leading up to the murder, Caleb's parents divorced, and he recalls the deep rifts that were tearing the family apart. He remembers how the kids took sides, begging to leave their mother and go live with their fun-loving father. He also remembers talk around the dinner table that Uncle Jim was preparing to seize control of the business and lock out his father. Times were suddenly rough.
Though much has been written about Artie Mitchell's drive through excess and his brother's attempt to straighten the course, Caleb believes most of it was Hollywood exaggeration, puffed up to make for a better story. "The scene at Ocean Beach where my dad snorts coke right in front of us? Come on!" The truth was his dad was a typical father who had a few beers here and there, Caleb says. Yet in the end, Artie Mitchell's vices caught up with him and left him volatile and unhinged. "They took the last week of my dad's life," the son says, "and made it look like his entire life."
On February 27, 1991, Caleb stopped briefly by his dad's house to pick up a baseball glove. He couldn't find it, so his father handed the eight-year-old some cash and sent him off to buy a new one. The next morning, Caleb woke up early to life-rending news: His father was dead, slain by his uncle.
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