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Still, the public had demonstrated a lucrative thirst for cage fighting, and the sport's backers weren't about to tap out early. Instead, the Ultimate Fighting Championship took its show on the road, gaining fans in England and Asia over the next three years. Meanwhile, as the various fight leagues -- now banned from most municipalities -- turned to the sanctuary of Indian reservations, the UFC began lobbying state athletic commissions for acceptance.
That, of course, has required a makeover. Within the past year, the UFC came under new management, hired Dana White -- a former trainer and fighter -- as its president, and launched a whole-hog effort to win the hearts of mainstream sports fans. Following boxing's lead, league officials agreed last September to divide fighters into weight classes, and to require gloves, which, at just four ounces, feel only slightly heavier than biking gloves. They also adopted five-minute rounds. More recently, the league has embarked on a public-relations blitz to sell the new look, bombarding media outlets with promotional materials entitled, "From Spectacle to Sport -- The Story of the UFC."
The old UFC, White says, oversold the blood factor and got splattered by the bad press that followed. The new league, he says, is about putting on clean, fair fights. "Our sport has world-class athletes. They're usually trained in boxing and kickboxing and some sort of grappling, like jujitsu. The object of our show isn't to see anyone get hurt. It's to see a fight. Now we want people in the mainstream to understand our sport like we do, so they can see it and respect it the way we do."
The cleanup efforts seem to be paying off. Complaints about the violence have subsided, says White, noting that Senator McCain issued a statement applauding the recent rule changes. As a whole, he says, the sport hardly registers on today's violence meter. "Is no-holds-barred fighting really shocking today?" White asks rhetorically. "But what's shocking now? Is it Eminem? Is it 'Jackass' on MTV? Is it, whatever it's called, 'Most Scariest Videos'? Is it Bumfights.com? All of that stuff is violent, too."
Bumfights, White says with disgust, was started by college students who paid homeless men chump change to fight. They recorded the street bouts, then sold videotapes via the Internet. "Made millions," White says.
That's one thing the UFC also aspires to. In September, athletic commissions in Louisiana, Nevada, and New Jersey officially sanctioned the sport -- hello Las Vegas, hello Atlantic City -- and league officials have California in their sights for next year. Last month, a UFC welterweight match was showcased on the Fox Network's "Best Damn Sports Show, Period," marking the first appearance of no-holds-barred fighting on prime-time network television.
While fighting still pales in national stature next to boxing, it has paid off for Gil Castillo. The 36-year-old was training in jujitsu three years ago when Cesar Gracie signed him up to fight on short notice. Gracie, who hasn't fought in a few years, uses the quick pitch so, in his words, "they don't have time to get scared."
Shadowboxing in Gracie's gym below a sign that reads, "The More You Sweat, the Less You Bleed," Castillo says the minimal preparation time was helpful. His biggest fear was fighting in the cage, and he'd never have done it on his own. After winning his first match, he experienced a rush, an exhilarating sensation of overcoming fear and not merely surviving, but dominating. "I got a taste for it," Castillo says of the feeling, "and after that, I went back for more."
Now with an 18-1 record -- his only loss was a long and bloody championship bout -- Castillo is among the sport's contenders; he ranks consistently in the world's top ten in his weight class. He started with IFC fights before winning the notice of UFC promoters, and recently signed a contract with the bigger league for three fights that offer what, in this sport, are nice purses: $32,000, $42,000, and $52,000. That's more than most boxers get, he says, but not as much as he makes annually as a stockbroker. Castillo says his family isn't pleased with his second job, and after his contract is up, he's done. "I'm 36, man," he says. "I'm on my last leg."
It is age, more than fear, that has Castillo set to hang up his thin gloves. Fighters and trainers say their sport is actually safer than boxing. Because the competitors don't stand there and take repeated punches to the head, there's less room for brain damage in the end. To date, only one death has been attributed to no-holds-barred fighting; supporters like to point out that the WWF also had an in-ring death recently -- although that death was related to a stunt -- while boxing has suffered several fatalities over the years.
On the entertainment side, promotional guys like White say their sport offers the most authentic form of man-to-man fighting available. It's what sports fans are craving, he says: something to fill the void left by the stagnant, sorry state of boxing. To illustrate how far boxing has fallen, White cites the recent heavyweight championship bout between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson. What a bore, he says. Tyson's draw wasn't for his skill, but for his rap sheet.
White wasn't that fight's only critic. The Tyson-Lewis match was considered a ruse by boxing aficionados; the sport's noted historian Bert Randolph Sugar boycotted the event, and urged fans to do the same. Sugar said anyone who paid to see the fight was a sucker, and anyone who contributed to the spectacle of Tyson was degrading his beloved sport, a sport that once crowned true champions, men of substance, men like Muhammad Ali. Those heroes are gone, Sugar said.