Cage Rage

It was outlawed. Now it's popular and one of the nation's best teams is just up the road.

Cage Rage
Jacqueline Carini
Denis Kang and Thomas celebrate backstage
With sweat pouring down his chiseled torso and a crimson blanket of blood cloaking his cocoa-color skin, Din "Dinyero" Thomas turned and padded barefoot away from his opponent, Clay Guida.

Head back, mouth open, he gasped, desperately trying to quell the burning fire in his lungs.

It was little more than a minute into the second round of their Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) bout, and the veteran Thomas was hurting. A punch to the face had reduced the vision in his left eye to blurry, almost blind; a welt the shade, shape, and potentially the size of an eggplant was swelling nicely under his right one; and globular red sties had long since replaced the whites in both. Every square inch of his once bleached-bright shorts was soaked in blood. And the spring-loaded mat on which he was waging war with the shaggy-haired, 25-year-old Guida — "The Carpenter" — looked like a gruesome murder scene.

American Top TeamÂ’s Din Thomas wages
Jacqueline Carini
American Top TeamÂ’s Din Thomas wages
Jacqueline Carini

Guida was tough. The svelte, lightweight fighter reportedly ran eight miles every morning before training. He had dominated the first round. Now, taking advantage of the brief respite, Guida lifted his thin black gloves to rest on his hips and violently heaved his chest. As his back muscles twitched in response, the green and red dragon inked across the span of his shoulders thrashed its tail and leapt ominously to life.

"What's the matter, Din, are you tired?" a heckler yelled from deep in the stands. "Clay, beat his ass put him to sleep."

Thomas didn't flinch but waited calmly at the perimeter of the Octagon, an eight-sided battleground surrounded by rigid, vinyl-coated, six-foot-high chain-link fence. He had unwittingly spit out his mouth guard, and as one of his corner men — mixed martial arts icon and teammate Denis Kang — reached over the railing with a replacement, random jibes spewed out over the 5500-seat arena at Hollywood's Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

"It's over Din, don't bother," another onlooker spat boisterously. "You're done, man."

Giant spotlights shone overhead. Photojournalists scurried around the base of the raised Octagon — also called a cage — wielding their cameras like AK-47s, sending what sounded like rapid bursts of machine gun fire reverberating throughout the sold-out venue. TV production crews bustled with clipboards and cables among celebrities in the front row. Announcers and commentators sat scrutinizing the scene unfolding simultaneously on four giant TV screens high above the audience.

But with each sedentary second, the crowd grew increasingly impatient.

Thomas remained oblivious. During his almost decade-long professional career, he had learned the necessity of blocking out sneers, jibes, and the blood drowning his taste buds. Today he was more focused than ever. A victory here would likely put the 30-year-old mixed martial artist one bout away from a chance to compete for the lightweight belt. Recognition was long overdue.

Listening intently to the advice spilling from his corner, the 154.5-pound, five-foot nine-inch Thomas nestled the protective piece of plastic in his mouth and bit down hard. Glancing over his shoulder, he signaled to veteran referee (and Los Angeles Police Ofcr.) "Big" John McCarthy. He was ready. One, two, three, steps toward the center of the cage and he was once again toe-to-toe with his rival.

"Are you ready to fight?" boomed the ref to Guida. Bouncing from foot to foot, ignoring the blood streaking down his severely swollen face, and the chunks of long hair matted against his drenched skin, he nodded.

This time to Thomas: "Are you ready to fight?" Inhaling deeply through his nostrils, the slight African-American silently jerked his head in agreement. Clapping his hands together, the black-clad McCarthy stepped out from between the two men and boomed in his baritone voice, "Let's get it on!"

A wave of excitement washed over the arena.

More than 2.3 million viewers tuned into the January 25 Fight Night Live event on Spike TV. Indeed, once dubbed boxing's ugly little brother, mixed martial arts has become North America's fastest growing sport, and the Las Vegas-based UFC its largest promoter. And like Thomas, some of its premier talent, as well as up-and-coming stars, train in Coconut Creek under the banner of one of the industry's largest and most revered group of fighters, American Top Team.

Yet in the late Nineties, following intense criticism, this unique blend of wrestling, jiu-jitsu, boxing, and kickboxing was banned in most of the United States. Sports media condemned it. TV programmers called it too barbaric for decent society to watch. Newspapers and magazines barely touched it. It was a leper. But through a combination of aggressive new ownership, sanctioning in pivotal states, and a hot cable television show business, mixed martial arts slowly began to recover. And now it's hurtling toward mainstream America.

Like it or not.

Approximately 80 years ago in Brazil, a new style of jiu-jitsu, Vale Tudo (anything goes), was invented. In November 1993 legendary grandmaster 79-year-old Hélio Gracie introduced the sport to the United States at Denver's McNichols Arena. Offering a purse of $50,000, he lured eight professional fighters, including a boxer, a kickboxer, a sumo wrestler, and a grappler to participate in a tournament to determine whose skills would reign supreme.

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