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But not everyone was entertained. Peter Carmel, a prominent neurosurgeon, said the fights were "about as close to murder as you can get"; Sen. John McCain famously dubbed the burgeoning sport "human cockfighting"; and dozens of states banned it. For years the sport sputtered along — staging bouts in Native American casinos and redneck bars — until 2001, when two Las Vegas casino magnates bought the near-bankrupt UFC franchise for $2 million.
Thanks to savvy marketing and rule changes (no groin shots or hits to the back of the head), the organization began to take off. Nevada started sanctioning bouts in 2001; Florida followed in 2002.
Today, UFC is the largest MMA organization and has surpassed boxing and wrestling in pay-per-view revenue. Its reality show, The Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV, often draws more viewers than NBA and Major League Baseball games in the coveted 18-to-34 male demographic. Even critics have come around. "They have cleaned up the sport to the point, at least in my view, where it is not human cockfighting anymore," Senator McCain recently told National Public Radio. "They haven't made me a fan, but they have made progress."
As mainstream as UFC has become, there is still a hunger for the bare-knuckled barbarism of the sport's early years, as evidenced by the rapid ascent of Kimbo. A 34-year-old Perrine native, Kimbo seemed like a comic book hero tailor-made for the Internet age. In dozens of clips available on YouTube, he took on all comers from Boston cops to ex-cons; he fought them near dumpsters and boatyards and in back alleys, knocking them cold or beating them to a bloody pulp.
A call from EliteXC, a UFC competitor, followed, and just like that, Kimbo was on CBS, headlining the first network broadcast of an MMA fight. Kimbo lost his last fight (some think he took a dive) and is now in Japan trying to salvage what's left of his fight career. While much of the MMA world has tried to distance itself from Kimbo — UFC's Dana White called him a step backward for a sport still fighting for credibility — Harris thinks differently. "Kimbo is an inspiration to a lot of cats in the hood," Harris says. "They see what he did and believe they can do it too."
Harris hopes to create the type of following that would allow him to take his show on the road to Atlanta, Austin, Memphis, and other Southern cities where underground fighting has a following. For Harris and the fighters he promotes, back-yard brawls are their tickets out of the Miami ghetto. But that's not all: Harris envisions attracting major corporate sponsors such as Red Bull, SoBe Life Water, and Gatorade and holding bare-knuckle fights at American Airlines Arena.
Harris isn't the only one who thinks the market for bare-knuckle back-yard fights remains untapped. The now-defunct Rio Heroes of Fort Lauderdale pitted thugs from the ultra-violent Brazilian favelas against each other, offering them a chance to go from the slums to MMA superstardom. Felony Fights, an underground fight club, matches up ex-cons in brutal, non-sanctioned events in which even biting is permitted. Clips of the fights are available on YouTube, and stores such as Best Buy and Sam Goody sell DVDs that feature full-length bouts.
Mike McGowan, a trainer with the National Karate Academy on Old Cutler Road, believes ex-cons and thugs represent the future of MMA. "These guys are real warriors," he says. "They step into the ring knowing they are not going to get medical attention. It takes a lot of balls to do that."
The question facing Harris is if he can carve out a place for himself in the already crowded landscape of mixed martial arts. McGowan is doubtful. Despite the sport's growing popularity, few MMA organizations have prospered like UFC. EliteXC, the league that signed Kimbo, went belly-up in October. International Fight League also folded this year.
The problem with back-yard brawls, McGowan says, is that there is no way to contain the mayhem and chaos that makes them appealing into something that can be taken on the road. "You are never going to get sanctioned for holding a bare-knuckle, anything goes tournament," McGowan says. "So that means no pay-per-view and no Madison Square Garden."
If anything, McGowan says, back-yard brawling leagues serve as a fertile ground to tap the next MMA sensation in the same way Kimbo gained recognition. Already, one fighter who started his career in Harris's back yard is on his way to MMA stardom. Josbel Rodriguez, aka "Jay Pressure," a Bronx-born Cuban American, caught the eye of an MMA promoter at Harris's last tournament in July. Rodriguez is scheduled to fight in an MMA event at American Airlines Arena in February.
Despite the doubters, Harris is convinced he can succeed. "It is all about educating people that back-yard fights is a profitable business," he says. "There is a market for this type of fighting."
Back in Perrine, Harris is sitting in his mother's living room on a flower-print sofa, jotting down the revamped fight card with a Sharpie marker. He is already two hours behind schedule. If he doesn't start the bouts before sundown, his cameraman, who has finally shown up, won't get good footage for YouTube.