MMA Madness Hits the BankUnited Center Tonight

Inside a mixed martial arts training studio just a block east of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Charles Champion takes a seat on the blue mat where for the past month he has been training for his cage match versus Rene "Level" Martinez tonight.

Like Martinez, Champion is looking to prove that a reformed ex-gang banger can make it as a professional mixed martial arts fighter. "People can change," he affirms. "They can come out the backyard fights and make something of themselves."

A fair-skinned 28-year-old man with blue eyes and a short buzz-cut hairstyle, Champion grew up down south, between Homestead and Florida City. As a teenager and young adult he proclaimed himself a Latin Disciple, a Miami gang that counted members from the south end of the county to South Beach. That's all in the past, Champion attests. ""It's been seven years since I've been involved in any gang activity," he says.

Life's still been rough on Champion despite giving up his criminal lifestyle. He went through a bad divorce that left him homeless, he says. He was so desperate that one day in early July of last year he found out about the backyard fights put on by Dhafir Harris in Perrine. He approached Harris, who put him on the card for a bout that same month. Champion lost by technical knockout, but he agreed to do another backyard fight in December of 2008.

Bad luck struck again. The night before the December bout, Champion was assaulted by three men. One of them clubbed Champion's arms with a baseball bat. "I had blood hemmorages in both my arms," Champion says. He figured he wouldn't fight again.

Then last month, he received a call from Roger Krahl, one of the promoters of Unconquered MMA, which put together the match-ups for "Rumble at the Rock," the MMA event where Martinez made his pro debut in September. Krahl offered Champion a match versus Martinez.

It will be interesting to see if Champion can compete with Martinez, who established an 8-0 record as a backyard fighter and who won his pro debut against an experienced Muay Thai fighter. Champion's trainer Paul Danos acknowledges that the Homestead brawler may not be ready for tonight's fight.

"He came to me about a month ago," Danos says. "I would rather have six months with him. But it will be a good experience for him. He is going to learn a lot, and he has tremendous heart."

And Dano adds, he's been studying footage from Martinez's first fight and has given Champion some good tips. "I saw a chink in his armor," Danos adds, "and I gave him a few strategies he can use."

Either way, Krahl is confident the Champion-Martinez card is going to pack people into the University of Miami BankUnited Center tonight. "We had a lot of people show up at Rumble at the Rock just to see Level," Krahl says. "We expect to see more of his fans tonight since the event is in Miami. And Charles came out of the backyard, too. It is going to be a good, good fight."

Their fight is only one out of ten on tonight's bill. The main event pits Peruvian-born trainer of Miami's MMA Masters Luis "Baboon" Palomino against jiu jitsu specialist Rafael Diaz, who owns the American Top Team training facility in Fort Lauderdale. And there are a couple of girl combatants too. Former amateur Muay Thai kick boxing world champ Felice Herrig battles Las Vegas Muay Thai fighter Michelle Gutierrez.