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.
Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC)
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.
The bouts were bare-knuckle brawls with no judges, no time constraints, no weight classes, and scarcely any rules. During one of them, Hélio's 26-year-old son, Royce, annihilated a boxer with 25 KOs under his belt. Then he took out a 220-pound Japanese submission fighter in less than two minutes and then a world champion kickboxer to snag the title. "It was supposed to be a one-off event," quips the bald-headed, sparkly-eyed UFC President Dana White. "But it ended up being so successful they did another."
Followed by another. And another.
Back then fights were promoted more as a traveling freak show of caged carnage than a sport. And though they attracted a lot of attention, not all of it was positive. A neurosurgeon and board member of the American Medical Association, Dr. Peter Carmel, declared the fights were "about as close to murder as you can get." Avid boxing fan Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, dubbed it "human cockfighting."
And in the mid-Nineties, armed with his sway in the Senate, McCain began a crusade to crush the sport, lobbying governors nationwide to heed his call to arms. By the end of the decade the events were largely illegal. The sport limped along by staging bouts in Indian casinos that aired on direct-broadcast satellite TV.
But the organization had caught the eye of three Las Vegas friends: White, a former amateur boxer; and brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III, billionaire casino owners. Addicted practitioners of jiu-jitsu, the diminutive Lorenzo and his fast-talking friend, White, realized the UFC was in financial trouble. So they bought the company for $2000.
"I told my partners, öHoly shit, this thing might be for sale,'" he bubbles excitedly. "A month later we owned it."
Soon they added regulations (no groin shots or head butts, no eye gouging or striking to the back of the head or spine), timed five-minute rounds (three for regular fights, five for title bouts), and weight classes. New Jersey legalized the sport in 2000, Nevada in 2001, and Florida in April 2002. "They did everything we asked them to do," says Marc Ratner, former executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission.
But they couldn't shake the UFC's Neanderthal image, and despite pouring untold sums into the business, by 2004 they were close to folding. So they came up with a plan: a reality TV show that would take viewers beyond the blood and focus on the personalities of the players who spilled it.
"It was a fucking hard sell," White recalls. "We pitched it to every network in television, but at a lot of these networks, guys don't have any balls." Fledgling cable channel Spike TV agreed to broadcast the show, and The Ultimate Fighter premiered in January 2005.
Overnight the mammoth wall McCain had built against the UFC began to crumble.
In the ring Din Thomas may hunt his opponents like a rabid dog, but outside he is soft-spoken, bordering on shy.
On a recent morning, dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a black hoodie, hands clasped in his lap, eyes downcast, blowing on a Styrofoam cup of coffee, he seemed about as threatening as Bambi.
That is, if Bambi had two mangled cauliflower ears and a rap sheet.
Born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, Thomas moved to Florida with his family at age twelve. After flirting with baseball and football at Port St. Lucie High School, he soon realized team sports were not his thing. It wasn't that he didn't like sharing the spotlight. "I would feel bad if I dropped the ball or whatever," he chuckles, revealing a row of pearly whites peppered with endearing gaps, "like I was letting everybody down, and I couldn't handle that."
So the mild-mannered teen turned his attention to the opposite sex. "It was a few weeks before my eighteenth birthday," he says, shaking his head. "I had been dating this girl, and we broke up. I went to her house one day and her new boyfriend was there, and I basically flew into a jealous rage and beat him up."
The boyfriend pressed charges and Thomas was arrested for battery. He had no prior arrests and the judge was relatively lenient, sentencing him to just weekends in jail for one year. "It was one of the most humiliating things I ever had to go through," he says. "I had to go out and pick up trash on the side of the road, but they would make us wear striped [clothing], and I felt like I was in a chain gang."
While serving his sentence, he put his life on hold. No college. Almost no travel. He discovered jiu-jitsu and enrolled at Dragon Karate, a small academy near his house.
"This is where his career started," quips Victor Diadata, the school's owner. "He would come here and train with a handful of guys when [mixed martial arts] was just a novelty."
In 1995, using money he earned from cutting hair at a barber shop in Stuart called Go For It, Thomas bought a ticket to a mixed martial arts seminar in North Carolina, where he began to tap into his talent. "There were about 200 people there," he recalls. "These guys would do moves on me, but they felt weak. I remember feeling I was stronger than they were. That's when I first started to think that maybe I had a gift. "
When he came home, he entered an open tournament in Hialeah. The entrance fee was $50 and the winner got $100. He made it to the finals, then lost. But over the next two years he would become a regular at the event.
"My mom thought I was just being a kid," he jokes. "She thought it was a phase."
In 1998 he moved to Orlando with childhood friend and fellow mixed martial arts fighter Paul Rodriguez. He continued training and took fights wherever he could get them. "Back then, you couldn't give tickets to these things away," he laughs, recalling an event in Jacksonville held in a makeshift boxing ring erected on a club dance floor that drew about 100 people.
In the years that followed Thomas fought all over the United States and Japan, where the sport had already garnered a huge fan base. In June 2001 he made his UFC debut in the organization's first sanctioned event, which was held in New Jersey. "There was no point where I decided this is what I want to do. I just loved to train and it just kind of happened," he says. "Every man wants to show he's the toughest. It's inherent. But if you really want to find out how tough you are on a level playing field, step into a cage and let them lock them doors."
Thomas joined the Coconut Creek-based American Top Team four years ago. Since then he wed his longtime girlfriend, Monica, opened up his own fighting school in Port St. Lucie, and celebrated the arrival of son, Ethon Alexander.
But in December 2003 he lost a fight in Japan by first-round knockout. His career then all but ground to a halt. He didn't compete for more than a year and was thinking about throwing in the towel when UFC matchmaker Joe Silva invited him to try out for the fourth edition of The Ultimate Fighter reality TV show. Thomas flew to Vegas, where he was among 60 contestants. He was one of sixteen who made the cut.
"Six weeks, no phone, no computer, no TV, no books, no nothing, and a camera in your face the entire time," he laughs. "It was surreal." He won several matches but lost in the semifinals. Next came a six-fight contract if he played his cards right, that could mean a shot at the belt.
"There are probably four or five great teams that are capable of putting out world champions," declares thirty-five-year-old UFC president White, "and American Top Team is one of them."
Just a quick glance over the decorated roster of thirty-odd professional fighters who train at ATT's 20,000-square-foot headquarters on Johnson Road in Coconut Creek reveals that talent is to the academy like spit to a mouth guard.
Housing two full-size boxing rings, a 24-foot Octagon cage, a state-of-the-art weightlifting area, and multiple heavy bags, the facility is also home to 1976 Olympic gold medalist boxer, Howard Davis, Jr.; and Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion, co-owner Ricardo Liborio. "We are successful because we are really like a big family here," lilts the warm-natured Liborio in heavily accented English. "No matter what these guys do in the ring, they know how to behave outside. Take Denis [Kang], he's one of the best fighters out there today and he's also one of the nicest guys you will ever meet."
Kang, 29 years old, is to mixed martial arts what David Beckham is to soccer. Nicknamed the "Super Korean," he is considered one of the industry's best middleweight fighters, and his playful personality has also made him a favorite among fans worldwide.
Born on the tiny island chain of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, just off the coast of Newfoundland, to a French-Canadian mother and a Korean father, at age eleven he moved to Vancouver, where he later was to begin his career. In spring 2004, with 21 fights under his belt, he signed a contract with an upstart organization in South Korea. He went 5-0 and was crowned the Sprint MC heavyweight champion. "It gets crazy over there," Kang says, grinning, his hazel eyes flashing mischievously. "I can't go anywhere without someone asking for a photo or something."
In January 2005 Kang relocated to South Florida to train with ATT. Four months later made his debut at the überpopular Pride Fighting Championships in Japan. Over the next eighteen months he won four more fights for that organization.
Then tragedy struck. On September 24 his fiancée, who also fought professionally for ATT, 31-year-old Shelby Walker, committed suicide.
"The first thing you feel is guilt," Kang told the Canadian Press. "You always think you could have done something, and you start to blame yourself." To keep his sanity, he literally trained through the tears. "There was a few times where I was on the verge of tears right in the middle of sparring because things would just pop in your head," Kang said. "It's the hardest thing I've gone through, I can honestly tell you that."
But this past November he fought in another title tournament, Pride Bushido 13. After advancing through the semifinal round, where he tore his bicep, he was defeated in the final in a split decision. It was his first loss in almost four years. Now, three months later, he's back in training and ready to get back into the ring.
In the meantime the hunky fighter is more than happy to help out his teammate, and work the corner for Thomas.
Well into the second round of their scheduled fifteen-minute bout on January 25, both Thomas and Guida had landed some devastating blows. Both were tired. Both were determined not to get caught off guard. Both were showing remarkable resilience and skill.
Streams of blood were gushing down Guida's badly cut face. But he knocked down Thomas, and for the fourth time Thomas was on his back in the middle of the mat.
Over screams and cheers pouring from the enthralled crowd, American Top Team's Dan Lambert and Denis Kang yelled pointers from their makeshift perches at the edge of the Octagon. "Get the fuck up, Din," a manic Kang boomed. "Get back on your feet."
And suddenly something seemed to click. With the agility of a panther, Thomas drew up his knees and rammed his feet into his rival's slippery torso. Guida's bloodied body catapulted high into the air and seemed to hang there, as if suspended by invisible wires, before flying across the cage at breakneck speed and collapsing in a heap on the opposite side. In one swift leap Thomas was on his feet and barreling after him with flying fists.
The crowd roared. The home favorite was finally where he wanted to be.
Peeling after his stunned rival, Thomas fired off a succession of solid shots that forced Guida against the Octagon's railing. He relentlessly hammered home his message. There was no rhythmical pitter-patter of punches. It wasn't pretty. He wanted any square inch of skin he could find. Top lip snarled, face contorted, Thomas was on a mission. He wanted glory. But when the buzzer signified the end of round two, it still wasn't over.
And the crowd loved every second of it. This is what they had paid to see. This was what the sport was all about. "These guys are doing a great job," gushed former professional wrestling star Hulk Hogan, who sat in the front row. "I'm excited they're finally getting the respect they deserve. I just hope they start making some money."
Perched on a red stool one side of the cage, with Lambert talking into his right ear and Kang holding an ice pack over his head, Thomas looked composed. "You can stop this fucker's takedowns," Lambert cooed. Nodding his head, Thomas rose to his feet.
Shortly after 6:00 p.m., Big John McCarthy ushered the two men center stage for the third and final round. Guida's facial features were barely distinguishable under the red mask that now seemed to engulf his entire face. The two tapped gloves, and they were off again: kicks to the head, whacks to the thigh, elbows to the body, punches to the face. Body shots. Takedowns. Sprawls. The final seconds ticked off and the buzzer sounded to mark the end of their fifteen-minute ordeal.
Neither man seemed to have the strength to raise his arms. But they waded into the center of the cage and, shoulder-to-shoulder, offered one another congratulatory words and grins. Awash in adrenaline, they embraced, patting each other heartily on the back.
Their fate now lay with the three judges. The referee made his way to the Octagon's center and took each of them by the wrist.
He waited. Silence washed over the arena.
"In a unanimous decision," the announcer boomed, "all three judges scored the bout 29 to 28, to the winner Din öDinyero' Thomas."
Head back, arms high in the air, a triumphant Thomas let out a victorious whoop. Grabbing the mike from standup comedian and UFC commentator Joe Rogan, Thomas beamed out at the audience, "What's up Fort Lauderdale? I'm back!"
Whistling loudly to show her appreciation from high up in the stands, 25-year-old New Yorker Nicole Fantanelle laughed, "This stuff is hardcore, I love it."
She confesses she hasn't watched many fights live. It's hard, she explains, because in her home state these bouts are illegal.
Twenty-two state authorities have sanctioned MMA fights to date, the most recent being California.
Just four months after its legalization there in December 2005, the sport's leading U.S brand staged California's first bout. More than 17,000 people packed the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, an attendance record for the venue. This past July, search engine Yahoo reported UFC was the second-most-searched topic, trailing only the World Cup. Tickets for the October 2006 live finale of The Ultimate Fighter at the Seminole Hard Rock sold out in 30 minutes.
And when legends Chuck Lidell and Tito Ortiz battled this past December before a sold-out crowd in Las Vegas, the $5.4 million gate was the largest in Nevada's MMA history.
Today, fights are broadcast in 160 different countries, and organizers plan to take the live events global within the next five years.
"I believe it's going to take over as the number one fight spectator sport, and boxing is going to take a back seat," says Trevor Cedar of the Miami Beach-based South Florida Boxing Gym. "People are sick of all the politics and bullshit and fixed fights in boxing, and they are also sick of not seeing the great fighters fight each other. The UFC is still in its infancy, so you get the best against the best.
"People in the higher echelons of boxing, like Don King and Angelo Dundee, don't understand UFC and don't like it, but once those guys start dwindling away boxing is going to be dead."
Yet compared to boxing, MMA's mainstream media coverage is sparse, with only a handful of newspapers dedicating writers to the sport. But slowly, things are changing. In recent months major broadcast media including MSNBC have expressed an interest in airing mixed martial arts events. HBO is in the process of hammering out a programming deal with the UFC.
Nonetheless, 28 states including New York still outlaw the sport. This past July FOX's conservative gab show host Bill O'Reilly alleged boxing played a role in Mohammed Ali's case of Parkinson's disease, then said mixed martial arts is even more dangerous because it allows kicks in addition to punching.
"O'Reilly's never going to get it," White laughs. "The bottom line is [MMA] is a lot safer than boxing."
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Cedar concurs. "Boxers take a lot more damage, going through up to twelve rounds of head trauma," he says. "Since I moved to Miami in 1992 I could name four boxers in Miami alone who have died in sanctioned professional boxing fights."
No one has died in the Octagon. Numerous boxers have died in the ring. Hockey players have collapsed on the rink. And football players have collapsed on the field and never recovered.
"Honestly, I couldn't really give a shit who likes it and who doesn't," White adds, grinning. "The day will come when you'll see the UFC on ABC, or CBS, or NBC. Just watch!"
And American Top Team will likely be center stage.