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In the dim light of the hallway, Gilbert Melendez's tiny 4-ounce gloves flick through the darkness and the tension. Jab, jab, hook. Double jab. Shoot in for the takedown. A sheen of sweat slicks the face of the 23-year-old former San Francisco State wrestler as he flurries silently, alone with his thoughts. Behind him, written in kanji on the wall, are the names of fighters who have lived this moment before. In front, the doors lead to Tokyo's famed Korakuen Hall, where 1,000 Japanese fans wait for Melendez, tonight's main event at 143 pounds and a rising star in the world of mixed martial arts, to boom out of the darkness and into the ring to put his 8-0 record on the line.
The lean, curly-haired Daly City resident has tried to block out the cheers as Americans in the two preceding bouts went down to Japanese fighters. Ray Cooper of Hawaii lost by TKO. Stonnie Dennis, a little Kentuckian in Rocky shorts, took a kick to the neck in the first round and keeled over like a cut tree. In fact, everyone from Melendez's gaijin-only dressing room has lost tonight, including the pretty 16-year-old Dutch girl who returned from her fight sobbing softly, holding an elbow that had been wrenched in an armbar.
In mixed martial arts, or MMA -- an often bloody blend of boxing, kickboxing, jiujitsu, and wrestling commonly called extreme fighting or ultimate fighting -- a perfect record is a rarity. There are too many ways to get caught. A haymaker on the chin. A knee or elbow strike to the skull. Chokeholds that stop blood flow to the brain, joint locks that tear ligament and snap bone. All are legal moves in what may be the toughest, most violent professional sport in existence, one that has surged in popularity here and across the country and, bolstered by new sanctioning laws and improved cash flow, occupies a growing slice of the American sports landscape.
In MMA, competitors must be expert in multiple styles of fighting to avoid being knocked out, choked out, or forced to tap out from pain. But even the best eventually lose. Melendez is the No. 1 lightweight contender in the world in Shooto, the organization behind tonight's card. Pound for pound, he's ranked 10th in the world by mmaranks.com, a Web site that crunches statistical data on the sport. The kid can scrap. But if he lets up in the ring for even a second, he's done.
"Defeat is inevitable," Melendez says; the only question is if it will happen tonight.
The Fairtex-Team Cesar Gracie jersey shifts fluidly over Melendez's frame as the fighter bounces on his toes. The Shooto staff is clearing the ring for the main event. It is almost time. "My house!" Melendez woofs in the on-deck hallway.
Melendez's opponent tonight is the eighth-ranked Naoya Uematsu, an experienced submission specialist. Due to both the difficulty of enunciating his name and his enemy status, Uematsu is initially dubbed "homeboy" by Melendez and his crew. As in when Melendez, on his way to the Hard Rock Cafe for a pasta dinner the previous night, calls his girlfriend: "I sized up homeboy at the weigh-in. I'm gonna knock him out." This afternoon, homeboy becomes "fucker," not out of disrespect, but because, to fight Uematsu and, perhaps, hurt him, Melendez must hold his opponent at a remove: "Is fucker still in the ring?" "Fucker looks scared." And: "What's fucker doing now?"
What fucker is doing is standing motionless at the opposite end of the hallway in a black yukata and tatami sandals. The thick-legged, 5-foot-4-inch Uematsu is the stone-faced picture of calm, as placid as Melendez is charged.
The fighters refuse to look at each other. They leave the stare-down to their cornermen.
Mixed martial arts originated in the seventh-century B.C. with pankration, an Olympic game of the ancient Greeks that featured no-rules fighting. Pankration disappeared with the rise of the Roman Empire, and centuries of regional isolation turned the martial arts into the specialized "styles" we know today: karate, kung fu, judo, and others. But in the early 1900s, pankration was reborn under a new name in the macho street culture of Rio de Janeiro. The sport was called vale tudo, or, in English, "anything goes." What started as street brawling soon evolved into a bona fide sport that played to packed stadiums, thanks mostly to a feisty family with a unique fighting style.
Part magical realism, part case study in early globalization, the Gracie family's martial arts saga began when Gastao Gracie, the grandson of a Scottish immigrant, helped a Japanese newcomer to Brazil establish an expatriate colony for other Japanese. In return, the newcomer, who was a jiujitsu champion, showed Gracie's son, Carlos, the secrets of his martial art. Carlos taught his scrawny brother, Helio, who experimented with techniques to maximize leverage and subdue larger opponents. The result was a new form of jiujitsu that emphasized ground fighting and submission moves such as chokeholds and joint locks. The Gracies were confident their Brazilian jiujitsu could trump any style and issued a challenge to all comers. "If you want a broken arm or rib, contact Carlos Gracie at this number" read an ad they placed in local newspapers.