Knockout/Tapout

Why mixed martial arts -- a bloody blend of disciplines often called ultimate fighting -- may replace boxing as America's mayhem of choice

Plenty of toughs contacted Carlos. Plenty left with broken arms. By the mid-1900s, the Gracies were the kings of vale tudo and had cemented their place in Brazilian sports lore. But it wasn't until 1993 that the family went global with its peculiar vocation. That year, Rorion Gracie, the first of several Gracies to come to the United States, organized a bare-knuckle vale tudo-style tournament in Denver called the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Televised on pay-per-view and conducted in a cage, the UFC introduced America to Rorion's wispy brother, Royce (Gracie names often begin with an "r," which, in Portuguese, is pronounced like an "h"). Royce forced his much larger opponents to submit, often with ease, and went on to win the tournament.

"People were really impressed when he won," says Royce's cousin Cesar Gracie, who has taught jiujitsu in the Bay Area since 1994 and coaches Melendez and several local MMA pros. "They saw this little 170-pound fighter beating huge guys. It opened people's eyes, and everybody had to adapt."

Subsequent UFC tournaments attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers and taught the world something Brazilians had known for decades: Most fights end up on the ground, where punches, kicks, and even brute power can easily be countered. To be competitive, fighters now had to learn the technical submission moves of Brazilian jiujitsu. Modern MMA emerged. The Gracies had revolutionized the fight game.

Dan Marks (on the ground) tries to put Jake Shields in a triangle choke.
Ana Homonay
Dan Marks (on the ground) tries to put Jake Shields in a triangle choke.
Former UFC middleweight champ Frank Shamrock.
James Sanders
Former UFC middleweight champ Frank Shamrock.

"I can't think of a single family that's had such an impact on a sport," says Eugene Robinson, a former writer for Grappling magazine who now sponsors Bay Area fighters through his porn Web site, skullgame.com. "Maybe a few individuals -- Abner Doubleday with baseball or Joe Weider in bodybuilding. But not a family. The Gracies have changed the face of combat sports. Before, when some guy told you he was a black belt in karate, you'd take him seriously," Robinson says. "Now we know the truth."

The Gracies had demonstrated the effectiveness of Brazilian jiujitsu, but the sport of MMA they helped create had yet to prove itself in the spotlight of public scrutiny. In the early, lawless days of MMA in the United States, when only eye-gouging, biting, and fish-hooking (that is, hooking fingers inside nostrils or mouths) were forbidden, the fights could turn gruesome.

During UFC VI in 1995, David "Tank" Abbott, a goateed "pitfighter" from Huntington Beach, delivered a ruthless beatdown to John Matua, a master of Kuialua, the esoteric and, apparently, ineffective Hawaiian art of bone breaking. The 260-pound Abbott knocked Matua cold in the opening moments of the fight and, before the referee could stop him, pounced on his defenseless opponent and dropped a forearm into his face. Matua lay prone on his back, his arms and legs suspended in the air, twitching as if he'd been paralyzed.

Although he fully recovered, Matua was stretchered off in an oxygen mask. His beating was a shocking sight, one of several that spawned a legion of MMA critics. None was more prominent than U.S. Sen. John McCain, who spearheaded a campaign to ban MMA across the country. McCain wrote a letter to the governor of each state decrying MMA as "human cockfighting," a pithy label that has stuck with the sport since. It didn't help that the UFC promoted tournaments as potentially deadly gladiatorial contests. The sport was widely regarded as barbaric, and almost every state complied with McCain's request for a ban. McCain further crippled the UFC when, in 1997, he became chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the cable television industry. The senator pressured pay-per-view carriers to drop MMA events. What had been a multimillion-dollar revenue stream for the sport dried up instantly.

MMA supporters accused McCain, who once watched a boxer die in the ring but remained a loyal fan of the sweet science, of hypocrisy. (Only one death has been reported in MMA competition; it happened in Russia.) They also accused McCain of pandering to corporate interests. Budweiser is one of the biggest sponsors of boxing in the world, and McCain's family owns millions of dollars in Anheuser-Busch stock. McCain's father-in-law runs a major Anheuser-Busch distributorship in Arizona, and his company contributed generously to the senator's early campaigns. As the argument went, the UFC threatened beer-sponsored boxing, and McCain took on the role of knee-breaker in trying to snuff out the emerging sport.

Regardless of his motives, McCain mainly succeeded in pushing MMA underground, where it was practiced in far more dangerous conditions in unsanctioned bouts called "smokers." A few overseas leagues flourished, especially in Japan. The UFC and smaller domestic leagues continued to hold professional fights whenever and wherever they could, but MMA in the U.S. went into decline.

In 2001, American MMA battled back when the UFC was bought by Dana White and Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. Lorenzo had been a member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which paved the way for MMA to be sanctioned in Nevada. The Fertittas were sons of a Las Vegas casino magnate. The new owners imposed weight classes, introduced judges, and worked to sanction fights in other states through local athletic bodies. Most important, they tightened safety measures. There are now more than 30 fighting techniques banned under the unified rules adopted in areas where the sport has been legalized. Among them: biting, eye-gouging, head-butting, spine-stomping, groin-grabbing, hair-pulling, and rabbit-punching.

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