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

Blood and carnage tapered to more tolerable levels, but MMA was still relegated to the dungeon of the American sports imagination, considered too violent, too savage, a Grand Guignol practiced by masochists, thugs, and true crazies. For much of the American public, that belief still holds.

"Even today in the U.S. there's a stigma all of us have to combat," says Turi Altavilla, the U.S. spokesman for the Tokyo-based Pride Fighting Championships, which, along with K-1, a Japanese league that fuses kickboxing with other fighting styles, and the UFC, holds the most successful MMA events. Pride plans to move into the U.S. market within a year. "MMA is making the transition from spectacle to sport."

It's a catchphrase heard often from matchmakers, trainers, and fighters. UFC President Dana White likens the process of gaining acceptance to slowly smashing down a wall. "We're getting there," he says. "Athletes are getting better. The sport is getting more exciting."

They might be right. MMA may not be poised to erupt into the American mainstream, as its proponents hope, but the sport is on the cusp of a breakthrough, thanks to a slumping boxing industry and the UFC's burgeoning success.

"My only fear is that it picks up too much momentum and becomes some senator's mission again," Cesar Gracie says.

Over the course of the day, the easygoing and affable Melendez has undergone a remarkable transformation -- from telling jokes over pancakes with his cornermen, Larry Bustillos and Dan Marks, to feeling the nerves knot up two hours ago as Bustillos wrapped his hands and applied thin rolls of tape to the front of each fist (a Muay Thai trick that allows the puncher to issue more damage). Melendez hit the focus pads while Bustillos called out combinations: "Three ... two ... double ... straight four." In the empty room, the blows cracked like pistol fire. Suddenly, this was real. This was dangerous.

"In no way whatsoever are we stopping the fight," Marks said in a lowered voice. Melendez nodded. He'd trained for more than a month, lived off strawberries and Rosarita beans, been punched in the mouth and slammed on his neck, sweated away 20 pounds to make weight. No way he was going to lose. Not tonight.

"Kill or be killed" is how he describes his mind-set before a fight.

Now, in the arena hallway, his mettle is about to be tested. The announcer finishes his introductions, and the tension climbs to a whiplash frenzy. The crowd surges in anticipation of the fighters; the wait is over: Shouting in Japanese. Doors thrown wide. Trick Daddy blasting. Down the steps, quick through the crowd, TV cameras in pursuit. Look hard. Stay loose. Fans yelling. Teenage boys. Old men. Scantily clad groupies. Parents with kids. They all watch Gilbert Melendez, one-time student, mild-mannered all-American California boy turned full-contact fighter, charge into battle.

On the back wall of Frank Shamrock's new gym in San Jose, the octagonal blue canvas is impossible to ignore. Nearly 20 feet across, the ersatz tapestry features the old UFC logo of a baldheaded, meaty-fisted fighter in its center. Even more striking are the dried brown drops splattered across its surface.

"Some of that's my blood," says Shamrock, 33, a former UFC middleweight champion. "Some of that's Tito's."

Tito is Tito Ortiz, the champ-to-be Shamrock battled and bested atop this canvas in 1999 in what many consider one of the greatest fights in MMA history. It marked the pinnacle of Shamrock's fighting career.

"I carried [the canvas] around for years," Shamrock says. "I wanted to hang it up when I opened my own place."

Shamrock got his wish this May when he opened his training center, a tidy Lysol-saturated facility with a wrestling area, a ring, and a homemade fight cage. He brought in many of the "young boys" he'd worked with at the American Kickboxing Academy, also in San Jose and home to an elite MMA team. Known as one of the best-prepared athletes in the sport, Shamrock has an impressive martial arts pedigree. He learned to fight from his older brother, Ken, who, as Royce Gracie's nemesis, starred in MMA during the last decade and remains, even in his 40s, one of the biggest draws in the sport. Like Ken, Frank moved to Japan and became champion of the Pancrase league. He later returned to the United States to dominate the UFC as its middleweight belt holder. His reputation now attracts students from far afield. The afternoon he was interviewed for this story, Shamrock was evaluating a fighter who'd flown from Lubbock, Texas, to try out for the team.

As a talent magnet and incubator, Shamrock is far from alone in the Bay Area, which arguably has the highest per capita concentration of top-flight MMA teams and trainers in the world. (Five Gracies run schools here.) California has always been home to more fighters, fans, and promoters than anywhere else. The state's residents fill up the Vegas events. Although Los Angeles was long considered the epicenter of MMA, in recent years, the Bay Area may have supplanted L.A. as the sport's pre-eminent location.

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