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"I think we're stronger than Southern California," says Chris Sanford, who trains with Cesar Gracie. "The number of fighters and academies is comparable, but there seems to be more progression here, in part because there's more of a focus on wrestling."
The American Kickboxing Academy and Cesar Gracie's team in Pleasant Hill have produced several excellent MMA fighters who appear in UFC and other well-known events. The renowned Fairtex Muay Thai gym in SOMA recently partnered with Cesar Gracie to offer Brazilian jiujitsu, making it one of the best places in the country to train for MMA. World-class fighters like Nick Diaz, David Terrell, Jake Shields, Josh Thomson, Paul Buentello, and B.J. Penn have come out of the Bay Area. Other top fighters and coaches are scattered throughout the region.
"This is the hidden mecca," says Dave Velasquez, a pro who works with Shamrock.
Shamrock agrees. "It's always been great here," he says. "But no one's ever known about it."
People will know soon, especially if local fighters keep winning. As MMA grows in recognition and acceptance, California and the Bay Area stand to benefit exponentially. MMA fights in California are now held on Indian reservations. But last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation to put the sport under the purview of the California State Athletic Commission, making it legal to hold MMA events anywhere in the state. MMA regulations drafted by the commission are under review; the anticipated date for California's first legal MMA event is mid-September, according to Dean Lohuis, the acting executive officer of the commission.
"Promoters can't wait," Lohuis says. "Moving it aboveground will take it out of the shadows and into places with doctors and weight divisions and independent oversight."
Sanctioned MMA bouts in California will also stop revenue from leaving the state. The UFC has had its eye on California for years, and Pride, the Japanese MMA concern, is applying for a license to hold an event here. This is good news for local pros, many of whom fight for little money and often travel abroad to find work. Perhaps more important, sanctioning improves fighter safety, a subject that has been the primary target of MMA critics.
Despite MMA's image, supporters of the sport have always pointed out that it is actually safer than boxing. Boxers absorb hundreds of punches to the head during a 12-round fight. MMA fighters, on the other hand, wear gloves roughly the thickness of a leather wallet: When someone gets hit solidly, he goes down. MMA fighters, therefore, have a much lower risk of accumulated brain trauma than boxers. They also "tap out" opponents frequently, ending fights with submissions that, while painful, don't usually cause lasting damage.
"There are a lot of reasons why MMA is safer," says VanBuren Lemons, a Sacramento-based ringside doctor for the state athletic commissions of California and Nevada. An amateur boxer with jiujitsu experience, Lemons works many of the UFC fights in Las Vegas. He says the ability of fighters to grapple in MMA allows them to avoid the chronic concussive damage that leads to Parkinson's disease in boxers. "In boxing, when you clinch, the referee's job is to break the combatants apart." In MMA, clinching is part of the game. With two skilled fighters involved, Lemons says, good defense counters good offense, and no one gets hurt too badly.
Ralph Gracie, who fights professionally in Pride and owns five jiujitsu schools in the Bay Area, is a little more blunt. "I've never seen [a mixed martial artist] who couldn't talk after he retired," he says. "Besides, what do you care if I want to do something that's a little dangerous?"
The bell rings and Melendez tears out of his corner, fists raised. As promised, he beelines for Uematsu. There's no hesitation, no feeling out of his opponent. The tension that had mounted steadily during the day vanishes, replaced by adrenaline. Korakuen Hall erupts as the American closes the distance.
Martial arts are ingrained in Japanese culture, and fans have a deep understanding of MMA. Fighters love going to Japan because the sport is held in such high regard. "You get knocked the hell out in Japan, they wake you up and bow to you," Shamrock says.
Tonight in Tokyo, the crowd almost gets a knockout in the first 10 seconds.
At 5 feet 9 inches, Melendez has a sizable reach advantage that he uses to devastating effect. As soon as he gets in range, he starts jacking straight punches at Uematsu's face. It's a wicked flurry that rocks the Japanese fighter. Blood trickles from Uematsu's nose. His legs wobble.
"Finish him!" Marks screams from Melendez's corner.
Uematsu tries to cover up, but Melendez whips in a hard right hook and crumples the Japanese fighter to the canvas. The referee backs Melendez off and gives Uematsu a standing eight count. In other MMA leagues, Melendez could pounce on a downed foe and bomb away until it ends. MMA involves ground fighting, so there's no 10-second count for fighters to beat after a knockdown. Fights end when the referees step in. But Shooto uses a standing eight, and Melendez must now regroup, even though it's Uematsu who's hurt.