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

Melendez charges again, trying to end the fight. Uematsu wants nothing to do with the stand-up game and shoots in for a takedown. He grabs Melendez's leg. They roll. Uematsu gets Melendez in his guard, a ground position in which most MMA fights end up at some point. A Brazilian jiujitsu specialty, the guard is one of the most important technical imports to MMA and the foundation for much of the sport's submission grappling. In the guard, a fighter works off his back, locking the other fighter between his legs to control his opponent's hips and, therefore, his power. To the uneducated observer, it looks like a losing venture. The punching and kicking in MMA is obvious. The grappling element, often described as a chess match, is where knowledge of the sport's subtleties pays off. A submissions specialist like Uematsu can actually have the advantage in the guard. He can trap an arm or an ankle or get a choke if the other fighter is careless.

And that's exactly what happens. As Uematsu and Melendez tangle limbs and look for openings, a thousand Japanese fans go silent. The only noise in the packed arena comes from the fighters squirming and their corners barking instructions. It's eerie. Melendez tries to "ground and pound," the term for mauling your opponent from the guard with rapid punches. He overextends with a strike. Uematsu grabs the arm and throws one leg over Melendez's shoulder and the other around the back of his neck, trying for a triangle choke. The crowd roars to life. Melendez yanks his head free, but Uematsu quickly twists the trapped arm between his legs and behind Melendez's back. In a split second, the Japanese fighter has executed a complicated countermove called an omoplata, a joint lock that puts gradual pressure on the shoulder.

"He got it extra tight," Melendez would say later. "I was slightly worried, but he was gonna have to pop my shoulder out. No way I was tapping."

Naoya Uematsu takes a right from Gilbert Melendez.
Courtesy of Sustain Co., Ltd
Naoya Uematsu takes a right from Gilbert Melendez.
Jake Shields, one of many world-class MMA fighters 
hailing from the Bay Area.
James Sanders
Jake Shields, one of many world-class MMA fighters hailing from the Bay Area.

Uematsu does try to pop the shoulder, but Melendez, a natural 163-pounder, is too strong. He struggles to his feet, Uematsu hanging from his arm like a piece of violent fruit. Melendez looks to his corner for advice. No one knows what to tell him. So he improvises. He jumps sideways in the air and slams Uematsu's head on the canvas. On Internet sites the next day, the never-before-seen move is dubbed the "Death Valley Driver." It loosens the omoplata and allows Melendez to last out the round.

Bustillos and Marks are as quiet as the crowd when their fighter returns to the corner.

As a business, MMA can't compare to the billion-dollar team sports that dominate the American market. In terms of audience, revenue, and relevance, MMA's not even close. But the sport may eventually be in a position to rival boxing, its closest athletic and business analog. Whether boxing has achieved mainstream success is debatable, but, insomuch as it has, MMA can follow suit. Attendance, live gate, and pay-per-view numbers -- long the yardstick by which MMA's acceptance has been measured -- have ticked steadily upward since the UFC changed hands.

Last April, UFC 52 broke records by filling more than 12,000 seats and raking in $2.5 million in live gate. By comparison, the highly touted matchup between champion boxers Winky Wright and Felix Trinidad last May brought in more than 13,000 fans and almost $6.5 million in gate. Since the UFC doesn't release its number of pay-per-view buys, which is where the real money is, it's difficult to get a full picture of how successful the business is. Estimates from trade publications put the number of UFC 52 buys around 200,000. Wright-Trinidad sold to 510,000 customers for $25.5 million.

"Boxing has big fights," says Dana White. "I hope to someday do the same numbers. We want to get [MMA] to where it's in the sports section of the newspaper. We've got a long way to go."

MMA, indeed, has hurdles to clear. Aside from educating fans and improving its image, the sport, like many others, must come to grips with steroid use, believed to be rampant in all weight classes. (The UFC is the only show that tests for steroids.) Another problem is the shortage of well-paying events in the U.S. market. Until Pride moves in, the UFC has a leg lock on American MMA. Fighters who don't make the UFC or, if they do, don't play ball with White and the Fertittas, often end up with scraps or go to Japan. Already in the past year, the UFC has lost two stars in B.J. Penn and Tito Ortiz, both over financial squabbles.

Even more common are disgruntled athletes in the middle and lower ranks of the sport. Many of them are skilled fighters without name recognition. If they're lucky, they make $5,000 a fight. They might fight four or five times a year. Most of them hold down outside jobs to make ends meet. For lack of other targets, they tend to blame their financial woes on the UFC. Truth is, there's simply not much money in the sport -- yet.

"If they're wondering how they're gonna make a living, maybe they need to do something else," White says. "You either want to be a fighter, or you don't. Look at boxing. There's a handful of guys who make millions of dollars a fight, and hundreds of thousands of guys who make hundreds of dollars a fight. In the UFC, [welterweight champ] Matt Hughes makes $100,000 if he wins. If he fights three times a year, that can be $300,000. That's damn good money in a sport that was completely dead four years ago."

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