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By Erin Sherbert
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If White bristles when he hears about fighters blaming him for meager paydays, it's understandable. Since 2001, he has been on a mission to resurrect MMA and grow the sport. Of course, he's done it through his UFC brand. White's latest promotional effort, a successful reality TV show called The Ultimate Fighter, follows the same logic: What's good for the UFC is good for MMA.
The highly rated show aired this spring on Spike TV, an MTV property geared toward young men. The show featured 16 undiscovered fighters -- including Chris Sanford from Team Cesar Gracie and two American Kickboxing Academy products -- battling it out for two contracts with the UFC. The fighters split into two teams coached by UFC greats Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell. (The show also acted as a vehicle to hype the Couture-Liddell fight in UFC 52.) Every week, the teams competed in physical challenges. The winning team could then select a fighter from each team to meet in an elimination bout.
Despite airing Monday nights at 11 p.m., the show picked up viewers over the season and culminated in a free broadcast of a live finale with Ken Shamrock in the main event. The finale was seen by 2.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. It was a record audience for MMA in the United States. The finale drew more 18- to 34-year-old men than the Masters golf tournament airing on CBS the same day. "We nailed that demo," White says. "The reality show was our Trojan horse to get people to watch. When this came out, we didn't get too much support from anybody. Midway through, we noticed a change."
White has since landed blue-chip sponsors such as Gillette, Toyota, and Suzuki. He's also inked a deal for two more seasons of the TV show. With business heavyweights lining up behind it, the UFC is primed for bigger things. So is MMA. After the finale of The Ultimate Fighter, gyms in the Bay Area reported a flood of calls from people curious about MMA.
"There's no way to stop it," says Cesar Gracie. "It's like trying to hold and squeeze water."
Five minutes is a long time to go all out, but Melendez doesn't even look winded. Shooto uses the standard MMA setup of three five-minute rounds, with a one-minute interval between rounds. The break expires in a flash of buckets and towels.
Round two begins, and Melendez moves to the center of the ring, looking to punch. But Uematsu slips inside, and the fight quickly goes to the ground with Melendez again in the Japanese fighter's guard. This time, though, Melendez is cautious.
"Posture!" Bustillos shouts from the corner to remind Melendez to lean back -- or posture up -- when he feels Uematsu try for a submission. Melendez listens and, for four grinding minutes, unloads a powerful but patient storm of blows. Gut shots. Sweeping wrist strikes from the side. Double-fisted gorilla hammers to the head. As the fight goes on, Melendez gets stronger. He punishes Uematsu. He dominates him. Finally, the blade of Melendez's wrist opens a deep 3-inch cut over Uematsu's left eye. Blood streams out. It coats Melendez's gloves, gets smeared on his chin. The referee halts the action to call in a doctor. After a long look at Uematsu, the doctor stops the fight. Melendez wins by TKO. His perfect record remains intact.
"That's street fighting right there!" Melendez shouts. "That's what I like to do!"
He grins and hugs his cornermen. He doesn't look like he's been in a fight. There's not a mark on him. He and Uematsu exchange bows. Uematsu shows great respect and drops to his knees in the middle of the ring. Later, Melendez poses for photos, signs autographs, does a TV interview, and answers questions from a platoon of Japanese reporters.
For a young MMA athlete, Japan is a different world. Here, Melendez is a minor celebrity. Here, he can see a future for himself in this sport, maybe in Pride or K-1. Back home, he works half a day in the Fairtex gear shop for $10 an hour. He trains the rest of the day. "I'm gonna go back to school unless it picks up in two or three years," he admits.
In the dressing room, Melendez collects his prize money: $2,500 for fighting and an extra $1,000 for winning. It seems like a pittance for the No. 1 contender in the world.
MMA fighters have a sense of greater purpose about their calling. They are trying to succeed in their careers, but they are also trying to further a sport in which economics has yet to usurp the reasons people get involved. Because of this, most MMA fighters are refreshingly humble and approachable. A novice can walk into an MMA gym for the first time and be training with world champions an hour later. Few sports so readily grant access to their elite.
And in few places is this principle more readily displayed than the Fairtex Muay Thai gym in SOMA. In the spacious training room, the slap of shins smacking heavy bags resounds through the room like the clicking of a metronome. Jongsanan "The Woodenman" Fairtex, the International Karate Kickboxing Council world junior middleweight champion, teaches kickboxers here. On the other side of the gym, Jake Shields, a Team Cesar Gracie member and former Shooto middleweight champ, oversees jiujitsu classes. Fairtex helps train Shields and Melendez for MMA fights.