Knockout/Tapout

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

Since adding jiujitsu to its menu, Fairtex has become the MMA hub of San Francisco. Fighters from all backgrounds flock here. The kickboxing pros are easy to spot because they keep a practiced striking distance from other people. It's exactly the amount of room they would need to kick someone in the head. Lean in to talk to them, and they lean back to answer.

But MMA fighters don't observe the same habits, and there's only one way to tell them apart from your garden-variety gym rat: their ears. They are usually clogged with lumps of scar tissue, the result of countless hours spent being slugged and mashed. Cauliflower ears, they call them. They are a badge of honor in the grappling world, a sign of dedication and hard work. Most MMA fighters have a little cauliflower. Most good ones have a lot.

"At least the Japanese girls like my ears," Shields says.


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.

At a cramped nightclub in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, Melendez and his cornermen finally relax. They order a round of vodka pineapples and take slugs from a bottle of a concentrated energy drink smuggled past the hulking Nigerian doormen. Melendez wears a black Shooto T-shirt he picked up from a fan at the fight. A month of work is successfully behind him and, before cutting loose, he and his cornermen savor a few moments of peace.

Seven beefy foreign men sit at the table next to them; it's the kind of horde bars like to keep on the street. Their loud voices carry over the din of the music. They're American. More accurately, they're New Yorkers.

Melendez sits quietly on the edge of his group, which includes Stonnie Dennis and his cornerman. Dennis sips a Budweiser and looks dejected. He lost his fight in spectacular fashion and can't stop talking about it. He twists every line of conversation into a self-deprecating joke about being kicked in the neck.

The winning fighter doesn't need to say anything. Waves of confidence roll off him. It doesn't matter if people don't know who he is. They can't stop watching. Which is why, before long, one of the large New Yorkers leans in close to Melendez. Words are exchanged. It is revealed that Melendez is a pro fighter. It is revealed that the Americans are New York cops in town for two weeks of special training. It is also revealed that one of the cops, a blond fireplug with his party shirt unbuttoned too far, would like to take on Melendez.

"I'll fight you right now," he says. Is he joking?

Melendez won't take the bait. He just smiles. "When I was in school, guys would hear I was a fighter and come up to me all the time," he says, pausing. "But I don't do that anymore." He pauses again. "Unless they're paying me."

The cops migrate en masse to another watering hole. The DJ puts on some West Coast rap, and Melendez stands up and shimmies onto the dance floor. All eyes follow the winning fighter with the perfect record.

"That was me after my last fight," Dennis says. "It's the best feeling in the world when you win. When you lose ...." His voice trails off.

Winning and losing matter. But in MMA, people lose and keep fighting; people win and quit. Ask a mixed martial artist why he fights, and you'll likely get a nonplussed look, as if the answer were obvious. Fame and fortune it is not. A way to make a living? Hardly. Most fighters find flexible jobs that help cover the bills and allow them time to train.

These men -- boys, often -- engage in punishing combat for one reason: It thrills them. It's an alpha-male response most people will probably never understand. Fighters need to test themselves, to compete on the edge and put themselves in physical danger, to know they've faced down fear.

Why they fight is really quite simple, according to Melendez: "Shit man: for the love."

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