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Lying on his back, Dan Marks took a bunch of crushingly hard punches to the face wham! wham! wham! before trying to wrap his sweaty, muscular legs around his attacker's neck in hopes of throttling the guy into submission. Yeah, it was a pretty brutal scene, but these are the sort of things one does while competing in a professional cage fight. And Marks, a mohawk-sporting 24-year-old San Franciscan, is a dedicated professional.
The dude practically lives at the gym, working out four to five hours a day, six days a week. Punching. Kicking. Weights. Running. Stretching. Dieting. Studying and practicing jiujitsu moves, including a panoply of chokes and joint-wrenching submission holds.
He failed to choke out his opponent, which would've meant an automatic victory. At the conclusion of the bout, after a total of 15 minutes of human combat, the judges scored the match in favor of his foe, a hard-ass brawler from Norman, Okla., named Matt Grice, who'd definitely put in the dominant performance. Marks left the arena disappointed and banged up, with nasty bruising around each eye.
"This is a legitimate sport," Marks says. "A lot of people see it on TV and they think it's easy to get in there and fight. It's not. These people are athletes. They're not guys at the bar."
In the days that followed, Marks got a painful look at the less-than-legitimate side of the sport: The $1,000 check he'd received for fighting bounced, and today, three months later, he still hasn't been paid.
He wasn't the only one who got stiffed by the promoter of the event billed as the "Bay Area Brawl" and held in a near-empty Oakland Arena, a 19,200-seat venue in fact, the whole thing has proven to be such a debacle that state officials are considering opening a criminal investigation. It wouldn't be the first time the man behind the event, a Hawaiian named Chad Tsuneyoshi, found himself in trouble with the law.
Late last year the California State Athletic Commission Program, the state body that regulates boxing and other blood sports, moved to legalize cage fighting, also called mixed martial arts fighting, or MMA. During MMA bouts, competitors wear fingerless four-ounce gloves and do battle using tactics gleaned from various combat sports, notably boxing, kickboxing, and various grappling disciplines like jiujitsu, judo, and wrestling. The commission's decision marked another step into the mainstream for an activity once derided as "human cockfighting" by Senator John McCain.
No one has benefited more from that mainstreaming than the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the Las Vegas-based company that launched the sport in America 13 years ago similar competitions had taken place in Brazil for decades and has sought to raise its profile ever since. These days, after years of financial instability and derision from critics like McCain, UFC is sitting pretty. UFC bouts frequently air live on Spike TV, regularly drawing upward of 1.5 million viewers; a UFC reality show on the same channel has been a ratings success; and the company is filling arenas in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Southern California. According to MMAWeekly.com, a Web site that covers the sport critically, the organization pocketed at least $26.8 million on a single card held this spring at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
The UFC's success has spawned a horde of imitators, some of them helmed by sketchy characters, including the man behind the Bay Area Brawl, Chad Tsuneyoshi of Honolulu, Hawaii.
Several sources who were involved with the competition say Tsuneyoshi handed out checks to the combatants, referees, judges, and the state Athletic Commission on the night of the event, despite the disappointing turnout, which couldn't have been more than a couple thousand at most. Evidently, however, Tsuneyoshi promptly closed the bank account the checks were drawn on, causing them to bounce.
Danovis Pooler coaches Martha Salazar, a seasoned San Francisco boxer and MMA fighter who took her lumps that night. "I felt victimized. Martha felt victimized," says Pooler. Pooler says his fighter is owed $3,000, adding that he's lost faith in Tsuneyoshi's repeated promises to pay up. Tsuneyoshi, he complains, "has just bought time to not pay us."
"Of course I'm upset," says Marks. "I put a lot of effort into training, and the guy I fought was really tough. I put in six to eight weeks" of hard-core workouts and dieting in preparation for the bout. But, he continues, "I've been around the sport for a long time and there are a lot of shady people in the sport, so I wasn't that surprised." The whole event, he says, was "chaotic."
Oakland Arena General Manager Mark Kaufman says his company was paid in full for the rental of the venue, noting dryly that his employees "collect the money at the door."
At the Athletic Commission, Executive Director Armando Garcia is a soft-spoken man, but he's clearly exasperated. In addition to not paying at least some of the fighters, Tsuneyoshi stiffed the Commission, which provides the referees, judges, timekeepers, and doctors, and takes a 5 percent cut of ticket sales for any sanctioned event. Garcia says the commission, a branch of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, is owed more than $20,000, and may take the matter to the attorney general for criminal investigation. "To me, at some point in time, it's going to be clear that this was criminal ... The bottom line is that we're not going to let this go," says Garcia. "He will pay or he will get prosecuted. Enough is enough. We've done everything we can do."
But did Garcia really do everything in his power to keep the fighters from getting ripped off? That's open to debate.
One question is how Tsuneyoshi got a license to promote MMA contests. Fight promoters are supposed to pay a $1,000 licensing fee, put up a $20,000 bond, and go through a background check before receiving a license. The background investigation is intended to weed out dubious characters and mob types the kind of folks who might scam fighters or fans, or corrupt the sport by convincing combatants to take dives, thus turning a wager into a sure thing.
So it's a little surprising that the commission overlooked Tsuneyoshi's criminal history. Federal court records obtained by SF Weekly show he was busted in 1997 on felony drug charges for participating in a major coke ring that distributed powder around the Pacific from the Big Island to Australia to New Zealand to Guam. He was convicted in 2000 of conspiring to distribute more than 5 kilos of coke, and was sentenced to five years in prison to be followed by five years on probation.
In June, the same month Tsuneyoshi put on the Bay Area Brawl, he was hauled back into court for violating the terms of probation by associating with felons, court documents indicate. Federal probation officer Joyce Lum declines to say whether his probation status is being investigated, citing privacy rules.
Tsuneyoshi's promotion company, Platinum Activities LLC, is also troubled: The company hasn't filed the required paperwork with the Hawaii Department of Commerce and Commercial Affairs, and is "not in good standing," according to state records.
Garcia says his employees did the proper due diligence before licensing Tsuneyoshi. "We checked him out," says Garcia. "He seemed legit. He seemed like a good guy." According to Garcia, Tsuneyoshi worked in tandem with a Berkeley man named Jeff Weller. SF Weekly was unable to reach either Weller or Tsuneyoshi via telephone. However, we did have an interesting e-mail exchange with Tsuneyoshi, who told us, "I have no problems with you writing a story, in fact you should write a story; however, you may not like what you hear when the facts come out." He went on to claim that the commission itself may get "investigated for wrongdoing," and that "fighters are being paid as we speak."
Don't let this give you the idea that all MMA promoters are sleazy. Take Rich and Jeff Cairns of the Pacifica-based Full Contact Promotions they're smart, upright guys who truly seem to love the sport and care about the athletes.
The father-son team are putting on an MMA event called "Malice at the Palace," Sept. 9 at the Cow Palace, the aging, cavernous arena on the southern edge of the city. Jeff says he and his pop have sunk $150,000 into the event, the first they've promoted, and insists that everyone will get their money regardless of how many fans show up. "I want to have the fighters come back and fight for me again," says Jeff, a beefy 35-year-old deputy sheriff who's taking a leave from the San Francisco County Jail to prep for the event. "I like these guys." His dad is a retired police captain.
San Franciscan Jake Shields, one of the top-ranked welterweight MMA fighters in the world, coached Marks during his bout in Oakland and, like his fellow athlete, he's seen his share of questionable activity in the fight game. "Promoters have been taking advantage of the fighters for years by underpaying them," he gripes.
But at this point he's got faith that Rich and Jeff Cairns will put on a decent event. "It's awesome to be fighting in San Francisco," he says. "I think it's going to be successful." Besides, he adds half-jokingly, "They're the police, they can't be screwing people over and cutting out."