California Lifts Ban on Mixed Martial Arts

Mixed martial arts — sometimes called "ultimate fighting" or "gladiator fighting" — is an often-brutal combination of boxing, wrestling and kickboxing. California has just lifted its ban on the sport and hosted its first legal mixed martial arts tournament.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

We don't know what to make of the news that a new sport has become legal in California. It's ultimate fighting, also called mixed martial arts. It involves fighting in cages and elements of kickboxing, wrestling and kung fu. Shia Levitt reports ticket sales are booming.

SHIA LEVITT reporting:

At a small boxing gym in San Francisco, about 500 fans have come to watch an amateur fighting demonstration called a smoker. To the untrained eye, mixed martial arts matches like these look like a random sequence of kicks, punches, and wrestling moves on the ground. Fan Von Kim(ph) came from nearby San Rafael to watch today's event.

Mr. VON KIM (Spectator): It's exploding, you know. It's going mainstream. It's getting big. People are seeing that it's not just two brutes in a cage fighting.

LEVITT: In the early 1990's, mixed martial arts fights were legal, but not sanctioned by state athletic commissions. Matches had very few rules. There were no weight classes and everything from hair-pulling to kicks in the groin was fair game. Armando Garcia is with the California State Athletic Commission.

Mr. ARMANDO GARCIA (California State Athletic Commission): The sport, if you want to call it that, way back then would have never been approved in California if I'm here. It was just too wild, too brutal; they just literally beat the living daylights out of each other. It was like a wild barroom brawl.

LEVITT: The sometimes-bloody matches drew many fans, but they also attracted critics, some of whom campaigned against what they called human cock-fighting. As a result, in the late 1990s, many state athletic commissions banned unregulated fights, and Pay Per View television pulled their plug as well. The spectacles went underground until the last few years.

In 2001, mixed martial arts promoters and regulators got together and agreed upon what they called the Unified Rules of Mixed Marshall Arts Combat, outlining some of the more violent moves and calling for mandatory drug and health testing. California is now the 20th state to officially sanction the sport.

The State Athletic Commission's Garcia says he's adding even stricter regulations here to make fights safer.

Mr. ARMANDO GARCIA (California State Athletic Commissioner): I'm going to go over all of the rules and try my very, very best to, you know, make language much clearer for the athletes and for the officials. The way California goes in MMA is the way the sport is going to go. You know, we have a great opportunity here to really solidify the sport as acceptable mainstream.

LEVITT: At his training gym in San Jose, California, former Ultimate Fighting Champion Frank Shamrock is sparring with his personal trainer. Shamrock has long been one of the biggest names in mixed martial arts. The California native hopes that sanctioned events in his home state will bring more public attention to the sport and increase the support from fans.

Mr. FRANK SHAMROCK (Former Fighting Champion): People want to see martial arts. Martial arts have never gone anywhere. They've just gotten a little hokey. Once the mainstream sees what we're doing and gets it and sees the real people involved, they'll be behind it 100 percent.

LEVITT: Now, as the rules of the sport are changing, so is the sport itself. Shamrock recently opened one of the first schools in the country to focus exclusively on mixed martial arts. On a break from his own training schedule, he's teaching an advanced class how to get out of an opponent's chokehold.

(Soundbite of martial arts class)

LEVITT: Shamrock was the main headliner in his first sanctioned fight in California in early March. The event broke records with more than 18,000 tickets sold. A second fight, scheduled for April 15, sold out in about two weeks and will bring in more money than the biggest mixed martial arts fights in Las Vegas, grossing in the multi-millions.

(Soundbite of martial arts class)

LEVITT: Despite it's exploding popularity, the sport still has its critics. The American Medical Association opposes ultimate fighting and says that fighters risk brain damage from excessive blows to the head. Dana White is the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship brand, one of the biggest mixed martial arts promoters. White says he doesn't expect everyone will love the sport.

Mr. DANA WHITE (President, Ultimate Fighting Championship): People that have a problem with it or are appalled by it are uneducated about the sport. They don't know enough about it. You know? You're either a fight fan or you're not a fight fan.

(Soundbite of martial arts class)

LEVITT: Whether you like it or not, chances are you'll be seeing more of the sport in the coming months. Promoters are now working to bring as many as 30 mixed martial arts events to California in 2006 and many more to Pay Per View.

For NPR News, I'm Shia Levitt in San Francisco.

(Soundbite of martial arts class)

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