Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Mixed martial arts works on its image

By Anja Tranovich

NEW YORK -- Inside a crowded arena in Moline, Ill., Bryan Vetell punched his way into what looked like a hug. Then, leaning back, Vetell, 29, thrust his knee again and again into the stomach of his opponent, "Big Ben" Rothwell.

Rothwell, 25, swayed, then propped himself up against the ropes. After taking a breath, he swung his fist wildly, making contact with Vetell's jaw. Vetell's 265-pound frame teetered and fell.

The crowd went wild

It took just 3 1/2 minutes for the knockout punch, but Rothwell's victory was not just his own: The win led his mixed martial arts pro team, the Quad City Silverbacks, to a 3-2 victory over the New York Pitbulls. The match, played before a packed house last fall, served as a preseason event for the new International Fight League, which began its first full season this January.

The IFL is part of a variety of efforts to launch the once disgraced mixed martial arts into the mainstream. The sport, which combines judo, boxing, karate and wrestling in an all-out fight with few rules, has been called "human cockfighting." It is banned in New York and is not sanctioned in 17 other states. (The Pitbulls are forced to play their home matches in Atlantic City, N.J.) Despite or because of its strange combination of athleticism, violence and spectacle, the sport has drawn a growing fan base.

The IFL's founders have solicited sponsors and two television deals in a bet that mixed martial arts will be the next generation's boxing.

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