Sunday, March 11, 2007

Underground RUMBLES

By Barbara Barker

Kicking and punching keeps fans coming back to top-secret venues

There is no sign outside the squat brick building in the Bronx, only a dented metal door with a street number spray-painted on the front. Ground-floor windows, if they ever existed, were bricked in long ago. There is nothing inviting, nothing to explain why a steady stream of visitors was entering the building on a recent Sunday night.

Inside, down a long fluorescent-lit hallway covered with fight posters, Joe Rodriguez is on his back. He has been kicked in the ribs. He has been punched in the head. Now, with some 150 spectators watching his every breath, Rodriguez's right arm is being twisted at a most unnatural angle, so that it resembles a wing about to be pulled from a chicken.

For a good 20 seconds, he squirms, rotates and tries to buck off his opponent, 190-pound Mike Mullero. Finally, Rodriguez reaches out with his free arm and taps the canvas, signaling an end to the fight. The gym fills with cheers as the two fighters stand and embrace in the middle of the ring.

While for some, this bizarre hit-and-hug, kick-and-kiss scene might confirm an unofficial end to the civilized world, there are those out there who find it outright addictive. Every few months, they pay $25 at the door of a rotating location in one of the five boroughs to watch what promoter Peter Storm bills as the "Underground Combat League," a sort of amateur version of the "Ultimate Fighting Championship" that has become so popular through pay per view and cable TV.

The sport is called mixed martial arts and is sometimes referred to as combat fighting, extreme fighting or cage fighting. It was outlawed in New York in 1997 after some lawmakers compared it to a human cockfighting. That means New York fans who want to watch live action without traveling to New Jersey or another state where the sport is sanctioned have to rely on word-of-mouth or the Internet to find an underground event such as the one Storm has been promoting for four years.

A mixed martial arts teacher and bouncer by trade, Storm contends he is doing nothing illegal. He does not pay the fighters, and does not sell food or alcohol at the events. He said he cleared "about $20" on the Bronx fight. "We've never had any trouble," Storm said, adding that he's even invited off-duty police to come to his shows.

But Ron Scott Stevens, chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, says the fights, regardless of whether the fighters are paid or not, are "most likely illegal." Said Stevens: "If we find out about them, then we move to stop them."

Storm does try to keep his events somewhat under the radar. He doesn't advertise, he moves them around the city and reporters are invited under the condition they don't reveal the location.

The fights have a low-key, almost pickup basketball aura to them. Storm arrives with a scale under his arm. After he weighs, measures and interviews the competitors about their fighting styles, he starts making the matches. He is never quite sure who is going to show up.

"A lot of guys say they want to fight, but on the day of the fight change their mind," he said. This means sometimes fighters don't find out who their opponent is until minutes before stepping into the ring.

One thing he doesn't worry about: matching skill levels. Says Storm: "It's too hard to determine. Makes it interesting."

Inside the ring, the rules are simple and few: No biting, no gouging, no groin shots and no fishhooking - a move in which you stick your fingers inside a mouth and pull to cause great pain.

Everything else goes. Unlike UFC events, fighters can strike any part of the body, including the throat and the spine. Opponents can use their fists, elbows, knee and legs. Fights go for three, five-minute rounds and can be won in three ways: by knockout; by judge's decision; or by submission, a move, hold, choke or other action that forces an opponent to give up.

There are a few safety precautions taken. Storm said he had an emergency medical technician ringside, though no one ended up requiring attention. Only once has he had to have a fighter leave the premises, after suffering a concussion. There have been a few broken bones: Storm himself suffered a broken arm in one of the early fights.

There is also a referee trained to stop fights before they get out of hand. Sunday's official was Andrew Montanez, a professional fighter from Mineola. Montanez called the second of the three fights in the second round when Anthony Congemi seemed too disoriented to keep fighting.

So what kind of people are interested in watching two guys bloody and beat each other silly? Though heavy on the males in their 20s and 30s, this Sunday's crowd is a surprisingly diverse bunch. There are at least 20 women, including Gaby Butterworth, a 35-year-old attorney from Queens.

"It's like any other sport - when you know how to break it down and see what the moves are, it becomes interesting," Butterworth said. "It's funny because I can't watch boxing. It's too violent."

Also in the crowd were Campbell McLaren and David Isaacs, two of the sport's pioneers. The two owned the production company that produced the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993 in Denver. Isaacs is best known for inventing "the Octagon," the eight-sided cage used in UFC events. The two have since sold the UFC and are now working on a show with Black Entertainment Television that will feature hip-hop celebrities competing in a mixed martial arts tournament.

All of the six competitors on Sunday's card had some type of martial arts background, and because of that have complicated attitudes when it comes to violence. Mullero, a karate and kickboxing expert who is the sensei at Kaizen Dojo in Upper Manhattan, is a devout Christian who said he has "a lot of reasons for not wanting to hurt someone."

Before he began competing in mixed martial arts tournaments, Mullero said he went to his minister to ask him if what he was doing was wrong. Said Mullero: "He made it clear if your heart is not in it to kill the other guy, then it was OK."

Who says there are no rules?


No biting, no gouging, no groin shots and no fishhooking a move in which you stick your fingers inside a mouth and pull to cause great pain.

(Flash Movie Report)


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