Mayhem and Sad Ears

November 15, 2008

My fascination with boxing began as a boy. Never the fighting type, I liked the drama. But as youth passed I no longer cared.

Many years later, I missed the rise of the cable-TV phenomenon Ultimate Fighting. Then in 2003, a Willamette Week ad touted a night of brawling. I attended to fulfill a graduate school story assignment: find an event and describe what I observed.

Waiting for the fights to begin, I saw people fawning over a guy leaning against a wall. I quickly learned Randy Couture was a world champion in this brutal sport and briefly interviewed him. He had the saddest ears I’ve ever seen.

I hadn’t thought of the story or Couture for a long time. Then today I saw a headline about him defending his title tonight at age forty-five. So I dredged up the piece from the bowels of my hard drive and reread it. Given the assignment again, I’d make the story less plodding and take more risks.

Nevertheless, Couture’s fight tonight against a bigger man fourteen years younger reminded me how soft-spoken he was for a guy who could kill me without breaking a sweat. Now his fight in a sport I consider barbaric is an excuse to publish the piece in this modest forum. And I find myself tempted to tune in.

UPDATE: Couture lost in the second round after a punch to the head knocked him to the canvas, where he endured 30 more blows before the referee stopped the bout. I didn’t watch.

No Holds Barred

Lined up on a cold misty night, nearly a hundred people shuffle toward a room in a half-block shopping center. The shopping center looks like countless others across suburbia. The Subway sandwich shop is empty but Rodders Grub and Pub is packed. Patrons trickle from the bar into the line snaking toward the room next door. Light spilling from the room silhouettes the line as it inches forward. Inside, people are filling brown metal folding chairs. It could be a zoning meeting or other community gathering here in Oregon City, fifteen miles south of Portland, except it’s Saturday night and a red, white, and blue boxing ring fills the middle of the room.

The people have paid $30 or $40 to watch men fight. A newspaper ad promises “no holds barred” . . . “devastation” . . . in the “ultimate evolution of one-on-one combat.” I had expected a seedy, dimly lit warehouse filled with belligerent hard drinkers. Instead, the room is clean and bright. The off-white walls are bare except for several posters advertising beer and vodka brands for sale at a folding table. Nearly as many women as men are in the audience. Almost everyone is dressed and chattering as if they’re attending an informal cocktail party. A middle-aged couple seated next to me has brought their six-year-old daughter.

Behind me, a trim man with thinning hair is signing autographs. He is handsome except for his ears, which are so gnarled that they remind me of oversized fortune cookies. Later I learn that he is Randy Couture, newly crowned U.S. light-heavyweight champion of Ultimate Fighting. Nearly 15,000 people watched him win the title in Las Vegas.

Unlike Couture, who was paid $50,000 for his championship fight, the young men in tonight’s eight bouts are amateurs fighting for free. Couture coaches one of them, Brandon Schmidt, a rookie heavyweight matched against Trent “The Sandman” Sandy in the main event. Other fighters sound more threatening with nicknames like “The Hitman” and “Carnage.”

Until the newspaper ad caught my eye, I had never heard of Ultimate Fighting. As a kid, I was a boxing fan. Huddled around a radio nearly forty years ago, my brothers and I listened to Muhammad Ali — still known then as Cassius Clay — beat Sonny Liston, shocking the boxing world. For all its viciousness and potential to maim, boxing is highly structured and restrained. Boxers sometimes look like dancers locked in choreographed clinches interrupted occasionally by punches.

What the people have paid for tonight is chaos. In Ultimate Fighting, the rules don’t fill a single sheet of paper. Forbidden is biting, eye gouging, groin attacks, and kicking in the head (unless the opponent is standing). Choking is allowed. So is sitting astride a prone fighter and pummeling his face until he gives up, loses consciousness, or the referee stops the match. Because these are amateur bouts, no wire-mesh cage encloses the ring.

Ultimate Fighting is sometimes called mixed martial arts for combining thirty fighting disciplines, including boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, and judo. While it bears little resemblance to boxing, the staging is straight out of Rocky. Ring girls wearing bikinis and spike heels sashay around and wave at the crowd. From somewhere a man yells, “Take it off!” A baritone-voiced announcer in a tight tuxedo enters the ring and revs up the crowd with a rousing a-capella rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner.” The little girl next to me doesn’t cheer or clap.

In the opening bout, a young man who looks barely old enough to vote is floored by a flying drop kick and then squeezed so tight in his opponent’s legs that he passes out. The crowd goes silent. An emergency medical technician revives the fighter with smelling salts. Groggy, he is helped from the ring to rousing applause. A ring girl drapes a medal around the winner’s neck.

In every fight before the main event, the combatants fire away with roundhouse punches and high karate kicks, then end up thrashing on the floor. One man endures ten consecutive elbow strikes to his ribs. I wince with each blow. None of the fights lasts the full three rounds of three minutes each. Most of the action is guys trying to beat the hell out of each other any way they can.

I expected a wild, boisterous audience like fans of professional wrestling. But they clap and cheer for victors and vanquished alike. No one jumps to their feet, not for lack of excitement but because the announcer has warned that anyone blocking the view of others will be kicked out. Some people watch the fighting intently but remain silent. Perhaps the unrestrained violence unsettles them as it does me. Or they’re unaccustomed to seeing half-naked, sweaty men rolling around with legs intertwined and groins locked.

At intermission, I chat with a young man whose smile reveals a missing front tooth. Printed on his tee shirt is “Team Quest,” the gym where some of the combatants train. “People think we’re a bunch of thugs,” he says. “But we’re not. We just like the competition. It’s more like the real world.” He has been training at Team Quest for three years but has no plans yet to fight publicly.

It’s time for the main event. Brandon Schmidt enters the ring first, a sweatshirt hood obscuring his face. Couture massages his shoulders while the announcer introduces them. Schmidt’s opponent, The Sandman, is from Oregon City, but it’s Couture who gets the loudest cheers. The Sandman is the aggressor, nailing Schmidt with quick jabs to the face. But the crowd is behind Schmidt and boos The Sandman when he unleashes a knee to the head while the men grapple on the floor. The referee calls The Sandman for a foul, and the fighters square off again.

Enraged, Schmidt kicks The Sandman’s legs out from under him, then chokes him from behind with a forearm. The Sandman’s face turns red, his eyes bulge. I want him to breathe. He slams the ring floor with his hand, signaling he quits—a “verbal submission” in Ultimate Fighting parlance. Schmidt relaxes his hold and jumps to his feet. Coutere embraces him.

Throughout the fights, the six-year-old’s eyes rarely leave the ring, but her face reveals nothing. She smiles when the announcer thanks everyone for attending. As we stand to leave, I ask her mother why they are here. “We go to these fights all the time, all over the Northwest. It gets pretty exciting. The adrenaline rush is intense.”

As we file toward the door, two fighters now dressed in street clothes are dismantling the ring. The line moves slowly, headed back into the wet night.