By Ray Stern
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The regulation clearly states that a bare-fisted blow to the skull is prohibited. The theory being a man's knuckle rack is more destructive to a combatant's face than that of an open palm.
But the base of the hand, that arched mass of bone and tendon just below the palm, can in fact render hell to the skulls and maws of opponents. And though the no-fist-to-face rule hints a kind of emasculation for the stalwart cage fighters, schoolyard catfights this ain't.
The "sport" of Cage Fighting--or No-Holds-Barred, as it is often referred to--is the bratty kid brother of a professional version called Ultimate Fighting Championship. The two share basic common decencies like no head-butting, elbowing, hair-pulling or gouging of the eyes. But there is one fundamental difference--closed-fist facial slams are welcomed and encouraged in the pro ranks.
Cage Fighting crossbreeds basic martial arts like Brazilian and Japanese jujitsu with American freestyle wrestling and kickboxing. The object is to force the other to surrender. And unlike the professional Ultimate Fighting Championship, tonight's amateur, No-Holds-Barred match is strictly for the love of bodily contact, shared sweat and the idea that one gets to pound and kick another in an elaborate series of holds and moves until someone pleads submission. The fighter's rewards are little more than a collected sense of satisfaction or humiliation.
Tonight's event is governed by the International Federation of Freestyle Fighting (IFFF) and the fighters earn no money. The Nile Theater, Mesa's perennial punk rock palace renowned for its less than kissy relationship with Mesa cops, is venue for tonight's all-ages Cage Fighting event called "Cage Wars." The Nile's large, airy, red-brick and black main room is set with 18 rows of portable chairs facing the ring. The thinly padded ring surface sits under blunt white lights and is walled with a jail-like chain-link fence.
Teens behind the bar serve up drinks no more lethal than a Coke. Caged Fighting events are generally no-booze affairs. As one beefy security guard puts it, "The alcohol just guarantees madness. Crowds at these things get out of hand. It can wind up breaking into mini riots."
Gino Lucadamo, a burly ex-fighter and real estate broker by day, trains with many of the participants involved. He has also promoted numerous caged events around the Valley. Tonight he is the event's referee.
"It's a great sport," he says. "I am encouraging everybody to come out. I got my 3-year-old daughter practicing jujitsu, which is the most used martial art right now in this sport. We're all pals here. These guys will go in there and smack each other around pretty good, and afterwards we'll go out and have a beer.
"The big misconception about it--you gotta keep something in mind--in 65 years of organization, this sport has had only one death occur. If you look at boxing, which is totally accepted worldwide, how many deaths have they had? And what's better for your kids to watch? They'll allow WWF [World Wrestling Federation] where they have hookers and prostitutes accompany the guys in the ring, they have people flipping off the crowd, grabbing their genitalia."
But what Lucadamo is forgetting is that the WWF is basically just tongue-in-cheek theater. It's not based in reality; it's no different from a cartoon with a simple theme and story line and bigger-than-life characters.
"I love the brutal aspect of the fight," says professional fighter David Dodd, here only as a spectator. "This sport is the purest form of brutal man, but it's in sport, it's not in everyday life."
Dodd has a looming presence, threatening even, as if bred strictly for his chosen profession. Tonight he is regarded with utmost respect from the fans; most agree he is the best fighter the Valley has ever produced. Dodd is readying himself for a live Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view this month, broadcast July 15 from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Of his salad days, he says, "I started off as an escort driver, bodyguarding escorts, and that was my trade. I got into fighting because you have plenty of time to train when you have a job like that. Now I have some corporate sponsors and I live off my purses."
Dodd claims he has never been hurt in a fight; he does come clean about an incident that left a limb of one adversary snapped. "It's fighting for sport instead of death. I'll apply submissions until an opponent submits. Once it went too far--it's hard to feel that point of hyperextension--but it was an absolute accident. He was a very cool guy, we talked afterwards."
The whooping crowd of about 150 is a mix of buffed men, pierced punks, eager teens and stripper types toting cell phones. The house PA pushes everything from the Ramones to Jane's Addiction. Outside, a monsoon drencher throws palm tree branches and street debris for city blocks; the streets are in the early stages of flooding.
After a surprisingly unbotched if not affected version of the national anthem, sung by local crooner Jeff Carson, the lights drop on the one-third-full venue. The ring announcer takes command with weighty vocal tones and plenty of diaphragm-thrown fervor, presents the challengers with all the verve and soaring pitch of big-time sports TV: "Ladieeees and gentlemeeen, in the faaar cornerrrr, weighing in at 155 pounds--Kieeeeth Udellllll."