Caged Heat

Rage in the Cage promoter Roland Sarria lets loose the Valley's modern-day gladiators

"I was Batman for a week!" says Roland Sarria, barreling down Broadway Road in his two-tone black and gray Honda Element, covered with bright red and black decals advertising the sporting event he's been promoting for the past seven and a half years: "Rage in the Cage: Extreme Fighting Championship."

He says this suddenly, after grousing about Tempe traffic and demonstrating his sure-fire method for handling the occasional morning road rage brought on by inattentive seniors boarding the Loop 101 on Shea Boulevard, near his home: "I usually give 'em one of these," he says, jerking the wheel quickly to the right, a two-ton nudge, then yanking it back to the left.

"Nobody knows it, but I saved three people in five days in car accidents," Sarria continues, speaking fast, loud and passionately in his natural salesman's style.

Roland Sarria and some Ragers-in-training.
Mark Skalny
Roland Sarria and some Ragers-in-training.
Rage in the Cage has grown from a small nightclub event to an extravaganza drawing more than 8,000 spectators to Glendale Arena.
Mark Skalny
Rage in the Cage has grown from a small nightclub event to an extravaganza drawing more than 8,000 spectators to Glendale Arena.

"The first time, I was driving on the U.S. 60, saw a car accident -- bam! I pulled to the side, went up to the car, I go, 'Are you all right?' This girl goes, 'I'm a little sore,' and I say, 'Stay there, I'll get help.'"

Sarria says he waited out the ambulance, then vanished without sticking around for acknowledgement. A couple days later, he was the first to arrive at another accident scene, and then another.

"It was unbelievable. I really felt like Batman! I could just imagine that girl three days later, telling her friends, 'I crashed my car, and some guy helped me get out, then just walked away without even giving his name.'"

After the third rescue, Sarria came home and told his girlfriend, Gloria Moore, who works as a real estate agent for Re/Max, "'You won't believe it: I saved another person!' She's like, 'Stop it.'"

Moore, who's known Sarria since 1991 and has lived with him since 2000, says Sarria frequently goes through these spirited quests to save the world. One Thanksgiving, he went one better than donating a turkey to the homeless shelter and "actually brought a homeless guy home to dinner," she says, recalling her surprise. Another time, visiting Tijuana, he grabbed together a bunch of kids off the street and took them to the restaurant with him.

Truth is, he had trouble breaking the Batman streak. For the 42-year-old fight promoter, a Cuban-born scrapper who fought his way up from eating sugar packets for dessert in the L.A. projects to become, today, the ringmaster behind the second-highest-attended cage fighting events in the nation, the role of urban superhero fit like a tight knuckle glove.

"I study great warriors, great generals -- Caesar, Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun -- and I try to follow their way of thinking," Sarria says, pulling into the parking lot of a post office. "Because it's a war out there, just surviving. In this business, one bad show can wipe you out. You have to put so much money into each one."

Recently, Sarria quit his successful day job as a nutritional-supplements salesman to concentrate full time on promoting Rage in the Cage, the no-holds-barred fighting exhibitions he's taken from a monthly nightclub event in 1998, attracting a few hundred spectators at a Phoenix bar called Rodeo Nights, to an arena-filling extravaganza drawing more than 8,000 people every five weeks to the West Valley's cavernous Glendale Arena.

Rage in the Cage is a pumped-up spectacle, an adrenaline-spraying night of mixed martial arts fighting, ring girls in short skirts and an audience stoked to see only the rubbernecking highlights of a boxing match, a hockey game and a NASCAR race -- the knockouts, brawls and rail crashes -- all acted out between a succession of modern gladiators in a 16-foot octagonal steel cage, and all set to a pulsing rock soundtrack.

It's a big, hulking, sweaty event, involving sometimes 24 fighters, lots of staging and lighting, and a ton of arena personnel to bring it to life. But in the end, it's Roland's show.

While Sarria employs three other people to help with the paperwork and booking the fighters, the success of each Rage in the Cage show depends largely on the nonstop grunt work and personal sales calls Sarria insists on doing himself.

On this particular Friday morning, he's motoring around Phoenix and Tempe, stopping first at a print shop to pick up postcards promoting his new monthly events at the Fort McDowell Casino, then buying mailing labels at an office supply store, and finally charging up a purchase of 10,000 23-cent stamps at the post office, which he'll spend the better part of his Saturday affixing to each of the postcards himself with the help of a couple of friends.

Banking his future on the success of his fight events without the safety net of a regular 9-to-5 job might worry Sarria, if he didn't consider himself a bit of a superhero.

"It would be scary, leaving a good-paying job at my age, if I thought like the average man," says Sarria, who a few years back adopted the middle name Maximus, after the Roman general Russell Crowe played in Gladiator, one of his favorite movies. "But I can't think like the average man. I have to think like Alexander the Great."

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