Caged Heat

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

Right now, Alexander the Great is standing in the lobby of a Tempe post office, holding a little slip of paper bearing the number 41 and looking up at the electric sign saying, "Now Serving: 25."

"Oh, wow. Things are not going my way today," Sarria says, frowning. While average men and women wait patiently in the crowded aisle of seats along the wall, Sarria quietly slips into conqueror mode again, immediately figuring how he can fill up the time until his number is called. He opts to head over to CopyMax to see if the tickets he ordered printed for the Fort McDowell show are ready.

"I don't sit around too often," says Sarria, who limits that activity to the two or three hours he spends early each morning at one of a few favorite coffee shops near the martial arts training center he owns on University Drive in Tempe, brainstorming ideas for Rage in the Cage and plotting out his day.

Michelle "Grapple Girl" Farrow, top-ranked female cage wrestler.
Mark Skalny
Michelle "Grapple Girl" Farrow, top-ranked female cage wrestler.
Mystee Blackwood lost by a knockout to Farrow in 16 
seconds.
Mark Skalny
Mystee Blackwood lost by a knockout to Farrow in 16 seconds.

"When you're raised like me, and you know what it is to not have, it's hard to just rest. I have to keep pushing. Have to."


It's fight night at the Glendale Arena, the second Saturday in June, and Michelle "Grapple Girl" Farrow, the top-ranked female in the cage wrestling circuit, has just flipped her Midwest contender Mystee Blackwood to the mat and is ferociously laying into her with open-palm punches.

With Farrow, a startlingly muscular 37-year-old woman who looks uncannily like Robin Williams if he had played Mrs. Doubtfire as a buffed-out, rippling roller derby queen, perched over the blonde, pigtailed Blackwood, affecting a Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms innocence (although the two are approximately equal in weight), the quick, 16-second battle is a perfect mix of World Wrestling Entertainment soap opera, mixed martial arts mastery and good old-fashioned mud-wrestling titillation.

Since adopting rules in 2001 allowing cage fighting to be sanctioned by the Arizona state boxing commission (to date, two fighters have died in cage fighting, one in Russia and one in Korea, and the sport is still illegal in 23 states), Rage in the Cage has become noticeably tamer: Closed-fist punching is no longer allowed once the fighters are on the ground, and a round is considered over when a fighter draws blood.

For Sarria, who says security used to have to break up fights in the crowd at pre-sanctioned events, the sport's new legitimacy is a welcome thing. He merely amps up the excitement of his events in other ways: hiring rock bands to rev up the fans before the fights, urging fighters to step up the drama upon entering the cage, and hiring ring girls in impossibly short skirts cut to make every man in the first three rows happy he shelled out $100 for seats in the ringside section.

Thanks to Sarria's incessant salesmanship, two film crews are circling around the cage tonight, one from local broadcast station UPN Channel 45 and another from a new Internet-based video outlet called ISTV, who are both taping Rage in the Cage for the first time.

At the start of the night, over at the far east end of the arena, local makeup-and-metal band St. Madness, hired to play music before the fights and during the show's two scheduled intermissions, is getting into a heated debate with some arena stage managers over what they've just been informed Sarria does not want them doing on stage.

"They're saying we can't do any of our theatrical scenes," lead singer Patrick Flannery, a.k.a. Prophet, complains. "We have a song called 'Love's Butcher Shop,' where I drink blood out of a chalice. But it's the blood they use in movies. It's karo syrup. I guess it's okay to have guys totally beating the crap out of each other and splattering real blood, but we can't show fake blood."

The debate looms for several minutes until Sarria finally zooms by, cooling his heels for a second, to tell Flannery, in five terse words, "This is not your concert."

In a flash, he's gone again -- Batman style. But the discussion immediately grinds to a halt, and the members of St. Madness reluctantly take the stage, without their bucket of karo syrup.

Just what fits into a Rage in the Cage show -- which Sarria calls a "family affair," but then immediately adds, "we have go-go dancers, cheerleaders, rock bands" -- can be a tough call, but that call clearly belongs to him.

The show itself is more Spike TV than Disney Channel, with fighters first joining master of ceremonies Sarria on a smaller platform to colorfully trash-talk their opponents and boost their own prowess, then entering the cage for three quick rounds of three-minute fights, throwing kicks, punches, karate chops -- whatever works to get the other guy to "tap out" and call the referee -- all geared to the perceived short attention span of today's fight fans.

"This is the generation of extreme," Sarria says. "Kids today don't want to see traditional boxing. It's too boring for them."

Sarria, whom his older sister says still has a sometimes annoyingly childish side -- "He can be in a restaurant and throw one of these little bottles that smell like farts when they break," says Martha Sarria. "He buys them by the case." -- keeps things moving at a typical 13-year-old's pace. Whenever a wrestling hold goes on long enough to look like a frozen video game (in the rules told to the fighters beforehand, any hold that goes on for 10 seconds is considered too long), Sarria gets on the mic to throw a zinger at the fighters. "Man, what are these guys trying to do? Make loove?" he says during the first fight.

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