Caged Heat

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

In a way, Rage in the Cage is Roland Sarria's ultimate turkey dinner, his way of playing Batman and wrestling the unfortunate from the car wrecks of their lives -- and getting acknowledged for it, too.

"I don't need that, I could care less about what people think of me," says Martha, laughing. "But Roland needs that. I think he's still looking for that."

Referee Mark Senior raises the arm of winner Dominik Cruz.
Mark Skalny
Referee Mark Senior raises the arm of winner Dominik Cruz.
Joe "Diesel" Riggs, one of Rage in the Cage's top 
Mark Skalny
Joe "Diesel" Riggs, one of Rage in the Cage's top fighters.

Next to the 12-year-old Ultimate Fighting Championship, the first event that introduced America to cage fighting -- basically a fast-paced "anything goes" mash-up of every popular fighting style known to man, from judo, jujitsu and karate to wrestling, boxing and even street fighting -- Sarria's Rage in the Cage events, held exclusively around Phoenix, have grown to draw some of the biggest audiences in the sport. The Ultimate Fighting Championship averages around 20,000 ticket sales per show, while Rage in the Cage's number is rapidly approaching 10,000.

A big key to his success, Sarria says, is his single-minded determination to make his event the hottest ticket in town. Divorced for the past seven years, with no kids, and a self-described loner -- "Lone Ranger" is the term he prefers -- Sarria eats, sleeps and breathes Rage in the Cage. His girlfriend Moore says there are days she only sees him for 10 minutes, between their two busy schedules.

"I am so driven," he says, "because I've got nothing else to fall back on. I don't have a degree, I'm 42, and I know I don't want to go back to the 9-to-5 work force. So this is do or die for me. I've drawn the sword, and I can't put it back."

Fortunately for Sarria, he's found an endless supply of fighters who feel pretty much the same way about their own futures.

"There's a lot of guys who were maybe wrestlers in high school but weren't good enough to get college scholarships and now have nowhere to go," he says. "Or boxers, or martial artists, who maybe couldn't go pro but still want a career in sports."

Sarria himself played football at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, California, a middle-class suburb his mom and siblings moved up to after his absentee dad landed a better job ("My father was never around, but he gave us a house to live in," he acknowledges). Although he went on to junior college and became a two-time All-American as a nose guard for the respected El Camino Junior College team, he was a little too small (5 foot 9 and 155 pounds) and his grade average was a little too low to attract the college recruiters.

"One of the most painful things I ever experienced was when I realized my football career was over," he says. "Going from being a star football player to just a regular person was a humbling experience."

Itching for a new combative sport to get involved in, Sarria was eventually drawn to mixed martial arts, which he had seen on some pay-per-view broadcasts under the name the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In 1994, he began training with Brazilian jujitsu legend Rickson Gracie and won state champion awards in jujitsu that same year.

"I never wanted to do karate or tae kwon do," Sarria says. "Seemed too Oriental to me. I didn't want to look in the mirror all day doing paradas. I was an ex-football player, okay? I wanted contact! I wanted to go to a school where I could bang!"

At the same time, Sarria was running an entertainment service in California, finding DJs for parties, videographers for weddings, and supplying nightclubs with whatever kind of entertainers they asked for.

"If you needed a clown, I would send you a clown," he says. "If you needed a male dancer, I'd send you a male dancer."

After marrying and moving to Phoenix in 1996 -- then divorcing in 1998 when his California business, which he had attempted to run long-distance from Arizona, failed ("Don't kid yourself: You run out of money, you're gonna lose your honey") -- Sarria decided to merge his new love of martial arts with his knack for nightclub promotion and started selling local club owners on the idea of booking cage fighting shows, using the fighters he had begun training himself at a center he opened in Tempe called Brausa, named for its integration of Brazilian and USA fighting styles.

It was a tough sell at first, especially in Arizona: By the mid-'90s, Senator John McCain had become cage fighting's most aggressive opponent, putting pressure on skittish arena owners and cable TV outlets to begin dropping the events.

Nevertheless, Sarria pressed on, printing up fliers at Kinko's and corralling friends and Brausa students to show up and fight monthly at the west Phoenix nightclub Rodeo Nights.

Once the Ultimate Fighting Championship reemerged under a body of rules that allowed the sport to be sanctioned by state boxing regulators, Sarria was able to take Rage in the Cage to bigger venues -- first the Celebrity Theatre, where attendance averaged 2,000 people a night, then the Dodge Theatre, where crowds swelled to 3,500. In April, Rage in the Cage moved into the new Glendale Arena, where the events, held roughly every five weeks, now draw more than 8,000 rabid fans, each paying between $25 and $100 for seats.

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