Spar Wars

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."

A panel of three judges, including a former boxer, a black belt and a jujitsu expert, is there to award a decision in the event of a no-submission. Lucadamo, the referee, stands, arms akimbo, legs apart, in all the drama of the power of his decisions. Marker-etched round cards are strutted by a randy duo of implant-enhanced bikini models. All the stuff is in place.

Each matched by weight, the fighters emerge, led to the slaughter in bouncy, confident miens. The elite ones go the three-round distance in brutal bursts of roundhouse kicks, double leg takedowns and immobilizing choke holds.

One card lasts less than a minute before the pin. Some aggressors are in possession of a quickness that seems otherwise inhuman. Knees bend in ways that defy their design. Rears and crotch areas are regarded without homophobic burden. Bodies fly upward and over, crashing to the mat with genuine pangs of pain. The slapping sound of flesh on the hard mat floor fills the air.

A few of the fighters are proclaimed skinheads. The beefy security guy points at one and says to me, laughing, "That guy fighting, that dumb skinhead, I just tossed him out of a punk rock show at Boston's. He tried to get all jujitsu on me."

The show's sole female match draws considerable crane-necking from the crowd, both male and female. "Keep the girl down. Keep the bitch down," one incited female fan crows like an aroused dominatrix.

Cori Scott and Annie Vanwie reveal themselves like allegiant gymsters with well-honed shapes and limber limbs. The duo wrestles without the benefit of martial arts training and rolls across the mat interlocked, showing little action. The judge's decision is a tie.

Jay "The Filipino Warrior" Page's entrance is a James Brown caricature, complete with hooded sweat top and small entourage. When his sweats are removed, he wears a beanie set at eye level and a sleek blue Speedo. His challenger, Modoom, is swarthy, long-legged and, like Page, he is fit and taut. When the bell rings, the two revolve around each other like some playground face-off. Then the kicks and punches come hard and fast--some making the "no closed fist to the face" rule an illusion. The crowd shouts its approval as every bitter blow connects and each face falls in agonizing grimace.

I didn't see the strike to the throat; rather, I saw the body of Page lurch back as though struck by some obscene invisible force. He lay writhing on the mat. The crowd looked on in silence. Modoom paced back and forth in his corner, the proud presenter of an illegal blow.

Looking down on Page, the promoter, referee and announcer tried to make sense of it. In what seemed like an instant, the medics, cops and firemen appeared.

A doctor repeated in Page's ear, "Can you hear me, can you hear me?"
Page's eyes were crisscrossed, unable to focus, and he could barely breathe. His mouth was affixed with an oxygen mask, and a stretcher carried him from the cage and through the crowd.

A helicopter landed in the intersection of Main and McDonald, just outside the hall. Page was loaded in and flown to the hospital.

"This is really rare," says ref Lucadamo, not wanting an image of his favorite sport to suffer a blemish. "It was just an illegal blow to the throat. He'll be all right."

The monsoon's receded and the last two fights of the night were canceled. Show is over.

It turns out Page's stay at the hospital was brief; he was released soon after his arrival. I am told his esophagus and throat will be okay. And he will be ready to fight again in no time.

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