A night — or two — amid cultural phenomenon of mixed martial arts

I learned a new language this month. Oh, it was English, but it might as well have been Hungarian for all the lingo meant to me.

Ground and pound. Submission. A rear naked choke. No, those aren’t from a Nevada brothel menu.

Those are terms familiar to men in their 20s and 30s, the target group for mixed martial arts, that wildly popular form of fighting in which nearly everything goes, except eye gouging and striking your opponent’s groin. Those are no-nos, although I saw both during two evenings at the fights this month in my effort to understand the cultural phenomenon. This is no phony wrestling match with outlandish costumes; these barefoot fighters are clearly skilled athletes. When one athlete picks up another and hurls him down, the sound of a body slapping hard on the floor of a steel cage brings crowds to their feet roaring in delight, reminiscent of the reactions in Rome’s Colosseum 2000 years ago.

The beer-fueled spectators in the Las Vegas crowds were predominantly one type: young white men, fit and buff, with close-cropped hair who look as if they could be leaving for Iraq the next morning. While the fighters are multicultural, the two audiences I saw were not. I have no clue why.

The first fight night I attended was Sept. 1 at the Riviera, the International Fighting Organization’s nine-fight lineup, “Fireworks in the Cage II.”

My instructor was a friend from work who knows best how to fight his way through the buffet line but had watched enough mixed martial arts on television to provide basics. He explained about strikers, who prefer to stand and strike their opponents with fists, knees and feet, and grapplers, who favor a wrestling style. But to be victorious, you have to be able to adapt fighting techniques.

The $30 tickets got us in the door, but because two-thirds of the seats weren’t taken, people moved closer. We found great seats, maybe 50 feet from the cage.

I learned that ground and pound was wrestling your opponent to the floor, and pounding him without mercy using fists and elbows. Submission was taking someone to the ground, dominating them with a chokehold or maneuvering them into a position where, if they don’t concede, a bone could break.

Despite the obvious athletic skills, I left with a sense that this was cheesy. Perhaps the two hookers soliciting ringside throughout the fights at the Riv contributed to that low-class feeling. I left slightly disappointed, feeling I didn’t get the cultural experience I’d anticipated. Decided to give it one more try.

Wednesday night, $100 bought me the cheapest seat possible at the Ultimate Fighting Championship event at the Palms. I had the perfect seatmates/teachers. To my left was Ben Brooksmith from Denver, a 21-year-old window installer who actually trains in mixed martial arts. To my right was Jayne Stefanck, 44, from Vancouver, British Columbia, mother of two sons, 20 and 21, who love the fights.

When Gray Maynard defeated Joe Veres in the first nine seconds of the fight, the second-fastest tap out in UFC history, Ben explained how a fighter taps when he’s conceding.

The tap keeps it from being barbaric, Jayne said. “They stop it before it gets to that point.”

Ben and Jayne insisted the mixed martial arts were more skilled than boxing, and both loved their first live event, even if you can see it better on TV.

The silliest thing I saw was when Chris Leben kept stomping on the foot of Terry Martin. Ben assured me that was part of the sport. But it looked like a technique second-grade girls would use.

In the last of nine fights, Kenny Florian kicked Din Thomas in the groin. A fighter can legally take five minutes to recover from that kind of pain, but Thomas didn’t.

“Put him in a body bag,” a man behind me screamed.

Ending the fight, Florian put Thomas’s head in a chokehold from behind, cutting off the blood flow in what I now know is the classic rear naked choke. Thomas started tapping.

Glad I went, don’t need to go again. But at least I have a slight understanding of what it’s all about and can talk the talk, even if I don’t walk the walk.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call 383-0275.

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