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In the months that followed, Ultimate Fighting Championship events were held twice in North Carolina and once each in Wyoming, Oklahoma and New York. The ruthless promotions attracted a loyal pay-per-view following, and the UFC made plans to return to Denver in 1995 for its eighth show.
But fight fans weren't the only people taking note of this new sport. Political opposition was mounting, and then-mayor Wellington Webb tried to prevent the event from returning to Denver. Eleven days before the UFC was set to come back to McNichols, Webb went on the Today show to protest the inhumanity of ultimate fighting. The UFC responded by moving the match from the public McNichols back to the private Mammoth.
In 1996, Colorado senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Arizona senator John McCain wrote to all fifty governors, calling ultimate fighting "a brutal and repugnant blood sportthat should not be allowed to take place anywhere in the U.S."
Campbell, a judo expert who went to the Olympics in 1964, notes that ultimate fighting never incorporated the self-control traditionally taught in martial arts. Instead, the point of the sport was to cause pain in front of a bloodthirsty crowd, which reminded the senator of the gladiator days. "Very frankly, I put it in the same category as cockfights and dogfights," Campbell says today. "They were really setting themselves up for liability lawsuits."
In 1997, Colorado-based Telecommunications Inc. and Time Warner dropped the UFC from their pay-per-view rosters. Ultimate fighting moved to satellite, with a solid fan base putting stats on the web for the bouts that continued to sprout up in Colorado and around the country, in venues ranging from gymnasiums to hotel ballrooms.
"Without the Internet, the sport would've died," says Sven Bean, a former wrestler who'd thrown a party when the first UFC event was shown on pay-per-view. His macho buddies, street-fighter types, had been disappointed when Gracie choked everyone into submission -- but Bean admired the smarts it took to emerge victorious over bigger opponents.
He admired it so much that even though he was old to get into the fight game -- with a thriving office-cubicle business in Denver, one kid and another on the way -- he told his wife that he wanted to starting training in martial arts, just to get it out of his system. Instead, it became his new career.
Ultimate fighting was evolving, with new rules and new fighters who began merging stand-up skills taken from boxing, kickboxing, karate and tae kwon do with ground-fighting elements derived from wrestling, judo, jiu-jitsu and submission grappling, in which the object is to get an opponent to submit by bending a joint the wrong way or choking the air and/or blood off from his brain. The sport became known as mixed martial arts.
When Bean grew too old to compete, he started managing fighters. In March 2000 he promoted his first Ring of Fire bout at Red & Jerry's in Sheridan. After admitting 500 people, he had to turn another 100 away. "I knew it was going to take off," Bean says of mixed martial arts. "I knew it had legs. It was a real thing, even though it had some hurdles."
One of those hurdles was working out rules with the Colorado State Boxing Commission, which had been disbanded after problems in the 1970s but was finally re-established in 2000. Josef Mason, the commission's director, had a background in boxing; he'd officiated, judged and supervised boxing events. Now, seeing the popularity of mixed martial arts, he knew he'd have to expand the commission's reach to deal with this new form of the sport, and he worked with Bean to set some standards.
In February 2001, Ring of Fire Two was the state's first sanctioned mixed martial arts competition. Mason was there, and promoters of the sport hailed him as a strong supporter. After that, the fight was really on for Colorado fans, and more and more promoters entered the ring.
Steve Alley, the ring announcer for Ring of Fire Three, went on to form his own fighting league, Kickdown, which has put on 24 shows in the metro area. Alley also runs a popular website, www.martialartsradio.com. "For the first time since I've been in business, we're experiencing a situation where people have a larger choice, because it's become very competitive," Alley says. "And because of that, people have lowered the drawbridge, if you will. In other words, it's gotten tougher for everybody, because the fans now have to make a choice where they're going to spend their money and on what product."
Among those choices is Rocky Mountain Bad Boyz, which longtime promoter Keith Schmelzer started about two years ago and which has grown into a minor league of sorts for the ACF. "Now Colorado is the biggest fighting state," Schmelzer says. "It's unreal. There's a lot of promoters. I've worked for them all and they're all great, but the competition is unbelievable. It's like driving down Alameda and there's car lots everywhere."
Mason estimates that Colorado is now home to half a dozen professional and four amateur mixed martial arts promoters. Before a fight is sanctioned, the commission interviews the promoter, who's already paid $250 annually for a license, and collects a $1,400 permit and event fee. The promoter must prove that he will provide $5,000 worth of medical and $5,000 of accidental-death insurance for the fighters, and that licensed physicians and ambulances will be present. There are rules for the fights, too. The commission calls for at least twenty scheduled rounds at every event. Each fight consists of two, three or five rounds that are each three or five minutes long, with a minute of rest between rounds.