The Fight Is On!

Mixed martial arts competition is getting vicious -- outside the ring.

Now the new guy is Rico Vecc, who decided to call his venture American Championship Fighting -- a name that Carlucci had already registered on the web. But the WFC released the domain name to Rico Vecc Promotions.

As Rico Vecchiarelli, Vecc was sentenced to four years in prison for second-degree assault in connection with a Denver car accident back in 1995. For a convicted felon, he says, the only way to make any money is to start your own business, because no one else will hire you. So Vecc went into real estate, and last year published a book called How to Become a Millionaire in Your Jeans and a T-Shirt. But after he went to his first live fight -- Carlucci's WFC last September -- he found a new calling. "I felt it," he says. "I felt the guy get knocked out. That's why our slogan is 'So real, it hurts.'"

But he thought Carlucci was failing to take advantage of the sport's full opportunities. So he took the fighting concept and mixed in some roaring motorcycles, sixteen half-naked cheerleaders and a $45,000 eight-sided ring he calls the "Ocho," to avoid paying the UFC any licensing fees. His first ACF bout was in February at the Denver Coliseum, and Vecc says he spent about $75,000 promoting that show. Today he rolls around Denver in one of two Hummers with the ACF tagline "So real, it hurts" on the side.

Inside the Ocho: Rico Vecc delivers the bad news at 
last Saturday's fight.
Jim J. Narcy
Inside the Ocho: Rico Vecc delivers the bad news at last Saturday's fight.
Come out fighting: Contestants mix it up at the ACF's 
mixed martial arts bout.
Jim J. Narcy
Come out fighting: Contestants mix it up at the ACF's mixed martial arts bout.

Vecc says he's paying five contracted fighters about $40,000 a year to train exclusively for him -- a rarity in a sport that usually just pays fighters to show up and then again to win. (Fighter Ray Elbe, who'd signed on to fight just for the ACF, claims that Vecc refused to pay after an injury stopped him from participating in the first bout; Vecc denies that.)

On May 19, Vecc will be in court to settle a fight of his own: He'll be sentenced to no more than eight years in prison in exchange for his guilty plea to a Class 3 felony securities fraud (the district attorney agreed to drop five other securities-fraud charges and one count of theft over $15,000). Vecc had been charged with taking more than $130,000 in real-estate investments and promising to double some investments in as little as two months; he's already paid about $8,000 back.

Even if he goes to prison, Vecc says the ACF will survive, though "this business is very competitive," he notes. "It's almost Mafia-esque."

But Sven Bean predicts the ACF won't be around long. Of 26 fighters on the ACF's second fight card, nine were former Ring of Fire fighters -- and only one of them had a winning record, he says. "I've put more people in the big league, the UFC, than every other promoter in this state," Bean boasts. "There wouldn't be an ACF or WFC if there wasn't a Ring of Fire." Bean's staged 23 events so far; his next is set for June 17 at the Douglas County Events Center.

While Bean says he's proud to serve as a training ground for the UFC, Vecc sees his own company as competing with the UFC by going after potential fans who've never seen a fight before. "If we follow the goals we want to, we will be a contender with the UFC, and if that happens, only one of us will be able to survive," he says. "Eventually, one company will buy the other company and create a super-company, just like what happened with wrestling. There will always be the local promoters that have the small shows, but eventually there'll be two big companies competing for the pay-per-view dollars."

The UFC doesn't sound worried. "As far as mainstream goes, we're a real sport," White says. "We're not only beating boxing, we're beating the NBA, we're beating the NHL, we're beating Major League Baseball, we're beating everybody except for football. Football's been around forever, but when was the last sport created?"

According to Nielsen Media Research, The Ultimate Fighter had higher overall ratings than all regular-season sports shows on cable, excluding football.

"The day's going to happen when there's another monster of the mixed martial arts," White adds. "Right now, the top dogs in the industry are us and a company over in Japan, and a couple other guys who have been in it for a while that do pretty well. But this sport's got a long way to go, a long way to go."

No one knows that better than Vecc, who only filled 2,366 seats at the Coliseum last Saturday -- down about a thousand from the first event in February. But he plans to battle on.

"We were built to compete with the UFC," Vecc says. "And with or without me at the helm of this company, we will go forward as strong as possible to be the company that does compete with the UFC. Obviously, it won't happen overnight, but maybe in five years from now, that is our goal."

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