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"Kick his ass! I want to see some blood!" a woman shouted from her front-row seat at the two men circling inside a cage. "Fight like a man, not like a bitch!"
"Fight. Fight. Fight. Fight," chanted the crowd gathered for the American Championship Fighting bout at the Denver Coliseum Saturday night. "Fight. Fight. Fight."
One fighter quickly pinned the other on his back and started punching his face, opening a cut on his forehead. The referee split it up just as the round came to a close. The mat inside the cage was spotted with blood as an ACF ring girl in very short shorts strolled around the ring with a sign. Round Two.
The men came out swinging, and the round started like a boxing match with kicking allowed. But it turned into an entirely different sport as one fighter slammed the other to the ground, and they wrestled to choke each other into submission. No one was knocked out, though, and the fight continued through a third round, when a judge's decision declared the victor. Then the fighters hugged.
And that was just the amateur card.
A couple more matches into the night, a six-foot, 270-pound figure with a shaved head climbed into the ring. Rico Vecc -- founder of the ACF, an ex-con whose given name is Rico Vecchiarelli -- grabbed the mike. "Straight out of jail, right," he said, then asked fighter Mark Kerr to step into the ring. Kerr is a legend in mixed martial arts, a star of the sport's Japanese league who overcame an addiction to injectable painkillers and hadn't fought in the United States in nine years, hadn't fought at all for two. His comeback was touted as the main event at the May 6 tournament.
"Mark hurt his hand earlier this week, and the doctor will not allow him to fight," Vecc announced, handing the mike to Kerr.
"I've had easier walks down to the ring than tonight," Kerr said, as the crowd erupted in boos and shouts of "Pussy!"
The ACF cheerleaders circled the ring and tried to calm the crowd, but then Kerr's scheduled opponent, the huge Wes Sims, took the mike. "Folks, I want you to know that I knew nothing about this bullshit," he said. "I busted my ass for the last three months so that I could beat yours," he added, pointing at Kerr. And then Sims was crowned ACF champ.
Even before Vecc's announcement, rumors had been circulating that the Kerr/Sims match might not take place. And while fans of mixed martial arts were taking their seats in the Coliseum that evening, another league competing with the ACF was putting fliers for its upcoming fight on the cars parked outside. Vecc's ACF is just one of the martial arts fight promotions filling smaller venues around the country with a sport that's now battling boxing in the pay-per-view world. And when they're not fighting more mainstream sports for an audience, these promoters are fighting each other. The competition is fierce.
Expecially in Colorado, where it all started.
"We're live in the Mile High City of Denver, Colorado," the announcer told the pay-per-view audience tuned into the first Ultimate Fighting Championship, held at McNichols Arena in November 1993. Eight of the world's deadliest fighters went at it that night, going bare-knuckled inside the Octagon, an eight-sided ring with no rules, no judges, no score cards and no time limits. It was more spectacle than sport, intended as a one-time tournament to determine which style of fighting was the ultimate.
The first bout put a 216-pound savate fighter against a 420-pound sumo wrestler, who got his teeth kicked out. But the savate fighter was handily beaten by Royce Gracie, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu artist whose family was one of the original partners in the New York-based UFC organization. Gracie's strategy was defensive, incorporating ground combat into traditional martial arts. He took on men much larger and stronger in that first tournament, but by fighting smart and avoiding getting hit himself, he was able to take the UFC title. "I'm not here for the money," he said. "I'm here for the honor of the family, for the name that the family has been putting up for the past 65 years."
The night was such a hit that the UFC returned to Denver in 1994, this time taking over Mammoth Events Center (now the Fillmore) and introducing a couple of changes that made the bouts even more brutal and bloody. Instead of eight contestants fighting three times in one night, there were sixteen fighters battling through four matches with no rounds, no time for fighters to catch their breath. Fighters were knocked to the verge of unconsciousness. One contestant battled three times in just 45 minutes. Although signaling a ref by tapping out was supposed to be a sign of submission, another fighter had to tap more than a dozen times before the ref noticed. "Fractured bones, stitches, contusions, concussions, lacerations, hematomas, hyper-extensions, torn ligaments, bruises and blood! AND IT'S ALL REAL! The Ultimate Fighting Championship is the only tournament of its kind on Earth!" boasts the box on the VHS tape of the second UFC.
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.
Although technically the commission regulates only professional mixed martial arts -- in which contestants are paid -- Mason is also concerned with keeping amateur fighters safe. He wants to make sure that amateurs don't get into the ring with professionals, so he checks several websites for fight results and rankings.
Across the country, mixed martial arts competitions are divided into nine weight divisions, ranging from under 125.9 pounds to over 265 pounds. Colorado rules call for a mouthpiece for each fighter; if the mouthpiece falls, the ref will stop the fight so that it can be replaced. There's no holding the fence or your opponent's shorts. No head butts, no eye-gouging, no biting, no spitting, no hair-pulling, no fish-hooking, no groin shots, no fingering the orifices. No downward elbow strikes, no small-joint manipulation, no shots to the spine or the back of the head, no heel kicks to the kidney, no throat strikes, no clawing, no pinching, no flesh-twisting and no clavicle-grabbing. When someone's on the ground, you can't kick, knee or stomp him in the head. Profanities and unsportsmanlike conduct are prohibited in the ring, and there's no attacking between rounds, on the break or while a fighter is in a ref's care.
But there's also no timidity allowed -- no faking injury or purposely dropping the mouthpiece for a break. A fight ends by submission, a failure to rise from the canvas, a judge's decision, a draw, a disqualification, or if the ref or ringside physician stops it.
While mixed martial arts fighting has exploded, the UFC has been going through some changes of its own. In January 2001, it was purchased by Zuffa LLC, which moved the offices to Las Vegas. That same year, the cable ban was lifted.
Gracie himself still fights. He's lost in Japan, where ultimate fighters consistently get six-figure fees and where events, which sell out huge stadiums, are televised nationally during prime time. But in the UFC, Gracie remains undefeated, and he'll be fighting in the UFC's sixtieth fight later this month in California. "We'd love to come back to Colorado," says UFC president Dana White.
The UFC will find plenty of competition in the state it last visited more than a decade ago. And not only is the competition tougher, but promoters have gotten rougher, always ready to pick a fight with a competitor.
In September 2003, the Lake Tahoe-based International Fighting Championships held the first -- and so far only -- mixed martial arts event at the Pepsi Center. Jeff Weller was announcing from inside the ring at the IFC's Caged Combat and remembers having to watch where he walked, because the hastily assembled ring had a "speed bump" in the middle, and a last-minute spray-paint job turned fighters black when they rolled in it.
"It was just a royal disaster, un-fucking-believable," Weller says of the IFC. "I quit 'em about three years ago because they weren't doing business; they were doing snatch-and-grab."
Paul Smith, the IFC's president, labels Weller a disgruntled employee who's bad-mouthing the IFC because he's with a different promotions company now. "One of the best shows we've done to date was there at the Pepsi Center," Smith says, adding that about 3,800 tickets were sold that night and a total of 5,200 people showed up. But according to Kroenke Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Pepsi Center, just 2,500 seats of the available 9,000 were sold.
Kroenke spokesman Brian Kitts says the Pepsi Center is open to hosting another mixed martial arts event, and both Bean and the ACF's Vecc have expressed an interest in putting bouts there. But for Gino Carlucci, president of the Worldwide Fighting Championship, one bout in Denver may have been enough.
The WFC established itself with an event at the Denver Coliseum last September. Carlucci had previously booked bouts with a different promotions company in Arizona, but his new outfit calls Colorado home.
Carlucci may be new to Denver fights, but not to legal battles. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed a complaint against him in 2003. The following year, Carlucci was ordered to pay back more than $1 million obtained through a scheme to sell securities to hundreds of investors located primarily in the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, perpetrated out of a boiler room in Laos. Carlucci consented to the final judgment without admitting to or denying the allegations in the SEC complaint. "They didn't prove anything against me, and that was the end of it," he says.
In January, the UFC sued the WFC for using its trademarked Octagon. Carlucci settled that dispute by agreeing to pay a licensing fee so that his group can call its eight-sided ring an Octagon.
The WFC's fifth show will be in Cheyenne on May 13, and its sixth at its new home, the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, on May 20. According to WFC media director J. Mesa, pro fighters earn between $1,000 and $6,000 for showing up, and another $1,000 to $6,000 for winning. Last year, the WFC took a lot of unwarranted hits from other promoters, Mesa says. "We were the new guy a few months ago," he notes. "And it's dumb, it's really dumb."
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.
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."