The Fight Is On!

"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.

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Luke Turf