Why mixed martial arts -- a bloody blend of disciplines often called ultimate fighting -- may replace boxing as America's mayhem of choice
By Luke O'Brien
Courtesy of Sustain Co., Ltd
Naoya Uematsu takes a right from Gilbert Melendez.
Jake Shields, one of many world-class MMA fighters hailing from the Bay Area.
Ralph Gracie (on the mat).
Former UFC middleweight champ Frank Shamrock.
Courtesy of Sustain Co., Ltd
The Death Valley Driver.
In the dim light of the hallway, Gilbert Melendez's tiny 4-ounce gloves flick through the darkness and the tension. Jab, jab, hook. Double jab. Shoot in for the takedown. A sheen of sweat slicks the face of the 23-year-old former San Francisco State wrestler as he flurries silently, alone with his thoughts. Behind him, written in kanji on the wall, are the names of fighters who have lived this moment before. In front, the doors lead to Tokyo's famed Korakuen Hall, where 1,000 Japanese fans wait for Melendez, tonight's main event at 143 pounds and a rising star in the world of mixed martial arts, to boom out of the darkness and into the ring to put his 8-0 record on the line.
The lean, curly-haired Daly City resident has tried to block out the cheers as Americans in the two preceding bouts went down to Japanese fighters. Ray Cooper of Hawaii lost by TKO. Stonnie Dennis, a little Kentuckian in Rocky shorts, took a kick to the neck in the first round and keeled over like a cut tree. In fact, everyone from Melendez's gaijin-only dressing room has lost tonight, including the pretty 16-year-old Dutch girl who returned from her fight sobbing softly, holding an elbow that had been wrenched in an armbar.
In mixed martial arts, or MMA -- an often bloody blend of boxing, kickboxing, jiujitsu, and wrestling commonly called extreme fighting or ultimate fighting -- a perfect record is a rarity. There are too many ways to get caught. A haymaker on the chin. A knee or elbow strike to the skull. Chokeholds that stop blood flow to the brain, joint locks that tear ligament and snap bone. All are legal moves in what may be the toughest, most violent professional sport in existence, one that has surged in popularity here and across the country and, bolstered by new sanctioning laws and improved cash flow, occupies a growing slice of the American sports landscape.
In MMA, competitors must be expert in multiple styles of fighting to avoid being knocked out, choked out, or forced to tap out from pain. But even the best eventually lose. Melendez is the No. 1 lightweight contender in the world in Shooto, the organization behind tonight's card. Pound for pound, he's ranked 10th in the world by mmaranks.com, a Web site that crunches statistical data on the sport. The kid can scrap. But if he lets up in the ring for even a second, he's done.
"Defeat is inevitable," Melendez says; the only question is if it will happen tonight.
The Fairtex-Team Cesar Gracie jersey shifts fluidly over Melendez's frame as the fighter bounces on his toes. The Shooto staff is clearing the ring for the main event. It is almost time. "My house!" Melendez woofs in the on-deck hallway.
Melendez's opponent tonight is the eighth-ranked Naoya Uematsu, an experienced submission specialist. Due to both the difficulty of enunciating his name and his enemy status, Uematsu is initially dubbed "homeboy" by Melendez and his crew. As in when Melendez, on his way to the Hard Rock Cafe for a pasta dinner the previous night, calls his girlfriend: "I sized up homeboy at the weigh-in. I'm gonna knock him out." This afternoon, homeboy becomes "fucker," not out of disrespect, but because, to fight Uematsu and, perhaps, hurt him, Melendez must hold his opponent at a remove: "Is fucker still in the ring?" "Fucker looks scared." And: "What's fucker doing now?"
What fucker is doing is standing motionless at the opposite end of the hallway in a black yukata and tatami sandals. The thick-legged, 5-foot-4-inch Uematsu is the stone-faced picture of calm, as placid as Melendez is charged.
The fighters refuse to look at each other. They leave the stare-down to their cornermen.
Mixed martial arts originated in the seventh-century B.C. with pankration, an Olympic game of the ancient Greeks that featured no-rules fighting. Pankration disappeared with the rise of the Roman Empire, and centuries of regional isolation turned the martial arts into the specialized "styles" we know today: karate, kung fu, judo, and others. But in the early 1900s, pankration was reborn under a new name in the macho street culture of Rio de Janeiro. The sport was called vale tudo, or, in English, "anything goes." What started as street brawling soon evolved into a bona fide sport that played to packed stadiums, thanks mostly to a feisty family with a unique fighting style.
Part magical realism, part case study in early globalization, the Gracie family's martial arts saga began when Gastao Gracie, the grandson of a Scottish immigrant, helped a Japanese newcomer to Brazil establish an expatriate colony for other Japanese. In return, the newcomer, who was a jiujitsu champion, showed Gracie's son, Carlos, the secrets of his martial art. Carlos taught his scrawny brother, Helio, who experimented with techniques to maximize leverage and subdue larger opponents. The result was a new form of jiujitsu that emphasized ground fighting and submission moves such as chokeholds and joint locks. The Gracies were confident their Brazilian jiujitsu could trump any style and issued a challenge to all comers. "If you want a broken arm or rib, contact Carlos Gracie at this number" read an ad they placed in local newspapers.
Plenty of toughs contacted Carlos. Plenty left with broken arms. By the mid-1900s, the Gracies were the kings of vale tudo and had cemented their place in Brazilian sports lore. But it wasn't until 1993 that the family went global with its peculiar vocation. That year, Rorion Gracie, the first of several Gracies to come to the United States, organized a bare-knuckle vale tudo-style tournament in Denver called the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Televised on pay-per-view and conducted in a cage, the UFC introduced America to Rorion's wispy brother, Royce (Gracie names often begin with an "r," which, in Portuguese, is pronounced like an "h"). Royce forced his much larger opponents to submit, often with ease, and went on to win the tournament.
"People were really impressed when he won," says Royce's cousin Cesar Gracie, who has taught jiujitsu in the Bay Area since 1994 and coaches Melendez and several local MMA pros. "They saw this little 170-pound fighter beating huge guys. It opened people's eyes, and everybody had to adapt."
Subsequent UFC tournaments attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers and taught the world something Brazilians had known for decades: Most fights end up on the ground, where punches, kicks, and even brute power can easily be countered. To be competitive, fighters now had to learn the technical submission moves of Brazilian jiujitsu. Modern MMA emerged. The Gracies had revolutionized the fight game.
"I can't think of a single family that's had such an impact on a sport," says Eugene Robinson, a former writer for Grappling magazine who now sponsors Bay Area fighters through his porn Web site, skullgame.com. "Maybe a few individuals -- Abner Doubleday with baseball or Joe Weider in bodybuilding. But not a family. The Gracies have changed the face of combat sports. Before, when some guy told you he was a black belt in karate, you'd take him seriously," Robinson says. "Now we know the truth."
The Gracies had demonstrated the effectiveness of Brazilian jiujitsu, but the sport of MMA they helped create had yet to prove itself in the spotlight of public scrutiny. In the early, lawless days of MMA in the United States, when only eye-gouging, biting, and fish-hooking (that is, hooking fingers inside nostrils or mouths) were forbidden, the fights could turn gruesome.
During UFC VI in 1995, David "Tank" Abbott, a goateed "pitfighter" from Huntington Beach, delivered a ruthless beatdown to John Matua, a master of Kuialua, the esoteric and, apparently, ineffective Hawaiian art of bone breaking. The 260-pound Abbott knocked Matua cold in the opening moments of the fight and, before the referee could stop him, pounced on his defenseless opponent and dropped a forearm into his face. Matua lay prone on his back, his arms and legs suspended in the air, twitching as if he'd been paralyzed.
Although he fully recovered, Matua was stretchered off in an oxygen mask. His beating was a shocking sight, one of several that spawned a legion of MMA critics. None was more prominent than U.S. Sen. John McCain, who spearheaded a campaign to ban MMA across the country. McCain wrote a letter to the governor of each state decrying MMA as "human cockfighting," a pithy label that has stuck with the sport since. It didn't help that the UFC promoted tournaments as potentially deadly gladiatorial contests. The sport was widely regarded as barbaric, and almost every state complied with McCain's request for a ban. McCain further crippled the UFC when, in 1997, he became chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the cable television industry. The senator pressured pay-per-view carriers to drop MMA events. What had been a multimillion-dollar revenue stream for the sport dried up instantly.
MMA supporters accused McCain, who once watched a boxer die in the ring but remained a loyal fan of the sweet science, of hypocrisy. (Only one death has been reported in MMA competition; it happened in Russia.) They also accused McCain of pandering to corporate interests. Budweiser is one of the biggest sponsors of boxing in the world, and McCain's family owns millions of dollars in Anheuser-Busch stock. McCain's father-in-law runs a major Anheuser-Busch distributorship in Arizona, and his company contributed generously to the senator's early campaigns. As the argument went, the UFC threatened beer-sponsored boxing, and McCain took on the role of knee-breaker in trying to snuff out the emerging sport.
Regardless of his motives, McCain mainly succeeded in pushing MMA underground, where it was practiced in far more dangerous conditions in unsanctioned bouts called "smokers." A few overseas leagues flourished, especially in Japan. The UFC and smaller domestic leagues continued to hold professional fights whenever and wherever they could, but MMA in the U.S. went into decline.
In 2001, American MMA battled back when the UFC was bought by Dana White and Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. Lorenzo had been a member of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which paved the way for MMA to be sanctioned in Nevada. The Fertittas were sons of a Las Vegas casino magnate. The new owners imposed weight classes, introduced judges, and worked to sanction fights in other states through local athletic bodies. Most important, they tightened safety measures. There are now more than 30 fighting techniques banned under the unified rules adopted in areas where the sport has been legalized. Among them: biting, eye-gouging, head-butting, spine-stomping, groin-grabbing, hair-pulling, and rabbit-punching.
Blood and carnage tapered to more tolerable levels, but MMA was still relegated to the dungeon of the American sports imagination, considered too violent, too savage, a Grand Guignol practiced by masochists, thugs, and true crazies. For much of the American public, that belief still holds.
"Even today in the U.S. there's a stigma all of us have to combat," says Turi Altavilla, the U.S. spokesman for the Tokyo-based Pride Fighting Championships, which, along with K-1, a Japanese league that fuses kickboxing with other fighting styles, and the UFC, holds the most successful MMA events. Pride plans to move into the U.S. market within a year. "MMA is making the transition from spectacle to sport."
It's a catchphrase heard often from matchmakers, trainers, and fighters. UFC President Dana White likens the process of gaining acceptance to slowly smashing down a wall. "We're getting there," he says. "Athletes are getting better. The sport is getting more exciting."
They might be right. MMA may not be poised to erupt into the American mainstream, as its proponents hope, but the sport is on the cusp of a breakthrough, thanks to a slumping boxing industry and the UFC's burgeoning success.
"My only fear is that it picks up too much momentum and becomes some senator's mission again," Cesar Gracie says.
Over the course of the day, the easygoing and affable Melendez has undergone a remarkable transformation -- from telling jokes over pancakes with his cornermen, Larry Bustillos and Dan Marks, to feeling the nerves knot up two hours ago as Bustillos wrapped his hands and applied thin rolls of tape to the front of each fist (a Muay Thai trick that allows the puncher to issue more damage). Melendez hit the focus pads while Bustillos called out combinations: "Three ... two ... double ... straight four." In the empty room, the blows cracked like pistol fire. Suddenly, this was real. This was dangerous.
"In no way whatsoever are we stopping the fight," Marks said in a lowered voice. Melendez nodded. He'd trained for more than a month, lived off strawberries and Rosarita beans, been punched in the mouth and slammed on his neck, sweated away 20 pounds to make weight. No way he was going to lose. Not tonight.
"Kill or be killed" is how he describes his mind-set before a fight.
Now, in the arena hallway, his mettle is about to be tested. The announcer finishes his introductions, and the tension climbs to a whiplash frenzy. The crowd surges in anticipation of the fighters; the wait is over: Shouting in Japanese. Doors thrown wide. Trick Daddy blasting. Down the steps, quick through the crowd, TV cameras in pursuit. Look hard. Stay loose. Fans yelling. Teenage boys. Old men. Scantily clad groupies. Parents with kids. They all watch Gilbert Melendez, one-time student, mild-mannered all-American California boy turned full-contact fighter, charge into battle.
On the back wall of Frank Shamrock's new gym in San Jose, the octagonal blue canvas is impossible to ignore. Nearly 20 feet across, the ersatz tapestry features the old UFC logo of a baldheaded, meaty-fisted fighter in its center. Even more striking are the dried brown drops splattered across its surface.
"Some of that's my blood," says Shamrock, 33, a former UFC middleweight champion. "Some of that's Tito's."
Tito is Tito Ortiz, the champ-to-be Shamrock battled and bested atop this canvas in 1999 in what many consider one of the greatest fights in MMA history. It marked the pinnacle of Shamrock's fighting career.
"I carried [the canvas] around for years," Shamrock says. "I wanted to hang it up when I opened my own place."
Shamrock got his wish this May when he opened his training center, a tidy Lysol-saturated facility with a wrestling area, a ring, and a homemade fight cage. He brought in many of the "young boys" he'd worked with at the American Kickboxing Academy, also in San Jose and home to an elite MMA team. Known as one of the best-prepared athletes in the sport, Shamrock has an impressive martial arts pedigree. He learned to fight from his older brother, Ken, who, as Royce Gracie's nemesis, starred in MMA during the last decade and remains, even in his 40s, one of the biggest draws in the sport. Like Ken, Frank moved to Japan and became champion of the Pancrase league. He later returned to the United States to dominate the UFC as its middleweight belt holder. His reputation now attracts students from far afield. The afternoon he was interviewed for this story, Shamrock was evaluating a fighter who'd flown from Lubbock, Texas, to try out for the team.
As a talent magnet and incubator, Shamrock is far from alone in the Bay Area, which arguably has the highest per capita concentration of top-flight MMA teams and trainers in the world. (Five Gracies run schools here.) California has always been home to more fighters, fans, and promoters than anywhere else. The state's residents fill up the Vegas events. Although Los Angeles was long considered the epicenter of MMA, in recent years, the Bay Area may have supplanted L.A. as the sport's pre-eminent location.
"I think we're stronger than Southern California," says Chris Sanford, who trains with Cesar Gracie. "The number of fighters and academies is comparable, but there seems to be more progression here, in part because there's more of a focus on wrestling."
The American Kickboxing Academy and Cesar Gracie's team in Pleasant Hill have produced several excellent MMA fighters who appear in UFC and other well-known events. The renowned Fairtex Muay Thai gym in SOMA recently partnered with Cesar Gracie to offer Brazilian jiujitsu, making it one of the best places in the country to train for MMA. World-class fighters like Nick Diaz, David Terrell, Jake Shields, Josh Thomson, Paul Buentello, and B.J. Penn have come out of the Bay Area. Other top fighters and coaches are scattered throughout the region.
"This is the hidden mecca," says Dave Velasquez, a pro who works with Shamrock.
Shamrock agrees. "It's always been great here," he says. "But no one's ever known about it."
People will know soon, especially if local fighters keep winning. As MMA grows in recognition and acceptance, California and the Bay Area stand to benefit exponentially. MMA fights in California are now held on Indian reservations. But last year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation to put the sport under the purview of the California State Athletic Commission, making it legal to hold MMA events anywhere in the state. MMA regulations drafted by the commission are under review; the anticipated date for California's first legal MMA event is mid-September, according to Dean Lohuis, the acting executive officer of the commission.
"Promoters can't wait," Lohuis says. "Moving it aboveground will take it out of the shadows and into places with doctors and weight divisions and independent oversight."
Sanctioned MMA bouts in California will also stop revenue from leaving the state. The UFC has had its eye on California for years, and Pride, the Japanese MMA concern, is applying for a license to hold an event here. This is good news for local pros, many of whom fight for little money and often travel abroad to find work. Perhaps more important, sanctioning improves fighter safety, a subject that has been the primary target of MMA critics.
Despite MMA's image, supporters of the sport have always pointed out that it is actually safer than boxing. Boxers absorb hundreds of punches to the head during a 12-round fight. MMA fighters, on the other hand, wear gloves roughly the thickness of a leather wallet: When someone gets hit solidly, he goes down. MMA fighters, therefore, have a much lower risk of accumulated brain trauma than boxers. They also "tap out" opponents frequently, ending fights with submissions that, while painful, don't usually cause lasting damage.
"There are a lot of reasons why MMA is safer," says VanBuren Lemons, a Sacramento-based ringside doctor for the state athletic commissions of California and Nevada. An amateur boxer with jiujitsu experience, Lemons works many of the UFC fights in Las Vegas. He says the ability of fighters to grapple in MMA allows them to avoid the chronic concussive damage that leads to Parkinson's disease in boxers. "In boxing, when you clinch, the referee's job is to break the combatants apart." In MMA, clinching is part of the game. With two skilled fighters involved, Lemons says, good defense counters good offense, and no one gets hurt too badly.
Ralph Gracie, who fights professionally in Pride and owns five jiujitsu schools in the Bay Area, is a little more blunt. "I've never seen [a mixed martial artist] who couldn't talk after he retired," he says. "Besides, what do you care if I want to do something that's a little dangerous?"
The bell rings and Melendez tears out of his corner, fists raised. As promised, he beelines for Uematsu. There's no hesitation, no feeling out of his opponent. The tension that had mounted steadily during the day vanishes, replaced by adrenaline. Korakuen Hall erupts as the American closes the distance.
Martial arts are ingrained in Japanese culture, and fans have a deep understanding of MMA. Fighters love going to Japan because the sport is held in such high regard. "You get knocked the hell out in Japan, they wake you up and bow to you," Shamrock says.
Tonight in Tokyo, the crowd almost gets a knockout in the first 10 seconds.
At 5 feet 9 inches, Melendez has a sizable reach advantage that he uses to devastating effect. As soon as he gets in range, he starts jacking straight punches at Uematsu's face. It's a wicked flurry that rocks the Japanese fighter. Blood trickles from Uematsu's nose. His legs wobble.
"Finish him!" Marks screams from Melendez's corner.
Uematsu tries to cover up, but Melendez whips in a hard right hook and crumples the Japanese fighter to the canvas. The referee backs Melendez off and gives Uematsu a standing eight count. In other MMA leagues, Melendez could pounce on a downed foe and bomb away until it ends. MMA involves ground fighting, so there's no 10-second count for fighters to beat after a knockdown. Fights end when the referees step in. But Shooto uses a standing eight, and Melendez must now regroup, even though it's Uematsu who's hurt.
Melendez charges again, trying to end the fight. Uematsu wants nothing to do with the stand-up game and shoots in for a takedown. He grabs Melendez's leg. They roll. Uematsu gets Melendez in his guard, a ground position in which most MMA fights end up at some point. A Brazilian jiujitsu specialty, the guard is one of the most important technical imports to MMA and the foundation for much of the sport's submission grappling. In the guard, a fighter works off his back, locking the other fighter between his legs to control his opponent's hips and, therefore, his power. To the uneducated observer, it looks like a losing venture. The punching and kicking in MMA is obvious. The grappling element, often described as a chess match, is where knowledge of the sport's subtleties pays off. A submissions specialist like Uematsu can actually have the advantage in the guard. He can trap an arm or an ankle or get a choke if the other fighter is careless.
And that's exactly what happens. As Uematsu and Melendez tangle limbs and look for openings, a thousand Japanese fans go silent. The only noise in the packed arena comes from the fighters squirming and their corners barking instructions. It's eerie. Melendez tries to "ground and pound," the term for mauling your opponent from the guard with rapid punches. He overextends with a strike. Uematsu grabs the arm and throws one leg over Melendez's shoulder and the other around the back of his neck, trying for a triangle choke. The crowd roars to life. Melendez yanks his head free, but Uematsu quickly twists the trapped arm between his legs and behind Melendez's back. In a split second, the Japanese fighter has executed a complicated countermove called an omoplata, a joint lock that puts gradual pressure on the shoulder.
"He got it extra tight," Melendez would say later. "I was slightly worried, but he was gonna have to pop my shoulder out. No way I was tapping."
Uematsu does try to pop the shoulder, but Melendez, a natural 163-pounder, is too strong. He struggles to his feet, Uematsu hanging from his arm like a piece of violent fruit. Melendez looks to his corner for advice. No one knows what to tell him. So he improvises. He jumps sideways in the air and slams Uematsu's head on the canvas. On Internet sites the next day, the never-before-seen move is dubbed the "Death Valley Driver." It loosens the omoplata and allows Melendez to last out the round.
Bustillos and Marks are as quiet as the crowd when their fighter returns to the corner.
As a business, MMA can't compare to the billion-dollar team sports that dominate the American market. In terms of audience, revenue, and relevance, MMA's not even close. But the sport may eventually be in a position to rival boxing, its closest athletic and business analog. Whether boxing has achieved mainstream success is debatable, but, insomuch as it has, MMA can follow suit. Attendance, live gate, and pay-per-view numbers -- long the yardstick by which MMA's acceptance has been measured -- have ticked steadily upward since the UFC changed hands.
Last April, UFC 52 broke records by filling more than 12,000 seats and raking in $2.5 million in live gate. By comparison, the highly touted matchup between champion boxers Winky Wright and Felix Trinidad last May brought in more than 13,000 fans and almost $6.5 million in gate. Since the UFC doesn't release its number of pay-per-view buys, which is where the real money is, it's difficult to get a full picture of how successful the business is. Estimates from trade publications put the number of UFC 52 buys around 200,000. Wright-Trinidad sold to 510,000 customers for $25.5 million.
"Boxing has big fights," says Dana White. "I hope to someday do the same numbers. We want to get [MMA] to where it's in the sports section of the newspaper. We've got a long way to go."
MMA, indeed, has hurdles to clear. Aside from educating fans and improving its image, the sport, like many others, must come to grips with steroid use, believed to be rampant in all weight classes. (The UFC is the only show that tests for steroids.) Another problem is the shortage of well-paying events in the U.S. market. Until Pride moves in, the UFC has a leg lock on American MMA. Fighters who don't make the UFC or, if they do, don't play ball with White and the Fertittas, often end up with scraps or go to Japan. Already in the past year, the UFC has lost two stars in B.J. Penn and Tito Ortiz, both over financial squabbles.
Even more common are disgruntled athletes in the middle and lower ranks of the sport. Many of them are skilled fighters without name recognition. If they're lucky, they make $5,000 a fight. They might fight four or five times a year. Most of them hold down outside jobs to make ends meet. For lack of other targets, they tend to blame their financial woes on the UFC. Truth is, there's simply not much money in the sport -- yet.
"If they're wondering how they're gonna make a living, maybe they need to do something else," White says. "You either want to be a fighter, or you don't. Look at boxing. There's a handful of guys who make millions of dollars a fight, and hundreds of thousands of guys who make hundreds of dollars a fight. In the UFC, [welterweight champ] Matt Hughes makes $100,000 if he wins. If he fights three times a year, that can be $300,000. That's damn good money in a sport that was completely dead four years ago."
If White bristles when he hears about fighters blaming him for meager paydays, it's understandable. Since 2001, he has been on a mission to resurrect MMA and grow the sport. Of course, he's done it through his UFC brand. White's latest promotional effort, a successful reality TV show called The Ultimate Fighter, follows the same logic: What's good for the UFC is good for MMA.
The highly rated show aired this spring on Spike TV, an MTV property geared toward young men. The show featured 16 undiscovered fighters -- including Chris Sanford from Team Cesar Gracie and two American Kickboxing Academy products -- battling it out for two contracts with the UFC. The fighters split into two teams coached by UFC greats Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell. (The show also acted as a vehicle to hype the Couture-Liddell fight in UFC 52.) Every week, the teams competed in physical challenges. The winning team could then select a fighter from each team to meet in an elimination bout.
Despite airing Monday nights at 11 p.m., the show picked up viewers over the season and culminated in a free broadcast of a live finale with Ken Shamrock in the main event. The finale was seen by 2.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. It was a record audience for MMA in the United States. The finale drew more 18- to 34-year-old men than the Masters golf tournament airing on CBS the same day. "We nailed that demo," White says. "The reality show was our Trojan horse to get people to watch. When this came out, we didn't get too much support from anybody. Midway through, we noticed a change."
White has since landed blue-chip sponsors such as Gillette, Toyota, and Suzuki. He's also inked a deal for two more seasons of the TV show. With business heavyweights lining up behind it, the UFC is primed for bigger things. So is MMA. After the finale of The Ultimate Fighter, gyms in the Bay Area reported a flood of calls from people curious about MMA.
"There's no way to stop it," says Cesar Gracie. "It's like trying to hold and squeeze water."
Five minutes is a long time to go all out, but Melendez doesn't even look winded. Shooto uses the standard MMA setup of three five-minute rounds, with a one-minute interval between rounds. The break expires in a flash of buckets and towels.
Round two begins, and Melendez moves to the center of the ring, looking to punch. But Uematsu slips inside, and the fight quickly goes to the ground with Melendez again in the Japanese fighter's guard. This time, though, Melendez is cautious.
"Posture!" Bustillos shouts from the corner to remind Melendez to lean back -- or posture up -- when he feels Uematsu try for a submission. Melendez listens and, for four grinding minutes, unloads a powerful but patient storm of blows. Gut shots. Sweeping wrist strikes from the side. Double-fisted gorilla hammers to the head. As the fight goes on, Melendez gets stronger. He punishes Uematsu. He dominates him. Finally, the blade of Melendez's wrist opens a deep 3-inch cut over Uematsu's left eye. Blood streams out. It coats Melendez's gloves, gets smeared on his chin. The referee halts the action to call in a doctor. After a long look at Uematsu, the doctor stops the fight. Melendez wins by TKO. His perfect record remains intact.
"That's street fighting right there!" Melendez shouts. "That's what I like to do!"
He grins and hugs his cornermen. He doesn't look like he's been in a fight. There's not a mark on him. He and Uematsu exchange bows. Uematsu shows great respect and drops to his knees in the middle of the ring. Later, Melendez poses for photos, signs autographs, does a TV interview, and answers questions from a platoon of Japanese reporters.
For a young MMA athlete, Japan is a different world. Here, Melendez is a minor celebrity. Here, he can see a future for himself in this sport, maybe in Pride or K-1. Back home, he works half a day in the Fairtex gear shop for $10 an hour. He trains the rest of the day. "I'm gonna go back to school unless it picks up in two or three years," he admits.
In the dressing room, Melendez collects his prize money: $2,500 for fighting and an extra $1,000 for winning. It seems like a pittance for the No. 1 contender in the world.
MMA fighters have a sense of greater purpose about their calling. They are trying to succeed in their careers, but they are also trying to further a sport in which economics has yet to usurp the reasons people get involved. Because of this, most MMA fighters are refreshingly humble and approachable. A novice can walk into an MMA gym for the first time and be training with world champions an hour later. Few sports so readily grant access to their elite.
And in few places is this principle more readily displayed than the Fairtex Muay Thai gym in SOMA. In the spacious training room, the slap of shins smacking heavy bags resounds through the room like the clicking of a metronome. Jongsanan "The Woodenman" Fairtex, the International Karate Kickboxing Council world junior middleweight champion, teaches kickboxers here. On the other side of the gym, Jake Shields, a Team Cesar Gracie member and former Shooto middleweight champ, oversees jiujitsu classes. Fairtex helps train Shields and Melendez for MMA fights.
Since adding jiujitsu to its menu, Fairtex has become the MMA hub of San Francisco. Fighters from all backgrounds flock here. The kickboxing pros are easy to spot because they keep a practiced striking distance from other people. It's exactly the amount of room they would need to kick someone in the head. Lean in to talk to them, and they lean back to answer.
But MMA fighters don't observe the same habits, and there's only one way to tell them apart from your garden-variety gym rat: their ears. They are usually clogged with lumps of scar tissue, the result of countless hours spent being slugged and mashed. Cauliflower ears, they call them. They are a badge of honor in the grappling world, a sign of dedication and hard work. Most MMA fighters have a little cauliflower. Most good ones have a lot.
"At least the Japanese girls like my ears," Shields says.
At a cramped nightclub in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, Melendez and his cornermen finally relax. They order a round of vodka pineapples and take slugs from a bottle of a concentrated energy drink smuggled past the hulking Nigerian doormen. Melendez wears a black Shooto T-shirt he picked up from a fan at the fight. A month of work is successfully behind him and, before cutting loose, he and his cornermen savor a few moments of peace.
Seven beefy foreign men sit at the table next to them; it's the kind of horde bars like to keep on the street. Their loud voices carry over the din of the music. They're American. More accurately, they're New Yorkers.
Melendez sits quietly on the edge of his group, which includes Stonnie Dennis and his cornerman. Dennis sips a Budweiser and looks dejected. He lost his fight in spectacular fashion and can't stop talking about it. He twists every line of conversation into a self-deprecating joke about being kicked in the neck.
The winning fighter doesn't need to say anything. Waves of confidence roll off him. It doesn't matter if people don't know who he is. They can't stop watching. Which is why, before long, one of the large New Yorkers leans in close to Melendez. Words are exchanged. It is revealed that Melendez is a pro fighter. It is revealed that the Americans are New York cops in town for two weeks of special training. It is also revealed that one of the cops, a blond fireplug with his party shirt unbuttoned too far, would like to take on Melendez.
"I'll fight you right now," he says. Is he joking?
Melendez won't take the bait. He just smiles. "When I was in school, guys would hear I was a fighter and come up to me all the time," he says, pausing. "But I don't do that anymore." He pauses again. "Unless they're paying me."
The cops migrate en masse to another watering hole. The DJ puts on some West Coast rap, and Melendez stands up and shimmies onto the dance floor. All eyes follow the winning fighter with the perfect record.
"That was me after my last fight," Dennis says. "It's the best feeling in the world when you win. When you lose ...." His voice trails off.
Winning and losing matter. But in MMA, people lose and keep fighting; people win and quit. Ask a mixed martial artist why he fights, and you'll likely get a nonplussed look, as if the answer were obvious. Fame and fortune it is not. A way to make a living? Hardly. Most fighters find flexible jobs that help cover the bills and allow them time to train.
These men -- boys, often -- engage in punishing combat for one reason: It thrills them. It's an alpha-male response most people will probably never understand. Fighters need to test themselves, to compete on the edge and put themselves in physical danger, to know they've faced down fear.
Why they fight is really quite simple, according to Melendez: "**** man: for the love."