Mixed martial arts is huge, and Bonecrunch Fighting wants a piece of it

From outside the cage, mixed martial arts looks like street fighting - just some ripped young guys trying to beat each other senseless. But Andrew Neitlich watches these fights, and he smells money.

By Christina Rexrode, Times Staff Writer
Published October 8, 2007

From outside the cage, mixed martial arts looks like street fighting - just some ripped young guys trying to beat each other senseless. But Andrew Neitlich watches these fights, and he smells money.

Neitlich, a Harvard MBA and Sarasota resident, is a serial entrepreneur who's recently turned his attention to MMA, as mixed martial arts is known to aficionados. It's a fast-growing, adrenaline-pumping, testosterone-exuding sport, an almost-anything-goes form of fighting that allows punching, kicking, grappling and submission holds.

But, says the 41-year-old Neitlich, "This is not a fight club.

"This is legitimate stuff."

From his home office, Neitlich is drumming up interest - and, he hopes, buyers - for a new MMA league that he's christened Bonecrunch Fighting. The league's first fight, on Aug. 4 at Sarasota's Robarts Arena, was legitimate stuff: It drew national sponsors and a crowd of 3,500, who paid anywhere from $20 to $65 to watch guys from Miami and Sarasota pulverize each other.

"No air conditioning, lousy fighters, and we still had a sold-out crowd," Neitlich marveled.

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Mixed martial arts has edged toward the mainstream since the mid '90s, when it was just emerging and Sen. John McCain vilified it as "human cockfighting." Last month, Spike TV's Ultimate Fighter reality show entered its sixth season. In March, an MMA match staged by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which is the sport's major league, drew 19,000 spectators to Columbus, Ohio. And last year, UFC's pay-per-view revenue hit $223-million, besting boxing's wimpy $177-million and World Wrestling Entertainment's $132-million, according to trade publications.

MMA is a young sport, and there's still room for newbies to break in. But the business already has several established leagues, including the heavyweight champ, the UFC, a 14-year-old league that is conservatively valued at $100-million.

Neitlich insists that Bonecrunch, once it gets off the ground, won't face off against UFC or any of the other leagues.

"Really," Neitlich said, "I'm competing against other things to do on a Saturday night."

For months, he's been recruiting coaches and fighters, mostly in mid-sized cities around Florida, for Bonecrunch teams. He plans to franchise the teams: $20,000 for the first five owners, $50,000 for the rest.

So far, Bonecrunch has eight teams in various stages of coming together, including the Tampa Terrors.

The team aspect, and the hometown heroes that it creates, sets Bonecrunch apart from UFC. Neitlich theorizes that people will turn out to support a hometown team, or to cheer on a co-worker's brother or a guy they went to high school with, even if they don't know much about MMA.

Allen Berube figures that's about right: He estimates he brought 500 or 600 people to his fights just by hanging up a few posters in his South Tampa restaurant, Monstah Lobstah. (That's also his cage name.)

As a UFC alum, Berube, 33, is too expensive for Bonecrunch. Neitlich wants to recruit fighters with five or fewer pro fights. But, like most MMA fighters, Berube hasa day job. He got into fighting, he says, because it was good advertising for the restaurant.

Rob Kahn, who will coach the Tampa Terrors, is eyeing some of the students at his Gracie studio for the Bonecrunch team: Brandon Sene, 26, is a fiber optics engineer; Rashad Saibi, 29, is a DJ; John Deegan, 21, is a butcher at a Publix store in Apollo Beach.

Neitlich says that Bonecrunch fighters will earn about $350 just for showing up for a fight and up to $1,000 for winning.

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Neitlich, who's married to a black belt and does jujitsu to stay in shape, estimates that he's sunk $100,000 into Bonecrunch since incorporating in January. On Friday, he said he would be inking a deal within the week to broadcast Bonecrunch fights to 6-million Florida homes.

He knows he's got the right elements on his hands: a fast-growing sport, a coveted fan demographic (the 18- to 34-year-old male), and a stellar turnout at his league's inaugural fight.

Now, with the next fight scheduled for Jan. 12, he hopes he can connect those pieces, form more teams and lure in buyers.

If none comes along, he says, he'll run the teams himself.

Bonecrunch teams

The league is looking for buyers for all eight teams, which are: Miami Crazy Wolves, Sarasota Slammers, Tampa Terrors, Lakeland Blaze, Port St. Lucie Devils, Orlando Iron Monkeys, Jupiter Warriors and Cincinnati Norsemen. (The Tampa team will be coached by Rob Kahn, who runs the Gracie Tampa jujitsu and MMA studio on Nebraska Avenue.)

On the Web:www.bonecrunchfighting.com

About Neitlich

Age: 41

Education: Harvard, anthropology degree and MBA

Personal: Married to Elena Neitlich; father of two sons, ages 5 and 2

Professional experience: Co-founder of the Boxing Fitness Institute, the Kickboxing Fitness Institute and the American Strength Training Institute. Also has worked in marketing, management consulting and online publishing.

Fast facts

About MMA

Mixed martial arts is a sport that combines forms of combat, including jiujitsu, judo, karate, boxing, kickboxing and wrestling.

In Florida, one of 30 states where pro MMA fights are legal, the fights are sanctioned by the state boxing commission. The major MMA league is Ultimate Fighting Championship. Others include the International Fight League (a publicly traded company whose stocks have plummeted to about 50 cents from $16 in January), Real Fighting Championships and Worldwide Fighting Championship.