Neither man would give in, so the crowd roared for the fighters to smash each other again: more kicks, punches, stomps, knees and elbows. They obliged. When they got too tired to fight, they would grab each other and crash to the mat of the octagonal ring, grappling, twisting like strange action figures, pressing against the cage's netting. Then they would be back on their feet, catching a breath, calculating advantage, their faces streaked with sweat and gore. Both were bleeders. Weeks before, in a qualifying bout, Forrest Griffin, 26, had suffered a gash above an eye that required so many stitches that few expected him to advance in the contest. He healed in time for this evening's punishment, and as Stephan Bonnar, 28, punched him in the head, Griffin cheekily offered a come-hither smile, turned the other cheek and slammed back.
The Griffin-Bonnar bout, televised live on basic cable earlier this year, offered three 5-min. rounds of compelling intensity. Fight aficionados have buzzed about it online and off ever since. It is also a symbol of a sport's resurrection: what is popularly called ultimate fighting was chased off TV in 1997 and banned by almost every state because of its no-holds-barred, pound-to-pulp violence. Relegated to outlaw arenas, it appeared doomed to languish forever as "human cockfighting," in the words of its critics.
But at a time when boxing has few stars and pro wrestling verges on cartoonish, ultimate fighting has a new appeal and is heading for mainstream entertainment. In June the big show-biz dealmakers at Creative Artists Agency signed up the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) as a client. A movie project based on the life of a wannabe ultimate-fighting warrior is circulating in Hollywood. On Oct. 3, Spike TV, which is owned by MTV and Viacom and is targeted at men who don't want to grow up, will pit several hours of live ultimate fighting against the choreography of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) on the USA Network. This is in addition to Spike's airing a second season of the reality series The Ultimate Fighter. The first season was a strategic move in the canny revival of the sport.
Sport? When it began in 1993, the first UFC was meant to be a gimmicky showcase for Brazilian-style jujitsu (and its superiority to other fighting styles), but it quickly devolved into a circus. Wild audiences screamed for matchups of pugilists against wrestlers against kickboxers, a Final Fantasy--video-game array of combatants, except for the very real blood that spattered on the mat of the octagon.
The cage surrounding the ring was intended to keep the audiences from jumping in as much as to keep the fighters from falling out. "Violence for the sake of violence," says Phil Mushnick, a sports columnist for the New York Post. "I understand that not everything necessarily has to have a redeeming social value. It can have no value. But this kind of stuff has negative value."