The New Rules of Fight Club

Kinder but not gentler, ultimate fighting is back and lunging for the mainstream. Are you ready?

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After attacks by Senator John McCain and others, this brand of combat was chased into the hinterlands and banned by court after court. Then, in 2001, Frank Fertitta III and his brother Lorenzo, entrepreneurs in the Las Vegas casino business, bought the tarnished name Ultimate Fighting Championship and rehabilitated the sport. Or, rather, remade it. Technically called mixed martial arts, ultimate fighting was given a set of rules (no more head butting) and a streamlined synthesis of fighting styles (so long, one-glove boxing!) rather than the old chop suey of contending martial-arts schools. A doctor was stationed at ringside to discourage death, and a referee joined the fighters within to break up dangerous holds, penalize illegal blows and stop the action if necessary.

As they imposed some order on this mayhem, the Fertittas and Dana White, an ex--amateur boxer who joined as president and minority partner, repeatedly voiced their concern about safety and the need for regulation. It was a smart political move that helped them win the approbation of the athletic commissions in Nevada and New Jersey, where the gambling havens of Vegas and Atlantic City have long made boxing a big-event fixture. "It's a totally new sport," says an approving Nick Lembo, counsel for the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board.

Although the gambling meccas provide ultimate fighting the glitter of legitimacy, reality TV has given the sport its huge momentum. The first season of The Ultimate Fighter on Spike was a combination of The Real World and Survivor, with two rival teams living under the same roof and vying for contracts with the UFC. So much testosterone proved to be a combustible package, with infighting, drunken frolics, doors bashed in and one competitor urinating on another's bed. The payoff? Most episodes ended with a vicious fight to eliminate a contestant. The ratings spiked for Spike, and the Griffin-Bonnar light-heavyweight showdown, the live finale of the series, saw 2.6 million late-night viewers tune in, handily beating the peak rating of HBO's boxing events that season. Griffin won the fight--and the contract--in a disputed decision but, spurred by the excitement, White and the Fertittas gave Bonnar a contract as well.

"The Ultimate Fighter was our Trojan horse," says White. Like WWE's comic-book rivalries, the reality show created competitors whose aspirations and heartbreaks have hooked fight fans. When the first live fight on Spike this season matched a bunch of contenders from the first series in combat, the show outdrew ESPN's NFL preseason and X Games telecasts in the target demographic of men ages 18 to 49. The premiere of this season's reality show drew more than 2 million late-night viewers. The next three episodes logged increases in the number of men watching. "It's the right show for the right network," says Kevin Kay, executive vice president for programming and production at Spike TV. Says Kay, who helped develop SpongeBob SquarePants for Nickelodeon: "I was skeptical at first, but I just love it."

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