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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Winning the demographic was easy. In late July the Fertittas and White--and their company Zuffa LLC--were courting a more difficult group: a convention of state and tribal athletic commissioners. They appear to have made some headway. "We're definitely monitoring it," says Greg Sirb of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission. "I was impressed by what I saw at the convention." "It's probably safer than boxing in terms of the chances of injury," says David Holland of Virginia's Professional Boxing and Wrestling Program, reflecting the UFC's argument that the sport's blows are more evenly distributed, whereas boxing focuses on debilitating punches to the head. But Dr. Peter Carmel, a trustee of the American Medical Association, however, is incredulous: "As more and more people participate in the sport, we will find more documented cases of damage and we will find, ultimately, deaths." The safeguards, he says, are not transparent enough. The UFC makes no bones about the pain of its regimen but insists that medical oversight is more than adequate.

Other states, including New York, with its large venues, are wary not just of safety but also of encouraging fly-by-night operators who illegally use the ultimate-fighting trademark but not its rules. Says Loretta Hunt, an editor at Full Contact Fighter: "We're seeing an influx of promoters coming in, some that don't know what they're doing."

In the meantime, through TV, ultimate fighting is visible in places where it is banned. Fighters are now recognized as celebrities, even if they aren't quite paid like stars. Griffin remembers that in the lower circuits, he sometimes got only $100 to fight and says he often discovered that those $100 checks bounced. He now has a couple of small endorsement deals and is a 12-and-12 fighter: he gets $12,000 a fight and a bonus of $12,000 if he wins. It's a pathetically small sum compared with the millions that top boxers earn--though the potential of the UFC, which controls the sport's merchandising, promises more. Still, Griffin loves the lack of pretense in ultimate fighting. "I watch ESPN, and they will talk about a hockey game, but then they'll show the guys fighting. Why not just cut to the chase and fight?" He adds, philosophically, "Fighting strips away everything. Two guys on a mat going at each other. There is a purity to it." A purity both terrifying and mesmerizing. --Reported by Clayton Neuman/New York, Gary Andrew Poole/Las Vegas and Sean Scully/Philadelphia

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