Arts : Modern-day gladiators (?!)

Cage fighting is legal in Texas. Let the rumpus begin

“Until about six months ago, cage fighting was illegal in Texas,” explains Michael Shoffner, Xtreme Cage Fighting producer. “You had to use a boxing ring and you couldn’t fight with a closed fist. It was just ridiculous; you had a bunch of guys slapping each other.”

Go ahead and kick a man while he’s down: Cage fighting has drawn many critics for its brutal and, some folks say, unsportsmanlike style. Here Mike Lee pounds Daniel Jones.

When Xtreme Cage Fighting comes to the River City for the first time on April 29, Shoffner will happily tell you, there will be no slap fights. And there will be no eye-gouging or biting — this isn’t a Toughman competition, after all — but there will be elements of jiu jitsu, kickboxing, wrestling, boxing, and aikido. And, if the 60,000 San Antonians who tune in to watch cage fighting on cable each week are any indication, there will likely be quite a few fans out to watch the event.

Although hardcore fans will trace its origins back to 648 B.C.E. and the Greek Olympic games, the short history of cage fighting, or mixed-martial-arts fighting, tells that it became popular in the United States in the early ’90s, when the Ultimate Fighting Championship began broadcasting fights on pay-per-view. At the time, outspoken opponents, including Senator John McCain, considered the sport overly brutal because it was largely unregulated, allowed fighters to employ any style of fighting, and was unsportsmanlike — fighters continued hitting and kicking their opponent even after they hit the ground.

McCain managed to convince the cable companies to stop broadcasting the fights, and eventually MMA fighting was banned in the U.S. and went underground. Then, in 2001, the UFC returned to pay-per-view as a legitimate sport with rules. The Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts Combat include rounds, time limits, weight divisions, and a lengthy list of fouls. Today, mixed martial arts is legal in 16 states, including Texas.

Yet, Shoffner says, people still show up to demonstrate against the fights. “We’ve had a lot of Christian groups out protesting,” he says, “and even the Save the Whales people have been out.” Save the Whales? Maybe it’s the cages.

“I think the cage is the appeal. The fighter is the modern-day gladiator, locked in the coliseum,” says Shoffner. “Someone has got to win, and I think it’s that unpredictability, that anything-can-happen element that gets people excited.”

But Patrick Shaugnessy, a Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation spokesman, is clear that certain things may not happen.

Cage fighting is governed by rules similar to those in boxing. For example, fighters are licensed professionals, who are matched in their fights by weight, training, and experience, and may only fight once per evening. Cage fighters are given a physical before every fight, and must take a minimum seven-day break between fights. These rules are designed to protect the fighter, says Shaugnessy, which is what distinguishes cage fighting from competitions like Toughman. “In Toughman, there’s no match-making, so you have people of different skills and weights fighting each other, and people die,” he says. “It’s basically two drunks beating each other up, rather than cage fighting where you have fighters who are trained to give and to receive.”

And, unlike Toughman’s long elimination fights, cage fights are three rounds of three minutes each, in which there are three ways to win: Knock out, submission (when a fighter taps three times on his opponent or the floor, a nonverbal “uncle”), or through the judges’ scorecards.

In mixed martial-arts cage fighting, players are confined to an octagon shaped cage, and may employ any style of fighting — from martial arts to wrestling. Here Marvin Eastman (left) takes blows to the chin and hip, even as he lands a knee in Jason Guida’s gut.

“Half the time, nobody gets knocked out in three rounds,” says Shoffner. “It’s a game of skill, not a human cockfight. These guys have been training for months for these fights, so sometimes it comes down to the scorecards.”

Steve “Red Nose” Berger, a UFC fighter from St. Louis, Missouri, has been training for Saturday’s fight for two months at the Berger School of Mixed Martial Arts, which he owns with his father. The MMA fighters in his camp, or team, train for six hours a day, with cardio in the morning and sparring in wrestling, boxing, and kickboxing at night.

“We are all professional athletes,” he says. “Some of us can afford to live off this, but there’s a whole range of guys who can’t; they are bankers, grocery clerks, or they’re working at McDonald’s. Fortunately, I’ve been able to do this as a living.”

At the school, Berger teaches children’s classes and works out the adults, and he fights four or five times a year, making anywhere from $100 to $30,000 a fight. Although he couldn’t share too many details, he’s also set to start filming a UFC reality show on Spike TV, a six-week series in which fighters will live together and spar, earning $4,000 an exhibition fight and competing to be the last fighter standing in the house, a title that comes with a $300,000 prize and a UFC contract.

As the popularity of cage fighting grows, Berger says, so do the prizes and the profits. UFC events typically sell out, with tickets going for $50-1,000, and gross gate revenues are in the millions, not to mention merchandise and pay-per-view sales. Shoffner has 900 seats for Saturday’s fight and, because it is the first event, expects to fill the stands to 75 percent.

Shaugnessy says that where two years ago there were no cage-fighting events scheduled in Texas, this year there are already 12 scheduled through the end of June, and we could see a lot more. In May 2005, Governor Perry signed a law limiting the amount of taxes Texas could collect from broadcast fights to the lower of 3 percent of the broadcast fees or $30,000. “Texas is very competitive,” says Shaugnessy. “Other states either don’t have a cap, or they have it set as high as $50,000.”

Xtreme Cage Fighting
7pm Sat, Apr 29
Sunset Station Lonestar Pavilion
1174 E. Commerce

Between licensing fees and taxes, Texas earned $254,000 from combative sports in 2005, but Shaughnessy says, “the Combative Sports Program has never earned revenue for Texas, but with the licensing and fees it does support itself.”

Why the sudden surge in fights? Shaugnessy is reluctant to say. “Why do kids like anything that is new? Our job is to make sure the contestant is safe, and no more injured than you would be in any sport of this kind.” Although fight promoters swear no one has ever been seriously injured (read: killed) in cage fighting, Berger has broken his jaw, ribs, hands, and nose, and has dislocated his knees, shoulders, and, most recently, his retina.

Yet,he never considers quitting. “This is what we do for a living,” he says. “A career-ending injury would be a dislocated back. Until that happens I’m going to keep fighting — the sport is getting bigger, the paycheck is getting bigger. I’m hoping to retire with enough cash to buy another business.

“Some guys fight for the thrill. They fight four or five times, break a nose, and go home crying to mama. But those of us who have been fighting in the schoolyard and the back alleys for our whole lives, when you have the heart of a fighter, you just got it in you to fight, we just stay in there.”


The Current was contacted this week by Steve Red Nose Berger who says, in regards to Modern day gladiators?! `April 26-May 2, 2006`, that he did not participate in the story. The Currents interview with the person who claimed to be Steve Red Nose Berger was arranged by Michael Shoffner, Xtreme Cagefighting producer.


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