- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

LAS VEGAS — It is 5 p.m. on a Saturday at Mandalay Bay Events Center, where the doors have just opened for the first bout of a fight show. It is one of several fights that will take place hours before the pay-per-view battles start.

Typically, there are more people working in the arena than watching the first fight of a boxing card.

“You can usually hear a pin drop,” said Marc Ratner, the former executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission.

Not tonight. This night there is a crowd waiting for the doors to open, and there are about 6,000 people already in the arena when Kurt Pellegrino takes on Drew Ficket in a welterweight bout.

But then, this isn’t a boxing show.

It’s an Ultimate Fighting Championship mixed martial arts event, and the sport that blends boxing, kick boxing, wrestling and jujitsu is all the rage in Las Vegas.

“It is amazing how big it has become,” said Randy Couture, a former UFC fighter and now a color analyst. “And it’s getting bigger.”

On July 8, more than 12,000 people filled sold-out Mandalay Bay Events Center for UFC 61 for a highly anticipated mixed martial arts battle featuring four of the sport’s biggest stars. Ken Shamrock, one of the first UFC fighters, faced Tito Ortiz in a grudge match, and heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia, at 6-foot-8 and 255 pounds, defended his title in the third fight of a trilogy against Andrei Arlovski.

Those who were fortunate enough to obtain box office tickets paid between $100 and $750 to attend. Some paid much more to buy tickets from scalpers. Others paid to watch the show on closed circuit at other casinos in town.

In May, Staples Center in Los Angeles was sold out for UFC 60. The month before, the Arrowhead Pond arena in Anaheim was sold out for UFC 59.

Contrast that with Saturday night’s boxing pay-per-view show at MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas, considered to be the center of the boxing universe.

Two of boxing’s biggest stars, Shane Mosley and Fernando Vargas, fought in a rematch. There were thousands of empty seats, and most likely a portion of the 9,800 fans who did show up received complimentary tickets.

Or contrast tomorrow’s re-debut on ESPN of a recycled, failed network boxing program, “The Contender,” to the success of Ultimate Fighting Championship’s shows on Spike TV. The reality program “The Ultimate Fighter” is the network’s most-watched program.

That sound you hear in Las Vegas is not a pin dropping, but knees knocking — the knees of those in the boxing business who see their sport being pummeled by Ultimate Fighting Championship, the most prominent of the various mixed martial arts promotions in America.

Most boxing promoters don’t want to even acknowledge the existence of Ultimate Fighting Championship. Bob Arum at Top Rank did not respond to questions about it, and a representative of Kathy Duva at Main Events said the firm won’t discuss it.

Promoter Gary Shaw, however, is willing to address what he believes should be a wake-up call for boxing, else it turns into a requiem for the sport.

“I think UFC is the up-and-coming wave and poses tremendous competition to boxing,” Shaw said. “It has been creeping up on boxing without boxing being aware of it. They are getting the younger fans, and our fans are getting older and older.

“Boxing has to put on the best fights we can, with the least mismatches and the most action.”

Sometime, though, they don’t even put on the fights as scheduled.

In June, a highly anticipated third fight between lightweights Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo was scheduled for Thomas & Mack Center at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, backed by Las Vegas heavyweight Steve Wynn and his new Wynn Hotel and Casino.

The day before the fight, however, Castillo failed to make the 135-pound weight limit, and the fight was canceled. That meant money already collected had to be returned.

When promoters do manage to put the fighters in the ring, the results often are unsatisfying.

The fight between undefeated heavyweight Calvin Brock and Timur Ibragimov at Ceasars Palace’s outdoor arena last month was so bad that the crowd walked out en masse. The few that stayed booed lustily throughout most of the fight.

Even the entertaining fights are carried out under circumstances that turn off boxing fans.

The fight between Mosley and Vargas — the bout ended with a sixth-round knockout by Mosley — was on the verge of being canceled because Mosley and his promoter, Oscar De La Hoya of Golden Boy Promotions, were upset that Vargas was going to use Gatorade in his corner per new Nevada rules.

Mosley got a court order preventing Vargas from drinking Gatorade between rounds.

The biggest blow to boxing, though, might have occurred on May 13, when Ratner, one of the most respected figures in the business, quit the Nevada State Athletic Commission to accept a job with Ultimate Fighting Championship.

“Boxing is part of my life and I love the sport, but I felt so bad when the Castillo-Corrales fight didn’t happen,” Ratner said. “That broke my heart. You can’t have those things happen in this day and age, but it did.

“There is plenty of room for both sports, but I think boxing needs to change its culture and thinking. Oscar [De La Hoya] may be retiring soon. What happens after Oscar? Nobody knows who the heavyweight champion is when you ask people. Also, if your audience keeps getting older and you’re not getting new fans, it will become a niche sport. This is the new sport appealing to young people.”

That Ratner, who through his work for the athletic commission helped set whatever standards there are in boxing, would go to work for Ultimate Fighting Championship is evidence of the success that the owners of the company have had in legitimizing what once was viewed as a renegade sport with no rules, one that was bloodying itself out of business.

Former boxing promoter Dana White and his partners, Las Vegas casino owners Frank Feritta III and his brother Lorenzo, a former member of the athletic commission, bought Ultimate Fighting Championship and set about to change its image.

“I had heard that UFC was in trouble and was about to go out of business,” White said. “We approached the owner and a month later we owned the company, in January 2001. Once we got involved, we knew what our game plan was.

“The first thing we knew we had to do was to get it sanctioned by all the major athletic commissions. We sat down with officials from Nevada and New Jersey in 2002, and we got that done. We felt we could go back to the cable industry then. The big problem the old UFC had was that Senator [John] McCain went after them because they refused to be sanctioned. We took the opposite approach and embraced sanctioning.”

Ultimate Fighting Championship now is sanctioned in 20 states, and Ratner is working on gaining sanction in the other 30. It also created weight classes. It went to a rounds system (five-minute rounds, five rounds for championship fights). It trained referees to move in quickly and stop a bout when a fighter was defenseless. And it began drawing not barroom brawlers, but legitimate athletes, many of them, like Couture, former college wrestling champions. And all fighters are subject to the same medical and pre- and post-fight drug testing as boxers.

“We went back to the cable industry and showed them that we were sanctioned and legitimate,” White said. “We started to build our pay-per-view business back up. Then we needed to get a TV show to introduce these athletes to the mainstream. It was very hard trying to get a TV deal. But since reality television was so popular, we figured that could be our Trojan Horse. You are watching MMA [mixed martial arts] without realizing you are watching MMA.”

Couture was a three-time NCAA Division I All-American wrestler and an alternate for the Olympic team in 1988, 1992 and 1996. He said it is a great opportunity for wrestlers who had no place to earn a living with their talent. Much of the action in UFC can take place on the mat, using both wrestling and jujitsu to get an opponent into a submission move.

“It was an outlet for me to use all those skills I had spent years developing and make a living,” Couture said. “A wrestler that comes out of high school will be lucky if he can get a college scholarship and get his education paid for, but after that there are not a lot of other options.”

White grew up a boxing fan and insists that Ultimate Fighting Championships is not going after boxing. But the comparisons are obvious. Michael Buffer, for example, is the well-known ring announcer for most major boxing events. The ring announcer for Ultimate Fighting Championships? His brother, Bruce Buffer.

“You can be a boxing fan and a UFC fan at the same time,” White said. “The problem with boxing, in my opinion, is all the powers in boxing have done nothing to secure the future of the sport. Guys like Don King and Bob Arum, they don’t care about the future of boxing. All they care about is how much money can I put in my pocket right here and right now.”

Of course, a huge difference between Ultimate Fighting Championship and boxing is that there are not as many pockets to fill. There are no Don Kings, no promoters, no sanctioning bodies like the World Boxing Council and the various other entities that get a piece of everything — the people who often produce mismatched fights and padded records in an effort to protect their boxers.

There is only Ultimate Fighting Championship, which controls all the fighters and dictates how much they get paid (paydays are not revealed, and neither are the pay-per-view figures). Whatever the purse, both fighters receive a fee for showing up and the winner gets a bonus.

“UFC does a great job of matching fighters based on their skill level,” Couture said. “No one is out there matching up fighters just to build up their records and move them up in the rankings. Anyone can win the fight, with so many different ways to win. It becomes less predictable and more intriguing.”

It was a little less intriguing, though, at UFC 61, where the sport finally may have fallen victim to its own efforts to become legitimate.

The fight between Ortiz and Shamrock, which had the crowd pumped up in anticipation, was stopped after 78 seconds when Ortiz had Shamrock on the ground and nailed him with a series of forearms.

The crowd thought the stoppage was premature and booed the decision and threw beer into the ring. Shamrock thought so, too, and tried to attack Ortiz after the fight. About a dozen Las Vegas police rushed into the ring to restore order.

The main event that followed, Sylvia vs. Arlovski, was hardly a repeat of their first two fights, in which one fighter had knocked out the other quickly in the first round to win. It was a five-round affair without much action, just Sylvia using his reach and boxing skills to keep Arlovski away. The fans booed throughout much of the action near the end.

White acknowledged after the show that it wasn’t the best event. “There were a lot of boos tonight,” he said. “But we have been on this tremendous roll.”

At the same time, the only roll boxing appears to be on is downhill, toward a grave.

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