Unarmed bouts slowly build audience BY LEE JENKINS THE NEW YORK TIMES On the morning of June 4, while the graduating class at Chelmsford High School in Massachusetts flocked to a football stadium for commencement, Chris Fox took a Greyhound bus to the Howard Johnson hotel in Atlantic City, N.J. The other seniors at Chelmsford High were about to receive their diplomas. Fox, 17, was about to get started on the next phase of his education: how to punch, kick and karate chop another man into bloody submission. "I think I'm the only one missing my high school graduation to be here," Fox said. "But I knew it would be worth it." He sat cross-legged in a ballroom, alongside about 140 other young men in workout clothes. Some had flown across the country. Others had driven all night. They were there not necessarily because they planned on being professional fighters, but because they wanted to learn under the best fighter in the world. His name is Fedor Emelianenko, and in the sport of mixed martial arts, he is Mike Tyson, circa 1988. He draws more than 60,000 fans for his fights, makes more than $1 million a bout and rarely needs more than a couple of minutes to complete his work. He enters the ring looking out of shape and half-asleep. Then he begins stomping the head of the next challenger. But as Emelianenko strode into the Howard Johnson, flanked by a U.N. interpreter and five ring girls clad in red satin, no one at the front desk recognized him. Mixed martial arts is still in the formative stages, a sport chronicled mainly on the Internet and fueled at the grass-roots level. Only when Emelianenko reached the ballroom, where he was to conduct a fighting seminar in his native Russian, did young men whisper and squeal. "I never thought I could achieve so much this way," Emelianenko said through an interpreter. "But it was always my dream. It was my golden dream." The dream, to parlay karate or wrestling or street-fighting skills into fame and riches, has spawned a generation of Americans in training. Teenagers practice mixed martial arts in local karate gyms for the same reason they play baseball for traveling teams. They hope to someday be good enough to make the major leagues. Mixed martial arts includes two major leagues: the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which is famous in the United States for its pay-per-view showdowns, its octagonal ring and its highly rated reality television show; and Pride, which is most popular in Asia, regularly fills the Tokyo Dome in Japan and has enough money to keep Emelianenko on its roster. But there are dozens of smaller leagues, like Mixed Fighting Championship, International Fight League, Gladiator Challenge, TKO, K-1, M-1, King of the Cage and Cage Rage, that help less-acclaimed extreme fighters stay in the ring. Some make as little as $500 a bout, pay their own expenses and share hotel rooms with whichever friends have agreed to train and manage them. To determine the best Mixed martial arts is for anyone who has wrestled, boxed or kick-boxed, anyone who has done jujitsu, tae kwon do or muay Thai. The sport was invented to give those fighters a professional outlet and to determine which discipline was best. Would a boxer beat a wrestler? Would a jujitsu master take out a tae kwon do specialist? The night before Emelianenko's seminar, 22 fighters gathered at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, in part to help answer those eternal questions. They were all on the card for Mixed Fighting Championship 7, with the main event pitting a former high school wrestler from Philadelphia against a former Marine from Canton, Ill. The wrestler, Eddie Alvarez, had passed up a college scholarship to be a mixed martial artist. The Marine, Derrick Noble, had a degree in kinesiology, was working on a master's in athletic administration and had interned for the Chicago Bulls. "I don't really think I can do this for a living," said Noble, 27. "But that's still the goal." As Noble spoke, Alvarez walked through his makeshift dressing room, and the fighters exchanged hard stares. At this level of mixed martial arts, competitors get their hands and ankles taped side-by-side. They attend the same rules meeting. Female fighters dress next to ring girls, and male fighters dress next to one another. A stretcher stands in the hallway. "I could have gone to college," said Alvarez, 22. "But I was tired of wrestling because I had to suck weight all the time. I always told myself, 'If I can find a sport that lets me eat, drink and be well-nourished, I'll do it until I die.'" He peeked out from behind the dressing room at the stands, nearly filled with 2,000 spectators, about half of whom had traveled from Philadelphia to see him. Ringside, businessmen in sport coats sat with dates in *****tail dresses. In the cheap seats, college students wore camouflage T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like, "Fighting is the only option." Beer lines ran 30 deep. One of the preliminary fights featured Shayna Baszler, a 25-year-old who works at a UPS office in Sioux Falls, Iowa. At the end of her three-round fight against Amanda Buckner, Baszler lay motionless on the canvas, dazed by a series of punches to the head. She looked as if she might need the stretcher. Moments later, she was back up, playfully asking Buckner, "Why wouldn't you just go down?" Outside the mainstream Mixed martial arts flirts with that wide gray area between the underground and the mainstream. Leagues are regulated by state athletic commissions, and fighters are tested for drugs before each bout. But there is no unifying body. Some leagues allow kneeing, elbowing or kicking. Some allow those only to certain parts of the body. Some do not allow them at all. If mixed martial arts leagues cannot agree on a universal format, the best fighters in the world may never be able to meet, because they are under contract with different leagues. "It's hard to bring this all together," said Dana White, president of Ultimate Fighting Championship. "Could it happen? Of course it could. Should it? Maybe it should. For some fights, it would be a sin if they didn't happen." Anyone who steps onto a canvas, even for a minor bout, does so with the knowledge that White is monitoring the action from his office in Las Vegas, deciding which fighter he will sign next. A typical Mixed Fighting Championship participant makes $2,000 to appear, $2,000 to win and $10 for every ticket he sells. Ultimate Fighting Championship does not pay much more, but it offers the chance to be on television and gather endorsements. So when Eddie Alvarez knocked out Derrick Noble in the first round at the Boardwalk Hall, then did a back flip off the top rope, it seemed inevitable that he would soon be moving on. "The pinnacle is obviously UFC," said Alvarez, still wearing his belt 30 minutes after the fight. "They are the Nike of mixed martial arts. But they're also a big corporation. I might not get the recognition there that I get here." In one night, he had made $15,000. He had fought in front of his home fans. And he had received the ultimate honor in mixed martial arts. Emelianenko, in town for the seminar, emerged from the stands to pose with the Alvarez family in the ring. "I want this shot," Alvarez yelled to a photographer snapping pictures. "Make sure I get this one."