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Mixed martial arts matches get a makeover

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Bryan Vetell of the Pitbulls battles Ben Rothwell of the Silverbacks in Moline, Illinois. (Getty Images/ courtesy of IFL)

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Jamal Patterson of the Pitbulls and Matt Horwich of the Tiger Sharks throw punches in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (April Pishna/courtesy of IFL)

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***Please note small file size 170 x 250*** (courtesy of IFL)

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***Please note small file size 360 x 360*** (courtesy of IFL)

Inside a crowded arena in Moline, Ill., Bryan Vetell punched his way into what looked like a hug. Then, leaning back, Vetell, 29, thrust his knee again and again into the stomach of his opponent, “Big Ben” Rothwell.

Rothwell, 25, swayed, then propped himself up against the ropes. After taking a breath, he swung his fist wildly, making contact with Vetell’s jaw. Vetell’s 265-pound frame teetered and fell.

The crowd went wild.

It took just 3 1/2 minutes for the knockout punch, but Rothwell’s victory was not just his own: The win led his mixed martial arts pro team, the Quad City Silverbacks, to a 3-2 victory over the New York Pitbulls. The match, played before a packed house last fall, served as a preseason event for the new International Fight League, which began its first full season this January.

The IFL is part of a variety of efforts to launch the once disgraced mixed martial arts into the mainstream. The sport, which combines judo, boxing, karate and wrestling in an all-out fight with few rules, has been called “human cockfighting.” It is banned in New York and is not sanctioned in 17 other states. (The Pitbulls are forced to play their home matches in Atlantic City, N.J.) Despite or because of its strange combination of athleticism, violence and spectacle, the sport has drawn a growing fan base.

The IFL's founders have solicited sponsors and two television deals in a bet that mixed martial arts will be the next generation’s boxing.

The IFL has created 12 teams in the United States and Canada, including, among others, the Portland Wolfbacks, the Seattle Tiger Sharks and the Toronto Dragons. Each team has five fighters in different weight categories. Matches consist of five fights, one in each weight group. Fighters win a match by knocking the opponent out; by a tap out, where one fighter submits; or a referee decision.

The acceptance of mixed martial arts has come a long way since 1996, when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., waged a campaign against what he termed a “brutal” and “savage” fighting style. A former boxer himself, McCain was horrified after seeing a taped match. In the sport’s first incarnation, its unprecedented brutality was its main selling point. Competitions took place in large metal cages and fighters often kept punching and kicking bloodied opponents long after they had been knocked out.

McCain sent letters to state governors asking them to ban the competitions; most did. Raul Contessi, 28, a fan in West Covina, Calif., recalls those dark days when to see a match he had to travel to Native American reservations, practically the only place where the matches were legal.

In 2001, the sport's largest organization, Ultimate Fighting Championship, reduced some of the gratuitous violence and accepted stricter rules. Matches aired on cable television, and some states relaxed their bans.

The IFL has further sanitized the sport, replacing the cage with a roped boxing ring; making rounds four minutes instead of five; and banning elbow blows to the head.

But it remains a question whether fans who were drawn to the sport because of its extremely violent nature will accept the new format.

“I wouldn’t want to see it be cleaned up too much,” said Adria Battaglia, 33, a New York fan. “The endurance and pain that they show in the fights is part of the 'wow' that makes it mixed martial arts and not, say, kickboxing.”

Kurt Otto, one of the IFL’s co-founders, dismisses Battaglia’s concerns. The IFL will be successful because “people like to root for team sports, and for their own cities,” he said. “And competitors feel more obligated to really go for it because they aren’t going in there cautious, worried about a cut to the head.”

In the meantime, the Pitbulls, New York’s newest home team, are focusing on the fine points of taking out the likes of Rothwell, who had 11 knockouts in his first 17 fights.

On a wintry January afternoon, the five members of the Pitbulls, none dressed in any team garb, grappled with each other on mats in a gray basement studio inside a large Manhattan office building. A stray fighter was curled up on a wresting mat in a connected room, taking a nap.

Jerry Milani, an IFL spokesman, gestured toward the sweaty fighters who were paired off and throwing bare-fisted punches. "The IFL is on the side of caution," said Milani, cutting a strange figure in argyle socks--no shoes are allowed on the wrestling mats--and a button-down shirt. “We’ve only had five guys go to the hospital.”

With or without elbows, the sport remains dangerous, insists Lewis Rowland, editor of Neurology Today, a journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The small number of mixed martial arts fatalities so far--just one in the Ukraine--does not suggest that the sport is safe, he said, but rather reflects how few people are competing professionally. “Sooner or later more people will get killed from this,” he said.

But that hasn’t deterred the sport’s legions of young followers. Otto says there are some 30,000 martial arts schools in the United States training more than 4 million students in forms of mixed martial arts.

“It’s a runaway train,” he said. “We couldn’t stop it if we tried.”