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J.A. Adande

In This Sport, Choking Works

July 24, 2006|J.A. Adande

Hard to tell which was the stranger development last week: that I had a phone conversation that began with, "Hey, it's Rampage," or that the former star of my 8-year-old Boys Club basketball team now puts on sporting events that feature men who punch, kick, grab and choke each other and call themselves "Mayhem" ... and "Rampage."

I took my first dip into the world of mixed martial arts last week, curious about a sport that is generating some impossible-to-ignore revenues and is picking up fans while boxing is in the middle of a standing eight count.

Saturday night at the Forum, I saw Jason "Mayhem" Miller choke his opponent into submission, then show love to his followers (he dubs them "Mayhem Monkeys") by shouting: "Woo-WOO!" I saw a Dutch man with a Spanish nickname -- Bas "El Guapo" Rutten. "El Guapo" means handsome, and when the bald-headed Rutten was asked where he ranks among the fighters, he said: "The best-looking one, that's for sure."

Finally, in Quinton "Rampage" Jackson's split decision victory over Matt Lindland in Saturday night's main event, I saw one of the most amazing feats of strength I've seen in sports. With Lindland trying to choke him into submission, Jackson was somehow able to get to his feet and toss Lindland off. When asked in the ring if he'd be down for a rematch, Jackson said: "As long as I get paid. Cha-ching!"

As Jackson explained, "A lot of people in my sport are crazy. You've got to be crazy to get locked in a cage."

There appeared to be about 8,000 people at the Forum on Saturday night. Half of the men in the crowd looked like they belonged in the ring. Most of the women in the crowd looked like they were ready to try out to be ring-card girls.

Among the faces in the crowd: Shaquille O'Neal and Bruce Willis. O'Neal, in town to fulfill his duties as a reserve member of the Los Angeles Port Police, said he was in his hotel room when he heard about the event and decided to come over. O'Neal likes to consider himself a martial arts expert, well versed in his own discipline of Shaq Fu, but he said you won't find him in the ring.

"I'm not a fighter," he said.

If you've heard of mixed martial arts -- in which everything short of eye-gouging, rabbit punches and kicks to the groin are legal -- you're probably familiar with Ultimate Fighting Championship, which pulled an almost $3-million gate and $24-million pay-per-view haul for an event at Staples Center in May and is selling out the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. One sign that mixed martial arts is gaining legitimacy is that one of the most familiar faces in boxing, Marc Ratner, whom you might remember from the Mike Tyson hearings, left his job as executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission to become UFC's vice president of government and regulatory affairs.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Lappen, who used to represent UFC fighters, joined another organization, the World Fighting Alliance, as its chief executive. I did a double-take when the PR guy told me Lappen's name. "From Santa Monica?" I asked.

It turned out it was the same Lappen who played on my first organized basketball team 28 years ago. His playing days ended at Trinity College in Connecticut, before he transferred to UC Santa Barbara and then went to USC law school. Lappen had worked in the movie business -- he co-produced "The Watcher" with James Spader and Keanu Reeves in 2000 -- and then turned to his law background six years ago to start managing UFC fighters, including Ken Shamrock and Randy Couture.

Now, to boil it down to as few letters as possible, the WFA CEO hopes his organization can play AFL to UFC's NFL.

"For them to get bigger and the sport to get better, they need a competitor," Lappen said. "The goal is for it to become huge. I think there's a huge potential in this sport. What you're seeing right now is the tip of the iceberg."

The WFA felt like a big-time sport in one respect last week: It had a steroids scandal. Kimo Leopoldo, who was scheduled to fight Bas Rutten in one of the main events this past Saturday night, tested positive for steroids. He was replaced by Ruben "Warpath" Villareal only two days before the fight.

But the reason Lappen thinks that mixed martial arts can take off is because of the stories and personalities of the fighters. Take Rampage Jackson, who was hanging with drug dealers and beating up junkies as a 9-year-old in Memphis, Tenn., but used a move to a better neighborhood where the high school had a wrestling team to turn his life around.

"I saw a lot of my friends in trouble," Jackson said. "I wanted to survive.... I decided to be somebody positive."

He got into mixed martial arts five years ago when a fighter backed out and promoters were desperate for a replacement, so he stepped in with two weeks' notice and gladly took the $500 payday.

"I needed the money," Jackson said.

Now he's climbing the ranks in a field where the top earners can make close to $1 million per fight. Lappen envisions crossover promotions, movie deals, you name it.

"Tough guys are always liked in films," he said.

First they have to be known and liked in sports. Are you ready for Mayhem and Rampage?

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read more by Adande, go to latimes.com/adandeblog.

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