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Outside the cage

Surfing isn't the only sport with a 'lifestyle' to sell -- mixed martial arts wants a piece of that too.

September 07, 2008|Adam Tschorn | Times Staff Writer

THIRTY-SEVEN seconds after the opening bell, the "cage fighting" match between Brock "the Brainerd Brawler" Larson and Carlos Prater was over. A flurry of punches had left Prater motionless on the mat, his head lolling to one side and a trickle of blood escaping from the right corner of his mouth. Larson took a victory lap around the chain-link enclosure, smiling and pumping his fists to the cheers of the crowd.

It was hardly the kind of scene that makes one want to buy an infant onesie.

But mixed martial arts (MMA), a high-adrenaline fight format that's illegal in 18 states, is not just a sport, it's a lifestyle, and it's quickly becoming the kind of branding magnet that has the potential to attract most every slice of the pop-culture pie -- from barroom brawlers to new parents. Once described by U.S. Sen. John McCain as "human cockfighting," it's the fastest-growing sport in the country, a billion-dollar business and pay-per-view darling that consistently pulls in the coveted 18-to-34 demographic. For its June prime-time network debut on CBS, more than 3 million households tuned in.

Like other athletes, MMA fighters are sponsored by clothing companies, and many of those companies arebased in Southern California. Now, after a decade of selling fight shorts and T-shirts, they're moving into bottled water, blue jeans and baby clothes in a bid to establish MMA as a lifestyle juggernaut alongside the surf and skate cultures that began here before going global.

It's a long way, though, from the idyllic left-coast fantasy of laid-back kids communing with the waves or wheeling through concrete canyons. Mixed martial arts, which combines the moves of wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, judo, jujitsu and other fighting styles, is often played in an eight-sided ring (called an octagon) that's enclosed by chain-link fencing or netting (thus the common references to it as cage fighting).

Participants, barefoot and wearing only fight shorts and padded 4- to 6-ounce fingerless gloves, were governed at first by only the barest of guidelines -- no eye-gouging or biting, but you might well take a kick to the head. The outlaw sport's first blip on America's pop-culture radar came in 1993 with the first tournament of its major fight league, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and it quickly earned a reputation as an anything-goes, bar-brawl spectacle.

The UFC now has rules, weight classes and a fight format of three 15-minute rounds. To date 32 states have sanctioned MMA bouts; California, epicenter of the MMA business boom, didn't see its first sanctioned fight until 2006.

How did a sport that still retains a bloody, street-tough edge manage to rocket beyond its core fan base to sell belt buckles, backpacks, boots and a lifestyle fantasy to millions of consumers?

Part of the answer lies in an industrial mini-mall 70 miles east of Los Angeles, home base for Tapout, a pioneering MMA lifestyle brand that boasts a clothing line, magazine, reality TV show and an ever-growing array of products. The faces of the brand are the Tapout crew, a trio of cartoonish clown princes with the kind of outsized personas familiar to fans of WWE wrestling. Their leader, Tapout's founder and chief executive, who goes by the name of Mask (he was born Charles Lewis Jr.). On this mid-August day, he wears a camouflage cut-off shirt and matching floppy-brimmed military hat, and his face is streaked with black and gray stripes of paint.

Mask, taking a break from driving a massive RV around the country looking for up-and-coming fighters (part of the reality show, now in its second season on the cable TV sports channel Versus), sits in a dark conference room flanked by his cohorts. Punkass (a.k.a. Dan Caldwell, the company's vice president) is in a Tapout T-shirt, arms full of tattoos and a blue paisley bandanna pulled down over his eyes, and SkySkrape (who refuses to divulge his birth name), has a huge, unruly afro that seems as fake as his moniker. His sunglasses have saucer-sized lenses.

Mask says the label, named after the signal for submission (a fighter "taps out" -- quits -- by physically tapping his opponent, himself or the mat) began in 1997 when the San Bernardino native and his buddies began peddling Tapout Ts at local gyms and clandestine MMA shows.

"Back then, the sport wasn't even legal," he recalls. "Sometimes if the cops showed up you'd all have to pretend it was fake wrestling so you wouldn't get in trouble."

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