At the Rumble on the Rivers last Saturday, more than 5,000 spectators flooded the Mellon Arena's lower tiers. Blue floodlights splashed across the bloodthirsty audience as Green Day and Limp Bizkit throbbed through overhead speakers.
Each of the 16 fighters entered through a fog-machine haze, high-fiving fans as they sauntered down the aisles, whipping off their shirts and rolling into a circular ring lined with a chain-link fence. While their testimonial videos were projected on enormous screens, the fighters hopped around the padded floor, bopping their heads to Rage Against the Machine and punching the air.
"IT'S A GREAT NIGHT TO FIGHT!" growled the Rumble's announcer, who yelled into his microphone like a possessed carnival barker. This wasn't just a catchphrase -- it's the motto of the Ultimate Cage Fighting Challenge.
On the fight-card was none other than ex-Steeler Carlton Haselrig. But the main event was Rich Clementi vs. Kyle Jensen, two of the most exciting mixed-martial artists fihgting today.
On the surface, mixed-martial arts (MMA) fights have a gladiatorial mystique -- two men are trapped in a cage the size of a small backyard, and they use punches, kick-fighting, judo rolls, elbow-jabs and old-fashioned wrestling grapples to submit opponents. And submission is the key word: Fighters either tap out of their own volition, or get knocked out. The bulbous boxing glove is replaced by a kind of bicycle mitt with one-inch padding and exposed fingers. Two men enter, one man leaves victorious.
The mix of beer and bright lights makes this sport look anarchic. Fighters tackle each other on the ground, punching skulls. The spectacle looks like Darwinism in action. It's the kind of naughty, high-octane violence that was illegal in Pennsylvania only four months ago. It's the kind of high-budget event that draws special guests like Tito Ortiz, three-year UCF champ and zillionaire boyfriend of porn star Jenna Jameson.
How ugly can it be? In the first 45 seconds of the first round, Rich Clementi suffered a broken clavicle and the fight was over.
On the other hand, MMA is often misunderstood by new audiences. Serious injury is rare: The Rumble's only referee, Mike Martini, has officiated more than 1,000 fights, and he's a skilled martial artist himself -- when rules are broken, Martini will gladly choke-hold a fighter and fling him out of the danger zone.
MMA is a fairly new sport, but the rules have evolved quickly. Bouts are divided into three five-minute rounds. Fighters wear only shorts; chests and feet are bare. Pile-driving is illegal, and so is kicking a grounded opponent. The groin, hair, eyes and throat are off-limits. There's no joint-manipulation or biting. Abusive language and spitting are both fouls. When you rule out all these "real world" tactics, MMA is a remarkably clean sport.
More than three-quarters of U.S. states have legalized MMA. Locally, Rumble was sponsored by Still Standing Productions, the area's first licensed MMA promoter. Still Standing's owner is Tiffany Porter-Holtzman, one of the first female promoters in the sport's brief history.
But perhaps the least understood aspects of MMA are the fighters themselves.
Take Mike Miller, a 36-year-old UCFC fighter who grew up in Latrobe and now lives in Los Angeles. His arms are soaked in tattoos; he wears a goatee and a tight-rimmed Panama hat. And Miller is nothing if not personable. Here he describes a surgeon with no bedside manner: "I hated him. I mean, I'm a douche. Sorry about the language, but I am. And I don't like other douches."
Miller's lifelong heart problems led to surgery in 2006, but his love for MMA helped him to a fast recovery. A scrapper since he was a kid, Miller prefers an on-your-feet fighting style: "It's beautiful to watch, when I do it. Judo to me is beautiful." By comparison, he says, a lot of "MMA can be a lot of growling and dry-humping."
At last weekend's bout, Miller helped coach Phil Davis, a 209-pound fighter from Harrisburg. "Why MMA? Why not MMA?" Davis said with a sardonic giggle. "A lot of people think [MMA] is just two tough guys going at it. Something in a back alley somewhere."
Davis, a Penn State graduate, is a hometown favorite. He sought Miller's mentorship because of the fighter's experience: "I just looked for the guy with the least skin and the most tattoos."
"And who talks the most shit," Miller added with a laugh.
There are lots of reasons fighters are drawn to MMA. Most began as wrestlers or boxers, and spent their high school years as serious, dedicated athletes. Most of them saw MMA for the first time on television, and most were hooked in the past 10 years. Prize-fighting is a financial crapshoot, but fighters tend to supplement their income by opening gyms or becoming personal trainers.
James Brasco is perhaps the quintessential hometown hero: Born and raised in Jeanette and a high school wrestling champion, Brasco spent much of his college days at Duquesne University running around Uptown to keep in shape. In his mid-20's, Brasco focused on fitness and a lucrative modeling career; he even did a brief stint as a pro wrestler. Today he's 35, he lives in Florida and he has a tidy career training 18- to 24-year-old athletes.
Brasco first discovered MMA on pay-per-view episodes of No Holds Barred. He wasn't sure what he was watching -- the sport was even more obscure five years ago -- but he was entranced. "I thought, 'Man, I could do this,'" he recalled.
When Brasco first jumped into a MMA ring, he didn't particularly know the rules, but he fell in love. Soon he was training with Pablo Popovitch, the premier Brazilian jiu jitsu fighter, and today Brasco holds a brown belt in the art.
Brasco can talk all day about his style -- the importance of training with a gi robe, the essentials of "mat awareness," the value of his wrestling background. "You have to get used to fighting while you're bleeding, because it happens," he explained the day before the match. "I don't like to plan the fight. I like to let the fight come to me. I used to be a jack of all trades. Now, you've got to be an expert in all trades."
But for all his intensity, Brasco is a friendly guy -- all the fighters seem to be. They can be a little cocky, a little self-involved, but for solo-sportsmen married to combat and personal glory, MMA fighters are an amicable bunch. After flailing on the floor for up to 15 minutes, breathing into each other's chests and kidney-jabbing as hard as they can, fighters still finish each match with a manly embrace.
Last Saturday, Brasco fought Matt Brown, of Columbus, Ohio. Each weighed in at 189 pounds. After three full rounds, neither fighter submitted nor fell. But because of Brasco's dominating maneuvers, he won the night.
"We're probably gonna end up partying together afterward," Brasco said the day before. "Everyone respects each other. It's a small world."