Caged Heat

Americans have long suffocated under the dead weight of silly, made-up sports like World Wide Wrestling and American Gladiator. Football, basketball, hockey, baseball, NASCAR, even golf and tennis have grown corpulent with corporate money and more branding than you see at a cattle ranch.

Then there’s boxing, the oldest sport in the world, which has become a sterilized show-off between billion-dollar babies in silky shorts and puffy red mittens. When Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates are the only writers still buzzing about a sport, you know you’ve got a big bloated corpse on your hands. Then this young Turk writer Palahniuk comes along, writes Fight Club, and all of a sudden, pugilism is back off the mat. It’s been seven years since the movie version of Palahniuk’s novel came out, and guys in the Twin Cities are still strippin’ down to their skivvies and engaging in bare-knuckle fighting for no apparent purpose and with few rules.

Ultimate Fighting, or Mixed Martial Arts, is the punk rock of combat sports. As one local promoter puts it, “We have for-real people beating each other up, for real.” The best place for action around the Twin Cities is the Myth, the Maplewood nightclub that’s the size and shape of a Best Buy. Once you’ve passed the “no gang colors” dress code, the friskers, and the metal detectors, the club bursts its tethers and blasts off on Red Bull-powered rocket boosters to a galaxy where the men, women, drinks, and action are all served straight up. The shoulder-height stage at one end of the room is reserved for patrons, who sit on metal folding chairs. The octagonal cage fills the dance floor on a five-foot-high riser. About one hundred people have paid a couple of hundred dollars each (or been comped) for the VIP seats and tables that sit back about fifteen feet from the action. Several collapsible tables and chairs are pushed right up next to the cage for the medic, judges, or fighters’ mates, who cling to the black-plastic-wrapped fence and holler advice or fling water bottles over the top of the twenty-foot wall to the fighters between rounds. The entire club is dark except the ring, which is tented in a hot pool of lights. Backlit silhouettes of heads and waving arms are visible behind a railing in the second deck, the equivalent of nosebleed seats at a football game. In this galaxy, only the royalty below get within spitting, sweating, and blood-spurting distance of the gore.

Once the fighters make the long walk through the cheering crowd and into the cage, the referee locks the gate. The combatants aren’t the ones fighting to get out; it’s the audience that wants in.

Fights go three rounds, five minutes a round, with a minute-long break in between. The amateurs kick things off, grappling around in a double crab walk most of the time. When two guys just wrestle around on the floor, it’s easy to forget the lawlessness of the sport—until someone wriggles an arm free and starts punching the other guy’s face while the referee does nothing but watch. It’s amazing how much a face can swell in just a couple minutes.

After a particularly bloody recent bout, the winning fighter stood up long enough to have his triumph declared, then promptly bolted from the cage and landed on all fours over a bucket. “Now folks,” yelled the announcer, “you know you’ve seen a good fight when the winner is puking!”

Half the crowd is made up of women, and they’re screaming, not wincing. Most look like sorority girls hoping for a glimpse of Brad Pitt. Two Asian women perched on their white boyfriends’ laps in the front row don’t look like they go to school or do anything but what they’re doing right here: jumping up and down and screeching, loud enough to be heard over the rest of the crowd, “Kick his fucking ass, you motherfucker!” So much for the cultural cliché about passivity and obedience. Then there’s a cadre of women thin and sparkly enough to be dangled from their own magenta cell phones. On the professional Ultimate Fighting Championship circuit, they’re called “Octagon Girls.” They go everywhere in a single-file line, wrapped in shreds of hot-pink fishnet and tottering on Kiss-style white platforms like candy stripers in a Russ Meyer fantasy. This night, they lent an especially poignant accompaniment to the announcement from the promoters of a new breast-cancer-awareness project.

During the next round, a fighter went down and out. A blue-gloved medic rushed to his side. Every pair of eyes in the house was on the body of the inert man while the victor stood awkwardly off to the side until his opponent was revived and wobbled out of the ring.

A current topic of hot debate in the Ultimate Fighting Championship world concerns groin attacks. Opponents of the nut-punch ban say that freestyle fighting should be exactly that. And if groin kicks become legal again, the only rule from Palahniuk’s vision—“You do not talk about Fight Club”—could be rendered completely moot.