Welcome to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the brutal and controversial pay-per-view TV elimination tournament where martial artists and brawlers mix it up for as much as $150,000 in total prize money. Almost anything goes—elbow chops, head butts, knees to the groin (only eye gouging and biting are frowned upon)—in bouts that end by knockout or decision or when one of the contestants concedes (called tapping out). Now in its third year, the UFC is the brainchild of Robert Meyrowitz, 53, of Old Westbury, N.Y., a veteran cable producer who cut his pay-per-view teeth on Ozzy Osbourne and New Kids on the Block concerts.
"I started thinking, everywhere you look you see martial arts signs," says Meyrowitz. "I wondered: If tae kwon do and karate were to compete, who would win?" The answer is Meyrowitz himself, who funnels the UFC five times a year into some 300,000 U.S. homes at $24.95 a pop and clears an estimated $2 million per show. "I was rich," he says. "I'm getting richer."
Maybe not for long, if opponents like Sen. John McCain of Arizona have their way. McCain objects to the UFC on a "moral level." It is a commentary, he says, "on the decay of American society. And I'm opposed because of the unacceptable risk to the health of the combatants." The bouts, in fact, have been banned in at least three states—Kansas, Ohio and South Carolina. UFC defenders counter that, as opposed to boxing, which averages four deaths a year worldwide, none of its competitors has been killed (while neglecting to point out that professional boxing stages several hundred times as many bouts).
In less than three years, the UFC has developed its own galaxy of stars. Headliners include Kimo Leopoldo, 28, a 270-pound martial artist from Hawaii who sampled a wide range of drugs before he found religion and had "Jesus" tattooed on his stomach. He considers the UFC a way of "spreading the Word." His opponent in the evening's special Superfight is Ken Shamrock, 30, UFC's Golden Boy. Blond and handsome, Shamrock, who is negotiating to merchandise his own doll in Japan—one of 31 countries where the UFC is shown—spent much of his youth in juvenile detention facilities in Northern California. At 14 he landed in a Susanville, Calif., boys home run by Bob Shamrock, who adopted him four years later. "I had to learn to direct my anger in a positive way," says Shamrock, who finally applies such pressure to Kimo's knee that the Hawaiian is forced to tap out.
Dan "the Beast" Severn is another UFC superstar. But Severn is taking the night off to work with his protege Don Frye, 30, a firefighter in Bisbee, Ariz., who ends up winning the tournament and taking home $50,000. Also not on the menu is "Tank" Abbott, 30, an out-and-out street fighter. However, his protege Paul Herrera, 29, is on the card and takes the tournament's worst beating when he is KO'd by arm-wrestler Gary Goodridge, who lands about a dozen elbow chops to his head.
"I'm fine," says Herrera, who spent the night in the hospital with a concussion and a broken cheekbone. "I've had my ass stomped worse than that before. I spent the next day drinking Stoli martinis and getting loaded."
MEG GRANT in BayamÓn
THE BLOOD BEGINS TO FLOW during the third fight, staged amid smoke and blue lights at the Coliseum in Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Scott "the Pit Bull" Ferrozzo, 31, a former All-American football player who now sells cars in Las Vegas, grabs Jerry Bohlander, a 21-year-old welder from Lockeford, Calif, and slams him into the chain-link fence that surrounds the octagonal ring. Bohlander returns the favor. Back and forth it goes in a ferocious series of head butts and choke holds until the welder is suddenly up and prancing around the ring while the red-faced car salesman is gulping for oxygen. "Yahoo!" yells an ecstatic female fan. "He choked him out!"