Caged Spectacle

Experiencing Knoxville's first sanctioned—and legal— mixed martial arts bout

The great games of the ancient Romans were pageants of grandeur nonpareil. At least as re-imagined by modern-day sword-and-sandals movies, at any rate. These were glorious spectacles staged in cartographically huge, open-air coliseums, towering sandstone walls bathed in sunlight and staring venerably down at a handful of glistening, naked warriors, the mighty champions whose death throes and derring-do would sate the roiling bloodlust of madding Roman throngs.

Not so for this modern-day gladiatorial spectacle—the first sanctioned mixed martial arts (MMA) event to be held in the city of Knoxville, in the wake of a recent legislative effort to make MMA legal in the state of Tennessee. These fights take place in the decidedly less splendiferous setting of the Knoxville Expo Center off Clinton Highway, and on a chilly night in early November, the Expo parking lot is inundated with cars.

It's a big crowd inside, too—well over 2,000, by one estimate, a good sign for future local MMA promotions.

But the setting is grim, almost foreboding, the lights hung dim from the ceiling's maze of beams and rafters, the crowd restive and murmuring, and the expo's sprawling interior hard and gray and austere. Just outside a pair of rooms appropriated as waiting areas for the show's participants, some of the fighters prowl like starving cats, shirtless, all battle scars and taped fists and tribal ink. One of the waiting fighters looks to be scarcely 100 pounds soaking wet. But his body is leaner than stone, tough as cured leather, a human blackjack with shaved scalp and faded tattoos.

But grimmest of all is the ring at the center of the seating area, which takes the form of an ominous, black, six-sided cage. That's right, a cage—an unassailable metal enclosure fit for ravening wild animals, a chain-mail prison with no ingress and no egress, no hope of salvation for the beaten, fallen man. The very notion of it all makes those pampered Romans seem like lily-livered wimps, by comparison.

Or so it seems to those who've never witnessed an actual MMA event: The truth is considerably less interesting. And that's borne out by the first fight, between a pair of muscular middleweight fighters who, upon the sound of the bell, face off, square shoulders, then come together in an explosive thwap of flesh meeting flesh.

The smaller of the two yanks his heavier opponent to the mat with a leg takedown familiar to followers of collegiate wrestling. What follows is a long and sometimes tedious series of position changes, the writhing mass of intertwined limbs and torsos shifting and undulating such that it's often difficult to tell who has the upper hand. Occasionally, one of the combatants gains enough of an advantage to throw a few punches at his opponent. The punches are usually more careful than hard, and most glance off the arms and shoulders of the man under attack.

Instead, the fight ends abruptly during one of those unfathomable Gordian tangles of human flesh, as one of the men taps out—the MMA fighters' oft-employed sign of surrender, usually in yield to some sort of inescapable jiu-jitsu hold—when his opponent locks him in a brutal vice-grip that threatens to close off his carotid artery.

The next fight ends similarly, in less than one round, when out of one of those writhing flesh sandwiches arises a pair of legs, which bend, then wrap claw-like around the opponent's head and shoulder area, thrusting him back into a prone position. At the same time, the hands that go along with those legs grab the right arm of the man under siege and pull it out straight, making of it a lever balanced across the fulcrum of those clamping thighs.

The maneuver is a classic arm bar, and it is administered, as per MMA requirements, in such a fashion as to allow the victim to tap out (which he does) rather than suffer a hyperextension.

By the end of the night, after 15 fights, there are no injuries of any note, and nothing that begs for the services of the EMTs and the ringside physician—a Golden Gloves veteran—in attendance. "No broken bones, no trips to the hospital. Just some bruises," says Rick Hunley, marketing director for Absolute Cagefighter, the organization which sponsored this evening's event, and which has several more on tap for the coming months. "Maybe some bruised egos, too."

The right of the Tennessee's MMA competitors to participate in sanctioned events in their home state came only after long, hard-fought battles on both the legislative and public relations fronts. Hunley doesn't understand the image of lurid violence that seems to follow MMA in the minds of some critics (though perhaps his own organization would do well to adopt a less provocative title). At least not when other, more physically damaging contact sports—such as boxing, where fighters often end bouts with faces that resemble plum pastries, or pro football, where retired veterans live out the rest of their lives in an orthopedic hell—are considered part of an acceptable norm.

"That whole mentality, the reputation MMA has with some people, it's all wrong," Hunley says.

But why do they fight in cages, fergawdsakes? Hunley just snorts: "They fight in cages so they won't fall out of the ring."