Andrei Arlovski entered the caged octagon inside Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., to the Hatebreed song Onward to Victory, which is about as catchy as it sounds. He smiled at the fans, his black mouthpiece adorned with white, painted-on fangs, eliciting wild cheers from the crowd of 8,500. After the opening bell sounded for the Ultimate Fighting Championship's heavyweight title fight, the 6'4", 240-pound Belarussian briefly circled challenger Paul Buentello before knocking the American to the mat with one overhand right punch to the jaw. With the crowd on its feet screaming for more, Arlovski moved in to oblige--in ultimate fighting, combat can continue even if a fighter has been knocked to the ground--but the referee abruptly stopped the fight after only 15 seconds, touching off a cascade of boos from the audience. Buentello was conscious but no longer able to defend himself.
Welcome to the kinder, gentler Ultimate Fighting Championship, where, despite the malevolent trappings, violence only goes so far. The mixed-martial-arts sport, a combination of punching, kicking and wrestling that was once denounced by Sen. John McCain as "brutal and repugnant," is more popular than ever and making inroads into the mainstream, thanks in part to a greater emphasis on safety. It's now sanctioned by 19 state athletic commissions and featured on a Spike TV reality series, The Ultimate Fighter. According to Kagan Research, UFC pay-per-view events gross up to $3 million--less than a 10th of what a major boxing or WWE pay-per-view event takes in but still impressive considering that UFC president Dana White and his partners, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, paid only six figures when they bought the company four years ago.
UFC had its genesis in a 1993 showdown in Denver featuring martial artists from various disciplines and at its outset had famously few rules. In the mid-'90s McCain lobbied state officials to ban the sport's matches and persuaded major cable companies not to carry UFC's pay-per-view events. White says that the push for reform, while crippling at the time, was essential to the sport's long-term health. "If it wasn't for Senator McCain, we wouldn't be where we are today," he says.
After taking over the organization in February 2001, White and his partners approached sanctioning bodies and asked what rules changes were needed to get their approval. The most savage fighting techniques--including head-butting, fish-hooking and hair-pulling--were banned. That summer the Nevada commission voted 5-0 to allow UFC fights.
But ultimate fighting can still get bloody. The bouts often resemble a bar brawl, with two guys tussling in a boxing stance one minute and grappling on the mat the next. Choking is allowed, but fighters in a choke hold tap out quickly, and as the Arlovski fight showed, refs are quick to halt a beating.
What UFC needs now is a true crossover star. Former Olympic wrestling gold medalist Rulon Gardner fought and won a mixed-martial-arts fight last New Year's Eve in Japan, where the sport has an avid following, but he has shown no interest in repeating the experience. UFC's most likely source for new stars is its reality show, which allows fans to get to know the sport's up-and-coming personalities. Case in point: Forrest Griffin, a light heavyweight whose final match on Ultimate Fighter drew 3.3 million viewers. He also fought on the Arlovski undercard at Mohegan Sun and received louder cheers than the champ. Griffin won that night too: He notched a first-round TKO of Elvis Sinosic. Afterward White leaped into the ring to congratulate Griffin, an honor he did not extend to the winners of the night's other bouts. Griffin is boyishly handsome, upbeat and full of smiles--without fangs. You can see why White would think he's the perfect face for a UFC trying to act civilized.
Ultimate Fighting Championship rules allow competitors skilled in different disciplines--including boxing, wrestling and Brazilian jujitsu--to compete against each other. Here's the skinny on the current champs in each of UFC's weight classes.
ANDREI (Pit Bull) ARLOVSKI, 26
From Belarus, Arlovski (above) got his start in kickboxing and sambo, a Russian martial art, at the police academy.
CHUCK (the Iceman) LIDDELL, 35
The former national kickboxing champion and wrestler at Cal Poly--San Luis Obispo is one of UFC's signature stars.
RICH (Ace) FRANKLIN, 31
The former math teacher is part of a new breed who trained from the beginning for mixed-martial-arts competitions like UFC.
MATT HUGHES, 32
The six-year UFC vet was an All-America wrestler at Eastern Illinois University and Lincoln College.