It was just after midnight in Atlantic City on a Friday night in February when a compact, chiseled fighter named Tom DeBlass (picture a heavily tattooed bulldog) climbed inside the cage at Lou Neglia’s Ring of Combat XXXIX, a regional mixed martial arts tournament at the Tropicana resort. In the audience, his friend and protege, Thomas Ettari, a 34-year-old third-grade teacher from Bayville, N.J., rose from his seat and started shouting.
"Go, Tom!" Ettari said as the bell rang, signaling what was supposed to be the first of three five-minute rounds. "Drop him!"
Forty-one seconds later, it was over. DeBlass had grabbed his opponent’s foot, dropped to the mat and used his elbow to apply pressure to the knee, forcing his opponent to surrender. The crowd of 2,000 fans — about 75 percent male, nearly all under 40 — erupted.
For DeBlass, the significance of the win was simple: He took the Ring of Combat heavyweight crown and moved one step closer to a professional-level bout.
But in the faces of Ettari and the 16 friends with whom he had traveled to Atlantic City — including his identical twin, Anthony — one could read the significance of MMA itself. To this generation, who came of age alongside the notorious sport, mixed martial arts has come to represent everything that boxing once did to their fathers and grandfathers: the ultimate measure of manhood, endurance and guts.
"Boxing isn’t the biggest, baddest sport on the block anymore, and it hasn’t been for years," said Jim Genia, 41, the author of "Raw Combat, the Underground World of Mixed Martial Arts." Today, he said, MMA is "the one sporting endeavor that encapsulates what it means to be a warrior."
Critics dismiss mixed martial arts as nothing more than human cockfighting. Numerous attempts to legalize it in New York have been thwarted by anti-violence advocates. But to the men who have followed MMA from its first days as a no-holds-barred blood sport, who grew up playing "Street Fighter 2" and arguing whether Jean-Claude Van Damme could beat up Steven Seagal, it is the fairest (and coolest) possible fight. The idea behind mixed martial arts is to create a space where a fighter can use any style of combat — jujitsu, karate, boxing, wrestling — to subdue an opponent. Fighters wear minimally padded gloves, and matches are held in cages so no one can fall out. The result is an often bloody, bone-breaking affair that, according to fans, leaves no question of who is the better combatant.
"I would say that if boxing is the sweet science, then MMA is the complete science," said Chris Jones, a 19-year-old student at Pasco-Hernando Community College in Florida. "It’s all aspects of the fight. It’s a full fight. It’s a real fight."
For many parents, their young sons’ near-obsessive attraction to mixed martial arts is puzzling, to say the least. Some pinpoint its origins to the David Fincher film "Fight Club," a movie that, in the 13 years since its release, has had a cultural resonance far beyond its modest box office numbers.
Jan Redford of Squamish, British Columbia, said that her son, Sam, now 20, became fixated on mixed martial arts when he was 15, partly as a result of that film and the following it generated among his peers.
"They had a fight club at his high school," said Redford, who ultimately allowed her son to train in hopes of channeling his aggression. "They’d punch each other as hard as they could and not be able to show pain."
Redford, who described herself and her husband as pacifists, attributed her son’s obsession with the sport to teenage rebellion.
"I think it has a lot to do with shocking your parents and doing the opposite of them," she said. "He just kept trying to get me to watch this cage fighting on TV with him, and it horrified me."
Other parents see it in less apocalyptic terms. Tim Parrott, 42, of Bedford, N.Y., has never discouraged his 10-year-old son, Max, from his fandom, which began after the boy saw an Ultimate Fighting Championship match on television about three years ago.
"These are the new superheroes for kids," he said of the mixed martial arts fighters. "It’s just given them a whole new set of idols. People don’t wake up today and want to be Sugar Ray Leonard. They want to be Georges St-Pierre." St-Pierre is the current UFC welterweight champion.
Birthday parties with MMA themes are now popular with the under-10 set. "We cut the cake with a sword, which is always a big hit," said Chad Weiss, an owner of Westchester MMA-Fit a school in Mount Kisco, N.Y., which also runs an MMA summer camp.
The fascination with the sport has even seeped into the walls of academia. Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, said that many of his male students wanted to write papers about mixed martial arts. And they are not always the students you would expect.
"People who don’t know these sports very well think their fans must be these kind of crazed, people-on-the-verge-of-a-breakdown, violent kind of thing," he said. But the students he sees who are most interested in the sport "tend to have really good grade-point averages and be really fine students," he said. "This is not something that smart young people look down their noses at."
He agreed that the impact of "Fight Club" could not be discounted; it became a manifesto for a generation of boys who felt estranged from their masculinity. "It became this kind of magnum opus, and it described a certain culture of this kind of sport," Thompson said. "This was their thing, and they defined themselves accordingly."
Evidence that cage fighting has replaced boxing as the combat sport of choice, at least to some men of a certain age, has been quietly mounting for years. The annual pay-per-view audience for Ultimate Fighting Championship matches first surpassed boxing and professional wrestling in 2006, and has continued to rise almost every year since. And among men ages 18 to 34, the sport is fourth in popularity only to baseball, basketball and football, according to research by Scarborough Sports Marketing in New York.
The sport has also begun popping up in the mainstream. Last year, Fox Sports signed a seven-year deal with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the dominant brand in mixed martial arts, that includes four matches a year shown on broadcast television in prime time.
And earlier this year, MTV broadcast "Caged," a reality series that followed the lives of aspiring cage fighters in small-town Louisiana. Chuck Liddell, the sport’s first breakout star, now retired, has made cameo appearances as himself on "Entourage" and "Hawaii Five-O."
But to those over 35, mixed martial arts remains something of a mystery (it ranks below horse racing and figure skating in terms of popularity among the general population).
Part of the reason is that for much of its 19-year history in this country, MMA was outlawed in many states and practically absent from television because cable networks refused to carry the graphic fights, which for years were conducted almost entirely without rules.
"We call those the dark years," said Genia, the author, who lives in Queens, N.Y. He was one of many young men who went to great lengths in his 20s to watch matches.
"I was in law school in D.C., and I would have to take the bus up here to the one bar in New York that would have the satellite dish to show the UFC," he said.
Rather than forcing the sport into obscurity, that banishment now seems to have fueled its rise. In the 1990s, fans who could not find a bar in which to watch the fights (or were too young to get in) often traded videotapes of them. That gave the sport the feel of a grass-roots movement and endowed fans with a sense of ownership.
Nate Wilcox, a public-affairs consultant in Austin, Texas, and writer for Bloody Elbow, one of many MMA blogs, became an instant fan of the sport in 1995 when someone showed him a tape of the 1994 match between Royce Gracie and Kimo Leopoldo from Ultimate Fighting Championship III.
"I used to play in a punk band, and someone brought a tape to practice and was like, ‘Nate, you are going to love this,"’ he said.
The network of tape trading also helped link MMA to the Internet, which was coming of age alongside it.
"It was through the Internet that people would connect to pass around videotapes," Genia said. "That’s part of the reason that MMA is such a young sport, because it’s tied to the Internet generation."
Today, watching a mixed martial arts fight is as easy as setting your DVR. But it’s hard to match the experience of a live fight.
Not since "The Godfather" have elements of family and violence mingled so successfully as at a regional MMA event like the one at the Tropicana. (The UFC holds only about 15 fights a year across the United States, so for many fans, these regional events are the closest they get to witnessing a live match.)
Most audience members attend in support of a specific fighter — a friend, a brother, a trainer, a sensei — so emotions, and testosterone, run high. There is fist pumping, back slapping, shirtless posturing and screams for oddly specific injuries ("Get the mouth!"). It’s like a boxing match crossbred with WrestleMania, presented in the middle of an Insane Clown Posse concert.
Why mixed martial arts over boxing?
"It’s more realistic than boxing, because a fight in the street, you throw to the ground, you know?" said Ettari, who admitted to never having been in a street fight himself. "You don’t just stand up and duke it out. It’s realistic, but it has rules."
That was the intention from the beginning. When mixed martial arts first came to the United States from Brazil in 1993, it was billed as a bone-crunching, rules-free battle royale that would finally settle the sort of "Could Mighty Mouse beat Superman?" hypotheticals that fueled many a middle-school argument.
Indeed, the first UFC fight pitted a 415-pound sumo wrestler against a Dutch kickboxer. (The kickboxer ended the night with a victory, and a pair of the wrestler’s teeth embedded in his foot.)
In another decade, MMA might not have found a fan base. The failure of the XFL, an "extreme" version of professional football, suggests that it takes more than amped-up violence and an absence of rules to lure young fans. But the 1990s were a confusing time for professional boxing, creating an opportunity for another combat sport to swoop in and steal fans.
The decade began with Mike Tyson, considered by many to be the last great heavyweight champion, losing his title to the little-known Buster Douglas. Seven years later, Tyson bit Evander Holyfield’s ear in a heavyweight champion bout — hardly a proud moment for the sport.
While boxing was on the decline, mixed martial arts was evolving into a tamer, more socially presentable version of itself. Today, MMA is legal in nearly every state that sanctions boxing (New York and Connecticut are among the holdouts).
"Now there’s no way I can watch boxing," said Yuri Salnikov, 25, of Monroe, N.J., as he waited for the Ring of Combat event to begin. "It’s just too boring."
When it comes to fighting sports, perhaps the greatest measure of cultural relevance is how often a man invokes it as a means to prove his masculinity over a rival. Ernest Hemingway challenged George Plimpton and Hugh Casey, a relief pitcher for the Dodgers, to a boxing match in his living room.
In less-literary circles, Axl Rose wrote a song, "Get in the Ring," to Bob Guccione Jr. after Guccione gave Guns n’ Roses a bad review in Spin, which he published.
Mixed martial arts cannot yet claim that kind of historical gravitas. But in February, a 24-year-old Seattle man identifying himself as DG quickly amassed 2,000 Twitter followers with an account called (AT)ChrsBrwnChllnge. Upset over Chris Brown’s return to the Grammy Awards just three years after assaulting Rihanna, his girlfriend at the time, DG is using the account to taunt the performer into facing him in a "UFC-style cage match."
"Prove you can take a man hand to hand," he tweeted. "Do you accept or are you a coward? Ignoring me will not work."