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Evolution of fighting

Posted: Friday, January 18, 2008

Fighters armed with big red gloves and burning desire to inflict physical damage to another human being have electrified Juneau crowds at Roughhouse Friday boxing at Marlintini's Lounge for years.

Tonight, however, fans will experience fighting's next big thing. Marlintini's will host two mixed martial arts battles during the Roughhouse Friday card. The two full-contact battles will accompany an already-stacked boxing card that features Ketchikan's Tyson Duckworth taking on local crowd-pleaser Julio "The Haitian Sensation" Gregoire in the main event. The fights start at 9 p.m.

There will be bouts between local lady pugilists as well as a number of ring-tested Roughhouse veterans on Friday.

The mixed martial arts bouts, however, appear to be driving the increased ticket sales. Juneau's Nick "The Nightmare" Morgan, Ketchikan's Chaun Donnell, veteran Nick Merfeld and a soon-to-be named fourth competitor are scheduled to fight.

As always, the card is subject to change.

"The ticket sales are better than brisk and are way ahead of what they usually are," Roughhouse promoter Bob Haag said. "I'm sure that's the new people coming to see the cage-style fighting."

For nearly a decade, mixed martial arts' popularity with casual fans and fight aficionados have rivaled and surpassed boxing's pull with the public. With the lack of a true heavyweight champion or a spectacular draw - think Mike Tyson in his pulverizing prime - mixed martial arts, or MMA, filled the void.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship succeeded in bringing and selling the spectacle to a mass audience. With frequent pay-per-views, free fights on cable, a popular reality series and fighters, such as Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, who have become mainstream stars, MMA grew in popularity as traditional bouts fought under the Marquees of Queensbury rules waned in the public's eye.

That fever spread across the nation, including Alaska. The Anchorage-based Alaska Fighting Championships finished its 43rd show on Wednesday while bouts have been staged in Soldotna, Fairbanks and Ketchikan.

Tonight, Juneau becomes MMA's latest destination.

"I'm just real anxious to see how well it'll go from a group standpoint," Haag said. "The participants, along with crowd, are a younger demographics that isn't into boxing. ... The fights may not be evenly matched or the crowd may go crazy. I can't wait to see."

The fights will take place in the same Roughhouse ring used for boxing. Haag said the rules will be similar to those used in the UFC. Those rules allow punches, kicks, choke-holds and submission maneuvers. A fighter can win by knockout, decision or submission when the opponent taps out when a particular hold become too excruciating to bear.

Tonight's MMA bouts are billed as "cage-style" fights, even though no cage will be used. In UFC, an octagon-shaped ring is surrounded by a chain link fence.

Mixed martial arts fought in a traditional boxing ring happens in the PRIDE FC league, a popular outfit out of Japan that gets regular television play on Fox Sports Channel (GCI Ch. 36).

"We're going in with baby steps and be like PRIDE fighting in that right," Marlintini's owner Ethan Billings said.

ALASKA TAKEOVER

The sport of mixed martial arts found its biggest home in Alaska in 2004 with the Alaska Fighting Championships.

Based out of Anchorage with all events taking place in the Sullivan Center, the AFC stages fights in a ring encircled by a cage. On Wednesday, the organization put on AFC 43 - New Years Knockouts.

Sarah Johnston, along with her father Greg, purchased the AFC in May.

"Every single month it grows," Johnston said Tuesday. "We had our biggest show last month. We had 1,800-something. It was the biggest show for us thus far. I definitely see it as a growing trend. Once they go, they get stuck on it and get pretty hooked on it."

The AFC's success isn't limited to just ticket and T-shirt sales. A couple AFC veterans recently graduated to the UFC, considered mixed martial arts' major league.

Anchorage's Doug Evans fought twice in the UFC while former AFC lightweight champion Justin Buchholz is slated to make his UFC debut in Las Vegas on Wednesday. The ability for AFC fighters to jump to the big time shows the legitimacy and improvement of Alaska fighters.

"To me, it's a champion's sport," Johnston said. "It takes all levels of participation. It's every martial art wrapped into one. It's the ultimate of ultimates."

MMA training clubs started to pop up over the state, offering classes in wrestling, tae kwon do, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and other means in which to earn a victorious end.

The fights officially came to Southeast Alaska on Nov. 17 as Jack Duckworth of the Ketchikan Fight Club put on a show at the Ted Ferry Civic Center.

"It was awesome," Duckworth said. "We sold out. We usually sell 300-350 tickets (for boxing alone). This increased our ticket sales by 150 tickets."

Duckworth, a fourth-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, also trains boxers and potential mixed martial artists. Several of his battlers are slated to compete Friday.

In Juneau, 20-year-old Stephen Ellison is the president of the University of Alaska Southeast Boxing Club, which encompasses both boxing and mixed martial arts. He said last semester the club had about 10 to 12 members training in both disciplines.

"I just wanted get people into it and figured this was the best way," Ellison said.

He said he's trying to get on tonight's fight card. Ellison added that a lot of his members also have wrestling backgrounds, which leads naturally into MMA training.

WILL MMA KO BOXING?

While Haag also serves as an AFC judge, he admitted to having some reservations about mixed martial arts.

"I've been involved in boxing all my life," the 60-year-old said. "The way it was years ago was the gentlemen stood up and boxed and didn't fight on the ground. Things changed. I've seen the popularity grow and as a promoter, I figured I had to diversify. ... I didn't think it would ever take off, but it just changed my mind."

At Marlintini's, Billings said he used to host a couple UFC pay-per-view viewing events at his establishment.

He also admits that big-time boxing may be a dying sport.

"I'm not that huge a fan of MMA or UFC," Billings said. "I'm into it a little bit, but it's more about trying to grow the Roughhouse brand. We'll see what the response is. Boxing's been dying around the nation."

While boxing is primarily about punching and avoiding punches, MMA requires a diverse skill set. Fighters need the ability not only to punch, but to kick, wrestle, fight on the ground, apply submission moves and counteract such holds.

One mistake could lead to an choke-hold or submission maneuver in which the unfortunate soul on the business end is left with two choices - tap-out to signal the referee to stop the fight or suffer the potentially ugly effects.

MMA fighters wear no protective headgear and don four-ounce grappling gloves. On the outside, it looks like a potential for a bloodbath.

In reality, however, the ballet of a MMA bout is more mental than physical. A hulking street fighter may appear intimidating, but if he gets caught in a nasty choke hold by a judo expert, the fight can end seconds after the opening bell.

Haag said an experienced mixed martial arts referee will be on hand to officiate.

"I don't have any qualms or worries," Billings said about hosting the MMA bouts. "It'll go one way or the other and get stopped. It won't get dicey."

While boxing damaged itself greatly on the national scene with high pay-per-view costs, fractured sanctioning bodies and the lack of an undisputed heavyweight champion, the sweet science maintains its innate drama.

The technical side of MMA can be confusing as two grapplers on the ground, each trying to gain the upper hand, can look confusing to the uninitiated.

As noted boxing analyst Max Kellerman opined, boxing is about the literal imposition of will. Two individuals throwing haymakers and getting up when knocked down is something universal, compelling and, at its best, inspiring.

Fans pack Marlintini's to see their friends, neighbors and coworkers prove their toughness. It takes considerable skill to fight, and even more courage to enter the ring in the first place.

For many athletes and fans, boxing and mixed martial arts are just two sides of the same coin. Each discipline requires dedication and skill and both worthy of equal respect.

"You've got to give props to both sides," Ellison said. "You can get in the cage fights and they're experts in their field. The thing about boxing is, why it's so disciplined, is you have to be good because it's just boxing. MMA is wrestling, Jiu-Jitsu, karate. In boxing you have to out-box your opponent."

• Contact sports editor Tim Nichols at 523-2228 or sports@juneauempire.com.



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