The pay-per-view broadcast starts at 7 p.m. on Saturday night and goes until ten. By five, maybe 3,000 people are already in their seats, most of them gathered in the upper reaches of the arena. Empty seats in the celebrity section are reserved for David Spade, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mandy Moore, and Chuck Liddell. The supervising physician from the Nevada State Athletic Commission, whose name is Doc Brown, is the first to claim his seat at ringside. “I’ve probably worked 100 fights,” he says, explaining that he is known in most professional circumstances as Steven Brown, M.D. When I ask him what the chances are that he will have to leave his seat tonight and enter the ring, he nods his head. “I’ll be in there tonight, I guarantee it,” he says. It’s not that mixed martial arts is an especially brutal sport, he says, but rather that the fighters are so skilled that some form of injury is virtually guaranteed. Fractures and dislocations are common in mixed martial arts and boxing, he said. Head injuries happen in both sports, but the cuts in mixed-martial-arts fights are more frequent, and there is more bleeding. “Eight of 10 cuts you see have something to do with the scalp. It’s extremely vascular,” he says. Bleeding from the head looks horrendous, he explains, but it’s rarely lethal.
Behind us, Tito Ortiz and Jenna Jameson are taking their seats. Ortiz’s face looks puffier than it did when he was fighting regularly, while the famous porn star looks ghastly. Her stick-figure legs are covered with tattoos, and a pair of angel wings sprouts from her back. Her eyes make her look like a Siamese cat, less vacant than otherworldly. She talks to Ortiz, greets her fans, looks exasperated, and plays with her hair, but the weird look in her eyes never goes away. It’s like she is looking into an arctic hell where the sun never shines. She has a professional distaste for Dana White. “He started to compete with the fighters for attention,” she tells me. “That’s not good business.”
Ring announcer Bruce Buffer, who has a disturbing baby face with the high pompadour of an auctioneer from the cattle lots in Oklahoma, steps into the octagon to introduce the card. Then Josh Koscheck methodically uses his elbow to open up cuts on Chris Lytle’s face and head. By the time the fight ends, Koscheck’s frosted blond hair is streaked with red, while Lytle staggers around the blood-drenched canvas like a slaughtered cow.
I head for the back of the arena, where I have arranged to meet the singer Mandy Moore, who arrives exactly on time for our date, accompanied by two publicists and her manager. She got interested in mixed martial arts a year ago, when her girlfriends brought her to a fight after a bad breakup. “It balances me out, because I’m a little bit boring, to be quite honest,” Moore explains, brushing her light-brown hair away from her sweet teenybopper face. “I feel like it’s one of the only things in my life that gives me a little edge.”
I leave, and find Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, standing at ringside. He is surprisingly geeky, with long, straight hair flanking his sallow face.
“It’s something that requires being plugged into the universe in a very special way,” the rock star explains, in the distanced, even-tempered tones of an introvert who twists and shouts onstage. “I admire the amount of time they put into it. I admire their tolerance for pain. It’s a lot deeper than what meets the eye.”
A fighter’s dressing room before a fight is a study in controlled anxiety. Some men pace, others hide. Inside Rampage’s windowless dressing room, Ibarra is pacing around on the beige industrial carpet. Rampage’s championship belts are laid out on the couch.
In the center of the room, Rampage is being stretched by three men. The hood of his sweatshirt is pulled up over his head as the men quietly work him over. “Push on my leg,” Jackson demands. The men push down his butt and massage his shoulders, slowly and deeply, in preparation for the beating he will take. Jackson grunts softly. After a while, the stillness of the scene, and the occasional muffled sounds from the black-clad figure, take on the feel of a solemn ritual passage from one state of being to another, like the male equivalent of giving birth.
A man from the Nevada State Athletic Commission with Brylcreemed hair and a red jacket pokes his head through the door. “Let’s get them gloves on,” he says, checking Rampage’s hands.
“Son, you want to put on your cup now?” Ibarra asks. He straps the cup over the champion’s gray underwear as the fighter continues to take long, slow breaths. The silent 42-inch television screen in the center of the room shows men being repeatedly punched and kicked in the face. Rampage pulls his Nike shorts up over his cup, and then puts on his camouflage shorts with the Toyo Tires logo. Then he reaches up behind his neck and comes away with a white price tag, which had been dangling from his brand-newRampage T-shirt. “That would be embarrassing,” he says, tossing the tag on the floor.
Ibarra puts on the gloves, which are then sealed with a layer of red tape and signed by the commission man, certifying that no foreign objects are inside. “Can you help me?” Rampage asks, gesturing at his taped-up hands and then to the bathroom. Ibarra accompanies his fighter to the toilet to help him pee.
Back in the dressing room, the trainer looks at his champion. “What are you going to do?”
“Defend my title,” Rampage answers. He practices a body lock with Chris Reilly, who calls out commands. “Faster.” “Drop.” “Change levels.” The two men grapple on the carpet about 18 inches from the place where I have chosen to squat. Seen up close, there is something completely abstract about this kind of fighting. The two men are figures in diagrams illustrating the science of leverage and pressure.
Ibarra looks at his watch. “Champ, can I have a word with you please?” he says, drawing the fighter into the bathroom for a quick conference. Rampage emerges 30 seconds later and clasps hands with each of the men who have helped him prepare for the fight. “I just want to thank all of you guys,” he says, the emotion in his voice fighting with the imperative to save every last drop of his energy for the ring.
“Can I have a sip of water?” he asks Ibarra. As the fighter holds a disposable plastic cup of water between his gloves, Ibarra smears Vaseline on the outside of his wristband to apply to the fighter’s face between rounds. The room falls silent again. The only sound is Rampage’s slow, deep breathing.
“Do you hear that rhythm?” Ibarra asks me. “That’s his rhythm.” The fighter takes off his hood to reveal a shaved head, and practices another clinch with Chris. He howls like a wolf, and then breathes deeply. “I need some more water,” he says. The fighter looks over at me and gives me a long stare.
Ibarra gathers everyone together in the center of the room.
“Let’s pray, fellows,” he says, before asking for “no injuries, and victory in Jesus’ name.” The commission man raises up his head to speak.
“You got about two minutes before that walk,” he says. “Two minutes before that walk.”
Zach, Ibarra’s assistant, takes Rampage’s chain and wraps it around his neck. At the last minute, Ibarra grabs a scissors and cuts open the cuffs of Rampage’s sweatshirt so he will be able to lift it over his head when he enters the ring, and then everyone goes out the door and into the cement-block corridor that leads to the ring. His hood is off as he readies himself for the plunge through the black curtain and into the sold-out arena filled with more than 11,000 screaming fans. Ibarra stops him. “Hey, Burt, he’s the champion, he doesn’t go in first,” he calls out to the man in charge of logistics. “The champ goes in second.”
Rampage puts his hood back over his head and waits, a hulking, solitary figure breathing in and out in the fluorescent light.
Forrest Griffin enters the arena first, to a techno jig from the Dropkick Murphys followed by rising applause. Rampage enters next, to the sound of barking dogs. Reilly is carrying his UFC championship belt, while Ibarra trudges behind him. The crowd boos. Every few feet, someone yells out “Oh my God” like they’ve felt an earthquake. Rampage flashes his mouthpiece at the camera and snarls. There won’t be any judges needed for the fight, Rampage promises in the taped pre-fight interview on the overhead video screen. Both men weigh 205 pounds. Griffin is two inches taller than Rampage, with a four-inch reach advantage. He bounces and dances inside the ring while Rampage stands and looks mean, which is a pretty good indication of how the fight is likely to go.
The referee is a bald-headed Canadian named Yves Lavigne. “Okay, gentlemen, UFC belt on the line, protect yourself at all times, obey my commands at all times. If you want to touch gloves, do it now, then go back to your corner,” Lavigne says, following his spiel with a single one-word instruction: “Fight!”
Griffin starts off with a leg kick, then kicks Rampage again. The champion misses with an uppercut. Griffin kicks him in the head and then kicks him hard in the leg. Soon, a pattern is established. Griffin stands in the center of the ring and aims kicks and punches at Rampage’s head and upper body, using his length to keep the champion at a safe distance. When Rampage’s guard is up, Griffin changes levels and kicks at his knee. With 3:17 left in the first round, Rampage hits Griffin with a powerful three-punch combination. Griffin recovers, and resumes kicking at Rampage’s left leg. A minute later, Rampage lands a powerful left hook. Griffin wobbles, then recovers, and catches Rampage again on his left knee.
It is a simple and merciless strategy. With a minute left in the round, Rampage hits his opponent with a powerful uppercut and knocks him down, and then drags him to the side of the cage, where the stunned Griffin gets a precious 20 seconds on the ground to recover. Rampage appears to let him stand up, steps back, and lands another powerful punch. Then he kicks Griffin hard in the side.
In the confusion of Griffin’s corner between rounds, I can hear one sentence repeated twice: “You’re hurting his fucking leg.” The fighter nods. About six seconds into Round Two, Griffin kicks Rampage’s left leg, and then kicks him again. As Rampage’s knee buckles, Griffin rushes at the injured champion and catches him in a guillotine hold and tries to choke him out.
Unable to stand, Rampage falls to the canvas, where he spends the remaining four minutes and 48 seconds as Griffin hits him in the face with his elbows and forearms while the crowd makes a sound like an airplane taking off. When the round ends, Rampage gets up and limps to his corner. He’s still in the fight. “I want you to breathe. I want you to breathe,” Ibarra tells him, looking into the face of his injured fighter. “Don’t worry about that leg.”
In the third round, a new pattern emerges: Griffin aims at the injured leg, and whenever Rampage moves to protect it, Griffin kicks him in the head. Rampage’s big punches keep missing their target by three or four inches, but their scary velocity seems to inhibit Griffin from getting any closer to his crippled opponent.
By the fourth round, Rampage’s leg seems to loosen up, and he fights the fight that I saw him fight against his invisible opponent at the warehouse on Thursday night, landing powerful three-, four-, and five-punch combinations, taking Griffin down, cutting his face, and pounding him into the canvas as the crowd cheers. It is a dominant performance, the only problem being that it is happening in the fourth round of the fight. In the fifth and final round, neither fighter shows much sense of desperation. With two minutes left, Rampage hits Griffin with a powerful body shot, and Griffin kicks him again, and then hits him with a hard right. The bout ends and the two fighters embrace.
The referee prepares to raise one fighter’s hand in victory. Griffin starts to pull his hand away, then looks startled by the deafening noise that greets the words new world champion. Judge Adalaide Byrd had Rampage winning the last two rounds and Griffin the first three, while Nelson Hamilton had Rampage winning the first round and the fourth round and Roy Silbert had Griffin winning every round except the fourth.
“Did they see the same fight we did?” the Las Vegas Review-Journal guy asks. “Are you kidding me?”
As Rampage exits the ring, away from the cameras, it is clear that he can’t really walk. He leans on Ibarra for support on his way back down the cement-block corridor to his dressing room, where fighters and their entourages line the hallway.
“You fought like a champion!”