Ultimate fighting finds fans in Pa.

May 8, 2009 12:14:23 PM PDT
Since the time of the Roman gladiators, organized fights have always drawn big crowds. The latest type packing them into arenas in Las Vegas and Los Angeles is now officially in Pennsylvania.

It's also one trying to fight a notorious reputation.

With the ring of a bell, legalized mixed martial arts, or ultimate fighting, officially came to Pennsylvania on Sunday. Over a thousand fans packed a catering hall in York to witness two pro and 17 amateur bouts on the first legal fight card in the state.

Tickets, costing up to $60 a seat, sold out in four days.

"I didn't think it would be so massive," said Bonnie Rafferty of Chambersburg, Pa. "I've been watching it on TV. It's pretty cool," said Mike Balestrini, of nearby Stewartstown, Pa.

The fights in York were the first, but many more are coming. The Pa. State Athletic Commission has received 100 applications from promoters want to stage bouts. 14 have already approved, including one for April 30, at the expo center in Oaks, Montgomery County.


Ultimate Fighting contests began about 20 years ago, but they were banned in every state, thanks to a notorious reputation for violence.

Fights are in a cage. In the early days, combattants didn't wear gloves. There were few rules, and no rounds or breaks in the fighting.

"It was no-holds barred, anything-goes fighting. They would just bloody each other's faces, knock teeth out, noses on the other side of their faces," says Phil Migliarese, a UFC spectator.

And in the UFC - the Ultimate Fighting Championships - there were incidents, like that of figfhter Corey Hill getting his shin snapped by an opponent. The Video of the horrific incident drew tens of thousands of views on YouTube.com. In addition, hundreds of UFC fans posted comments, many saying how sickened they were by the sight.

Over the past decade, UFC supporters have been reshaping the sport to reverse the blood-thirsty image.

The popularity has skyrocketed, driven by televised matches, jammed crowds at Las Vegas venues, and celebrity fans like Bruce Willis.

Off a small street in Center City, you can climb the stairs of a building that long ago housed a stable, off a small street in Center City, and you enter an epicenter for Philadelphia's UFC hopefuls.

It's where Phil and Riccardo Migliarese run Team Balance.

Besides their training sessions, the brothers - both veteran Brazilian jiu-jitsu martial artists, are also planning bouts in this area.

"I believe that boxing is more violent than mixed martial arts," says Migliarese. "You get punched in the head hundreds of time within an hour. n mixed martial arts fights, the numbers are way lower, because of jiu jitsu.

Phil Migliarese says MMA now incorporates half a dozen disciplines such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu, karate, kickboxing - and boxing.

And the best fighters are top-notch in all of them.

He says MMA bouts now have a host of rules that didn't exist 15 years ago -

No elbows... Kicks to the head... Hammer locks...pinching, biting, and so on, are out.

"You can win by submission hold, grappling hold, a choke, a punch, a kick, or an opponent can tap out," says Phil.

Students at Balance Studios say there's more strategy, and less brute force in mixed martial arts.

Frank Ambrifi, of Northeast Philadelphia, says, "It's basically a chess game, It's who can beat their opponent to a move. Who can get 2 moves ahead of your opponent."

But chess doesn't have risks like this -

"I broke my right hand 5 times, uh, I broke my left hand twice, my left wrist once, I broke my ribs, I broke an ankle, and I fractured my collarbone," says Frank, as he ticks off his injuries.

At Sunday's bout in York, one fight was stopped when a fighter's nose was broken.

Promoter Mark Jovich says the risks are no worse than any other sport.

"Be it football, be it wrestling, you're gonna have that aggressive contact," says Jovich.

Jamie Apody said though she's done karate for 20 years, she found some new twists in mixed martial arts.

Some moves are different, such as the foot placement for throwing an opponent.

After a few tries, she says she caught on, and was able to stop Phil's approach from behind by throwing him over her shoulder to the mat.

UFC promoters say the fan base is about 30 per cent female.

The crowd in York had plenty of women. Though some were family of friends of the local fighters, they were all enthusiastic.

Lindsay Dobeck and her boyfriend came to see a mutual friend fight. But Dobeck sasays no one forced her to come. "I can't wait to see it, especially the professional bouts."

Jovich says, "On our next card, we're looking at 2 bouts with females. And in my school, Central Pennsylvania Academy of Martial Arts, we have probably 15 girls training in MMA."

Tara Galvin of Washington Crossing was in the crowd at York. The slender blonde was very interested, not only because she trains in MMA, she plans to promote events in Bucks County, possibly by July.

Galvin says, "The hardest thing was finding a venue actually in the area large enough."

She says she finally settled on King's Catering in Levittown.

There's also no shortage of those interested in getting into the ring, including college sophomore Joshua Aarons.

Aarons, a sophomore at Lock Haven State University, and 2-time state wrestling cham in Florida says, "Once the cage locks and closes, it's you versus your opponent. Go hard, or go home."

By day, fighter Duane Bastress of East Berlin, Pa., works in a drug and alcohol rehab center, helping clients get their lives back on track. At night, and on weekends, Bastress practices mixed martial arts, and trains to improve his fighting skills. He hopes to go pro within the next few months.

"I want to do this for a few years before I get too old," the 25-year-old Bastress says

The popularity of mixed martial arts bouts is overshadowing boxing in many places.

Even Philadelphia's "Mr. Boxing," attorney Jimmy Binns, admits the sport of legends like Muhammad Ali, Smokin' Joe Frazier, and Mike Tyson, is on the ropes.

"I think boxing is experiencing its death throes," says Binns.

Throughout his office are photos of Binns, taken with "Rocky" star Sylvester Stallone. Binns is a former Pennsylvania Boxing Commissioner, who had cameo roles in 2 of the Rocky movies.

"I don't see anything good in the future of boxing," he says."

Although Binns has his feet firmly planted in boxing, his son plans to be a promoter of the newer, and more popular, mixed martial arts.

Binns worries about the safety of those involved in both sports.

As he smacks his hand, he says, "Any hit like that is going to concuss the brain."

"Sooner or later, it's going to take it's toll, because all of the nerves that control the gait, the speech, they all come over the temporal mandibular join. Anytime it gets hit, there's damage there, " says Binns.

"Actually, in an optimum world, we'd all be golfers," he says with a smile.

Many at the fights in York say they'll be back. Jim Scheaffer said,"I wish I had paid more to get better seats. I'll definitely come out again. I loved it. It's awesome."

Click for more information on Team Balance.

Click for information on the on April 30, in Oaks, Pa.

Click for more information on attorney James Binns.

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