Pageantry of PAIN

A sold-out crowd cheers on the first North State Gladiator competition

I’m waiting, along with 2,000 fans, for the gladiator matches to begin. We’re seated around a black-and-yellow, octagonal steel cage in the center of what is usually the bingo room adjoining Colusa Casino. Suddenly, the house lights dim and colored spotlights begin circling the crowd. Dramatic orchestral music follows.

“Are you ready for the COLLISSION in COLLUUUSA!!!” bellows the ring announcer. The crowd roars lustily, as if already smelling blood. Cue up the KFM alt rock, Offspring or some such knuckle-dragging crap, and two gladiators in shiny tights appear.

The men stare ahead intensely as they walk through a neon gazebo-like structure toward the starkly lit center cage. They are wearing thin, open-handed gloves that barely cover the knuckles, allowing for maximum grappling with the hands. Fans of various ages lean forward in their seats. After a brief introduction, the bell rings and the caged fighters rush ahead furiously in this human version of a cockfight.

A few loud smacks, and the crowd roars its approval. These people came to see some outright brawling, and that’s what they’re getting. The fighters use a blend of everything from Brazilian jiu-jitsu to kickboxing, wrestling—any martial-arts method you could name. All eyes are glued to the fast-moving fight.

The fighters have come out swinging and kicking hard. The sounds are like thick slabs of meat hitting wet concrete. I can hear them clearly from the balcony some 30-odd yards away.

On vacation last summer, I visited the ancient Coliseum in Rome. A young American student led us on a tour. She described in graphic detail how bloodthirsty crowds once howled for the destruction of broken fighters, slave whores roamed the cheap seats placating politicians, “little people” assaulted female slaves with axes for half-time amusement, and the last warrior left standing was crowned the emperor’s champion.

When I arrived on a recent Sunday afternoon—it was Feb. 18, actually—at the Colusa Casino for an event billed as Northern California’s first and only closed-fist, full-contact, mixed-martial-arts cage fight, memories of the Coliseum were still fresh in mind.

Mixed-martial-arts, or no-hold-barred, fighting is on the rise here in California, where promoters circumvent state law by staging the bouts at Indian reservations such as the one in Colusa. Cage matches routinely sell out in Southern California venues and do good business via pay-per-view subscriptions.

Actually, there are some rules to the sport the main ones being no biting, eye-gouging, groin smashing or stomping a man while he’s down (though knee blows and elbows are OK).

Otherwise, pretty much anything goes during the intense, two-minute or five-minute (depending on skill level) rounds between fighters evenly matched by weight. The winner does whatever it takes to beat his opponent into submission, getting the other side to throw in the white towel or the losing fighter himself to “tap out” in an unrecoverable position, usually one involving excruciating pain (chokeholds and ankle locks are classic examples). A doctor is nearby in case someone splits open or worse.

I came to Colusa assuming that most fans paid the hefty admission price ($35-$100) just to watch someone get his ass kicked in a cage. The crowd seems like a mix of WWF and hardcore kickboxing fans. But, asking around, I find to my surprise that many attendees are genuine enthusiasts of the sport.

“I like the respect the fighters have for one another and their individual disciplines,” says David Byers, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu enthusiast. “All of them cross-train and have a serious level of mutual respect. … The fans like to see that.”

“The fighters always go to their base skill,” notes an excited teen in a black Rage T-shirt. “This is pure one-on-one fighting at its finest. The moves are awesome—moves like the ‘Crucifix of the Devil’ or elbow and wrist locks.” Using one of those locks, the kid insists, he could force even Ken Shamrock, a former World Wrestling Federation star known as “the most dangerous man in the world” and a trainer who is considered the biggest celebrity in mixed martial arts, to submit.

“Early on you in the fight you can brawl,” the teen continues, talking like the ultimate authority, “but eventually you gotta bring other skills. It’s really not as dangerous as boxing, because [boxing has] more deaths every year. They take more head blows.”

I’m watching the fights from my pseudo-imperial position on press row, a thin balcony above the crowd that affords a direct view down into the cage. Below me, thick lines of fresh-faced kids crowd the concession booths purchasing T-shirts and bootleg VHS videos. Two bikini-clad, silicon-stitched scorecard women waltz past on their way ringside, drawing loud huzzahs and whistles from the crowd.

The fight always starts off with a flurry of hard blows, but it never lasts long. Inevitably, one fighter sweeps a leg or makes a grappling move to start wrestling. Furious blows are traded for deft, strategic moves as the competitors pin one another on the floor or against the cage. Most of the time they end up looking like a live illustration of the mission position from The Joy of Gay Sex. “Get a room!” someone in the crowd yells whenever the wrestling reaches this point.

Whenever a fight slows too much, the crowd responds with rampant booing. It wants action, it wants blows, it wants blood. Watching white guys get beaten pink or ham-colored seems more the order of the day, however.

During one beginners’ match, newcomer Jeremy Edwards is taken by surprise as Danny Nolan roars across the ring at the sound of the bell. Ten seconds later, after a flurry of punishing blows to Edwards’ face, the referee dives into the fracas to pull a howling Nolan off. The crowd loves it.

In another match, a hulking fighter from Memphis named Quinton Jackson subdues his opponent by pinning him with his body weight and proceeding to pound the man into submission with thunderous knee blows to the head. A white towel quickly sails over the cage. More joyous roars.

The beginner fights (I lose count around 11) are sloppy and erratic, though not without crowd-pleasing moments of bone-crunching body slams, jaw-jarring head blows and wrestling holds that would be illegal anywhere else. However, the more skilled and experienced fighters don’t appear until the last three matches, the Main Event card.

After an entertaining featherweight bout that is a study in strategic positioning, it’s time for the final fight of the night. The heavyweight main event pits relative newcomer and underdog 23-year-old Romy Aram against Jerry Bohlander, a student of Shamrock’s and clearly the crowd favorite.

Bohlander is a muscular, seasoned veteran in his 14th fight, while Aram is on only his third bout and looks about as chiseled as your average XFL sofa fan. Another reporter tells me he has yet to tell his mom or sister that he fights in these things.

The bell rings and the fighters loom toward each other, suddenly trading loud kicks to opposing calves. Aram throws a haymaker with his right hand that Bohlander dodges. Just a few seconds in, Aram grabs his opponent’s leg, and the two crash onto the floor. The crowd boos.

“Use your skill, grasshopper,” someone yells.

Aram is slowly working Bohlander around the outskirts of the cage, while Bohlander wards off blows with his hands. Still, the tenacious underdog manages to land a few loose elbows into the head of Bohlander, who is pinned somewhat beneath him. The whole round is spent in a grueling struggle of weight positioning as the fighters attempt to move each other into various holds but remain largely on the defensive.

The bell rings signaling a minute to rest. Shamrock, a short man who wears extremely tight shirts to emphasize his impressive physique, is barking orders from his front-row seat. The last round was largely controlled by Aram. Slowly, a small fan contingent begins chanting, “Rom-y! Rom-y! Rom-y!” which is countered by a heavier response, “Jerr-ry! Jerr-ry! Jerr-ry!”

The second round is a virtual replay, with the crowd growing ever crankier, their only satisfaction being a tiny amount of blood on Bohlander’s head from a hard Aram elbow.

In the third round, fans erupt as Bohlander makes a slight comeback, refusing to allow Aram a takedown. The underdog isn’t dissuaded and methodically works on his opponent, using knees, fists, and arms to grapple for position. Hemmed in by the cage, both men push off the wire, struggling to gain position. Finally, in a moment that recalls the WWF, Aram lifts the beefy Bohlander into the air and drops him with a major slam. The crowd sparks but is quickly silenced as Aram goes into wrestler mode.

Bohlander clearly is tiring. Shamrock is out of his seat, face pressed against the cage, screaming. But the five minutes grind on, and Bohlander remains immobilized in the floor struggle until the final bell rings. In a low-impact stunner, the anti-climactic marquee fight goes to the underdog, a beaming Romy Aram, who soon waves his tall gold trophy in the air.

Meanwhile, the crowd is slowly shuffling out, some cheering, but most appearing annoyed. The biggest fight of the night was a dud—no action and little blood. The fans will get another chance for wanton destruction come April, when the next series of fights is scheduled.