Biff! Bang! Pow!

Welcome to no-holds-barred fighting, the sport of the future

Looking at Romy Aram, a 23-year-old finance student at Cal Poly Pomona, you might guess that he works out or that he wrestles with his friends. When this sweet-faced young man flashes his shy smile at you, he doesn’t look like the type who would lock himself inside a steel cage with another man, punching, kicking and grappling until one of them dominates. But that is exactly Romy Aram’s idea of sport. Welcome to the bizarre world of mixed martial arts fighting.

Mixed martial arts—or no-holds-barred—fighting is on the rise in California despite the fact that it is illegal in this state. The sport’s promoters circumvent state law by staging their bouts at Indian reservations. The fights take place inside an octagonal cage, and employ only the minimum of rules necessary to keep a fighter reasonably safe—no biting, no head butting, no eye gouging. The fighters are permitted to use chokeholds and bone-threatening arm or leg bars. A fighter caught in such a hold will usually forfeit a match rather than sustain the damage.

The sport has been selling out venues in Southern California, as well as drawing millions of viewers on pay-per-view television. And last month, the Gladiator Challenge at Colusa Casino bought the action to Northern California for the first time.

Aram thinks no-holds-barred fighting gets a bad rap from sportswriters. “I think they portray the sport as a lot more barbaric than it is,” he says. “If you watch boxing, people get hit a lot more than they do in a no-holds-barred match. Although [we] don’t wear as much glove protection, you get more damage [from] boxing.”

Many no-holds-barred fighters share that sentiment. Boxers tend to take more potentially brain-damaging shots to the head; gloves protect a fighter from mere superficial injury. If anything, allowing that superficial damage to show can get a fight stopped sooner and spare a fighter any more serious harm. Aram sees a conspiracy. “The boxing commission is really downplaying [no-holds-barred fighting]. They don’t want it to grow, ’cause it’s the next level, it’s the next step.”

Aram is certainly no barbarian. He is as disciplined an athlete as you’re likely to find. He studies Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling, boxing and kickboxing. He has a strong support group at Millennia Jiu-Jitsu in Pomona, a studio he co-owns with two other fighter-trainers. Here they push each other to the absolute limits of their abilities to assure they go into the cage properly prepared.

Aram’s girlfriend, Jessica Townley, supports him and his sport. She understands his passion for no-holds-barred fighting; she competes in jiu-jitsu tournaments and teaches a women’s class at Millennia. She believes jiu-jitsu is a perfect sport for women. “It’s a full body workout,” she says, “plus you’re also learning to defend yourself.”

However, Aram’s mother and sister, with whom he lives, do not know he is participating in no-holds-barred fighting. “She’d be OK with it, but she would just worry too much.” He says of his mother, “I think I’m gonna tell her after this fight.”

This fight is only Aram’s third, and already he’s in the main event. Danny Nolan, a student of Millennia Jiu-Jitsu, is also fighting on Sunday. This will be his first.

The two fighters and their entourage of trainers, sparring partners, girlfriends and wives arrive at Colusa Casino on Sunday, after resting for two days in Sacramento. The fighters mix with the casino’s gamblers like oil and water. Muscular young athletes walk among nicotine-stained bodies hunched over video slot machines. The gamblers don’t seem to notice.

The fight will take place in the bingo room, where 2,000 folding chairs have been placed around the ring, which is inside a cage built with chain-link fence. The room is busy; interviews are conducted with the fighters for the pay-per-view audience, cooks run about, trainers give last-minute advice while fighters try to keep a grip on their nerves.

All the pageantry is in place: a smoke machine, roaming spotlights, even anorexic ring girls with itty-bitty shorts. An intimidating crew with “Jesus” written in large letters across each member’s sweatshirts—representing the “Jesus Is Lord” fight school—cruises the room. The audience files in. The excitement mounts. The first fight is announced.

The fighters start, tentatively, in boxing positions—trading blows, each looking for the opportunity to take the other down to the mat. The punching is hard to stomach. Boxing gloves may not protect a fighter, but they at least give the public the illusion of a pillow fight. The first match—like most—develops into two fighters down on the mat, grappling. Punches are still thrown but, with less room to swing, some of the sting is removed.

The matches are short, the earlier bouts consisting of two five-minute rounds, the later expanded to three. The audience boos, as towels are thrown in or fighters tap out. This is to be expected with a crowd relatively new to the sport. “As they see more fights, they better understand what’s really going on,” a trainer explains.

Millennia Jiu-Jitsu student Danny Nolan enters the cage. It is his opponent Jeremy Edwards’ first fight as well, which means that neither really knows what to expect—although Nolan has been led to believe he is fighting a wrestler.

Edwards enters the ring looking like a madman, flexing and snarling. You’d almost expect to hear him growl. As the bell rings he comes out punching. Nolan is caught off guard and is hit repeatedly. He falters, then manages to stand. The referee taps Edwards to stop the fight, but the fighter is too lost in the rush of adrenaline to notice. Then the ref jumps into the action, grabbing Edwards in a wrestling hold. Edwards, realizing what’s happened, relaxes. Just 16 seconds into round one, and Edwards wins by a knockout.

The fighters hug and Nolan heads backstage, his career getting a rougher start than he’d hoped for. “I’m gonna be 16 seconds in someone else’s highlight tape,” he muses.

The fights continue. Aram is listening to Rage Against the Machine on his headphones—his way of keeping his nerves under control. Seeing his teammate get beaten could have a bad effect on his state of mind. Aram’s trainers begin to work him out as his fight draws near. At last his name is announced, and Aram makes his way to the ring. He receives less applause then any other fighter during this day of fights, but he doesn’t seem to notice. His opponent, Jerry Bohlander, is announced and the crowd goes nuts. Bohlander is a student of the sport’s biggest celebrity, former WWF star Ken Shamrock, whose pro-wrestling moniker “the most dangerous man on earth” is well deserved. Bohlander is a seasoned veteran, and this is his 14th professional fight. He is the favorite.

The bell rings and the fighters approach one another. Aram throws a punch. Bohlander dodges. Aram grabs a leg and takes his opponent down. Aram climbs on top of Bohlander, who is pinned against the wall of the cage. Aram goes to work strategically, and it would appear calmly. All Bohlander can do is hold Aram’s wrists in an attempt to avoid getting hit. That attempt fails, and Aram delivers blow after blow. The rest of the round is spent in this position, despite Bohlander’s efforts to escape the hold he is in.

Then the bell rings, and the fighters get one minute to catch their breath. Ding-ding! Round two starts and ends the same as round one, almost an exact replay. If the fight goes to a decision, the first two rounds no doubt belong to Aram.

Round three witnesses a brand-new Jeremy Bohlander. He refuses to go down, throwing some good knee shots into Aram, who continues to work skillfully, looking for a takedown. When he finally gets it, Bohlander goes down with an audible slam. Aram continues to work him over—with knees, fists and elbows. Bohlander puts up a bigger struggle from the bottom, but he remains there, immobilized.

The bell rings.

The fight is over, and the crowd, the trainers and the fighters know whose fight it is. Romy Aram, the underdog, is announced the winner by decision. The crowd is chanting his name. Aram’s crew is overcome with emotion as they rush into the ring. They put him on their shoulders.

Many new fans are made, even this writer. Professional wrestling and boxing beware: This is the sport of the future.