by JR Labbe, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
There was a very positive article about MMA in the mainstream press this past weekend, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote extensively about the sport. The following article was written by the Star-Telegram’s deputy editorial page editor, Jill “J.R.” Labbe.

There’s brawling, and there’s fighting
by J.R. Labbe

The morons who were filmed acting out a street version of Fight Club wouldn’t last five seconds in a real ultimate fight. Fort Worth’s Travis Lutter needed only 16 seconds to best his well-trained opponent in the final International Freestyle Fighting bout on May 6 at Will Rogers Coliseum.

“Those videos are more associated with Jerry Springer than with fighting,” said Tra Telligman, a Fort Worth fighter who earned his “Trauma” nickname in ultimate fighting matches around the globe. “Those are people who want to be on camera for their 15 minutes of fame. Sadly, this round of bad publicity may have a negative impact on a great sport, at least for a while.”

Ultimate fighting is a hybrid of wrestling, boxing, grappling, kick boxing, jiu jitsu, judo — just about any fighting sport. That explains the “mixed martial arts” (MMA) designation in Texas law.

The competitions are governed by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. Boiler stacks, cosmetology and cage matches are all regulated by the same agency. Gotta love it.

Everything from ringside physicians to serving beverages in plastic containers is outlined in the statute. It also outlaws elimination tournaments that justifiably inspired the ire of state lawmakers.

Before the law, amateur “fighters” with little or no training would whale at each other in winner-take-all tournaments. Weight classes were nonexistent, and inadequate medical or physical checkups were performed on the contestants before or after they subjected themselves to all kinds of brutality. The media made much of the several combatants who died after these “Toughman” events.

“I’m fully aware that the sport you saw on Saturday night has been the recipient over the years of negative press,” said Brock Groom, a Fort Worth attorney and the IFF matchmaker. “Instead of the dedicated, respectful athletes you saw, people have fixed in their heads — partially due to journalists, partially due to what went on the mid-’90s in this sport — the wrong impression.”

Telligman, 41, knows well “what went on” in the mid-’90s. His pro career spanned from 1995 until March, when he retired.

“The sport got a bad rap because of how it was marketed,” said Telligman, who spends his days running his construction company but still works out. (Does he ever. He’s like an anvil on legs.) “It was built on blood-and-guts brutality, as a two-men-enter-one-man-leaves kind of sport.”

Ultimate fighting can be safer than boxing, Telligman said, where a fighter can take 30 or 40 hits to the head in just one round. In MMA, a fighter can tie up a hitter with a wrestling move.

Although fighting histories and skill level varied vastly among contestants at the fights I saw, each was a conditioned athlete. The human body can’t take that kind of abuse unless it’s been toughened by hours and hours of training. Two bouts went the distance — three rounds of five minutes each. Another bout ended when a spectacular kick landed on the side of the opponent’s head and he dropped like a box of bricks. Lutter’s fight literally lasted 16 seconds after he quickly got his opponent in a submission hold and the guy tapped out lest his arm be snapped.

The May 6 premier of ultimate fighting in Fort Worth offered a fascinating venue for sociological observation. The audience was mostly young men — the sport’s target demographic is males 18-34 — but a decent number of couples and dads with their sons were on hand. Telligman is convinced that the audience will continue to grow.

The eight bouts weren’t just men locked in a cage, indiscriminately throwing kicks and punches. Even as an MMA neophyte, I could tell that strategy was as important as strength. The combatants with wrestling backgrounds were trying to take the contest to the mat as quickly as possible, and the boxers maneuvered to keep the action upright as best they could.

“It’s like a chess match,” Telligman said. “You’re trying to stay a move ahead of the other guy.”

“There’s a lot of thought and a lot of preparation before stepping into that cage,” Groom said. “It’s not a bunch of idiots just swinging around wildly.”

That is an apt description of the flailing and brawling by area high school students — allegedly recorded by gang members — on the “underground” fight videos that have inflamed North Texas law enforcement, school officials and many other adults. As of Friday, police had arrested five people on suspicion of organized criminal activity and aggravated assault. At least one additional arrest was expected.

Some of the young men filmed in the Agg Townz Fights videos declined to file complaints against the organizers because they were “willing” participants. Fine. The police should throw them in jail, too.

“As a former prosecutor, I can say that what they did was both idiotic and illegal,” said Groom. “If they want an outlet for their energies, head to a gym. Pour that energy into a legitimate sport that is so much more satisfying and rewarding. Spend a few years learning something that requires skill.”

Spoken like a former Golden Gloves boxer who turned pro at age 17. Groom hung up the gloves to go to law school.

Without question, ultimate fighting is a violent sport. It’s not for everyone, but neither are NASCAR and polo. The pre-fight hype that appeared in this very newspaper advising fans to take newspapers to protect themselves from splattering blood was just that — hype.

Jill “J.R.” Labbe is deputy editorial page editor of the Star-Telegram.