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Blood Money

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Correction: Ultimate Fighting champions Sean "The Muscle Shark" Sherk and Jens "Lil' Evil" Pulver didn't fight July 14 at The Showplace, but made special appearances.

The first thing you hear is the sound of human flesh being squarely punched and kicked, like thick slabs of raw steak hitting wet concrete. The room smells of sweat and is humming with activity. Grunting and heavy breathing come from fighters of different ages who are training in a variety of styles.

Inside this nondescript storefront in the Gleneagles Shopping Center off Ridgefield Parkway near Short Pump, there's a lot of fighting going on. In the center ring, there's full-contact Muay Thai kickboxing. Grappling and submission holds take place on the widespread floor mats. Heavy punching bags are taking a beating.

Once frowned upon as brutal "human cockfighting," mixed martial arts (MMA) has become the fastest-growing spectator sport in America, already surpassing pay-per-view receipts for both World Wrestling Entertainment and boxing, the latter of which seems to be succumbing to allegations of corruption and a lack of role models.

Not surprisingly, the fast-action sport is especially popular among young men, or the highly prized demographic of 18- to 34-year-olds, from a seemingly broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

Two local entrepreneurs, Brian Butler and Brandon Montijo, are making a serious push for Richmond's own Combat Sports League. They're hoping it can become a farm league of sorts within the newly exploding industry.

At the strip-mall headquarters, also known as the Combat Sports Center, master trainer and owner Brian Crenshaw, along with several other specialty coaches, are helping young fighters develop and make the cut into the national Ultimate Fighting Championship. The sport is essentially a controlled street fight in which the fighters (wearing small, open fingered gloves) compete using a variety of martial arts, boxing and wrestling techniques.

Since its bloody beginnings in cage matches, the sport has added a number of rules to better appeal to advertisers and the masses. Among the don'ts: head-butting, hair-pulling, eye-gouging, "fish-hooking" with fingers inside mouths, small-joint manipulation, kneeing and attacks to the throat or groin.

Similar to wrestling, many bouts end when a fighter gets the opponent in a hold he cannot recover from without bodily injury, whereupon the loser "taps out" and the fight's over. With all the countermoves and strategy, MMA is more like chess compared with boxing's checkers -- but it moves very quickly.

"Boxing is kind of one-dimensional," Butler says. "MMA is so popular because it's a pure combative sport where you're using every part of your body, every part of your skill set, to defeat your opponent with limited rules. And there's always a big chance for an upset, which the fans love."

On a recent night, one of the center's most talented young fighters, Dwayne "The Diesel" Shelton, 29, is sparring with different local fighters. With a record of 24 wins and three losses, the 155-pound Shelton is a force of nature in the ring, short and stocky but with a long reach, all muscle with lightning-quick reflexes.

"He lifts tree trunks out of the ground during his day job," Montijo says. "He's got that freakish, country-boy strength. … likes to talk a little trash too, like Muhammad Ali."

Shelton, whose young daughter appears comfortable playing around the outskirts of the ring, is one of the few fighters in the building with the skills to take on fighters of virtually any size. A former boxer and Muy Thai champion, he spars against several opponents, including a much larger fighter (by some 50 pounds or more) named Danny Dean, a hulk of a man who also works as a local prison guard.

Shelton then teaches a lesson to a 17-year-old amateur Michael Goodman, who finds himself beaten in the waning seconds of a round by a painful submission move by Shelton known as the flying scissor heel hook — in which the fighter sandwiches the standing opponent between his legs and pulls him down, then presses the opponent's foot to his chest with his forearm, twisting his own body until the opponent submits. This is the kind of the move that drives impressionable young fans wild.

In September 2006, Butler, president of ad agency Roundtable Creative Inc., and Montijo, president of media company Tijo Media, joined the Combat Sports Center for recreational exercise. After meeting Crenshaw and witnessing the fighting events he was holding at The Showplace in Mechanicsville, the young businessmen saw possibilities for something bigger. The pair soon tossed their creative talents into the mix by joining forces with Combat Sports League to dramatically increase the quality of the production and overall presentation, beginning with Combat Sports Challenge 19.

A longtime fight veteran, Crenhsaw put together an intriguing card by having the World Kickboxing Association's title match at the event, pitting international Muay Thai star Chris "The African Warrior" Ngimbi of Holland against Shane "The Kid" Campbell of Canada. Campbell won the fight in an upset.

"I don't think Richmonders are aware of the kind of talent we have at these events," Butler says. "Posters of [Combat Sports Challenge 19] were being hung in Holland."

Of course, Butler is by nature and occupation a promoter. He says that he and Montijo have been called "the Ben Affleck and Matt Damon" of fighting. But one thing is for sure: He has good timing. And since he and Montijo started working on the fighting events, attendance has tripled to 3,000 fans.

"I call it a 'tripod' because of the three pieces we already have that most small promoters don't have," Butler says. There's "Crenshaw's expertise in the fight industry, my expertise in advertising and Brandon's expertise in the production and film industry."

By the time of their most recent event at The Showplace in Mechanicsville July 14, Butler and Montijo had formed SuckerPunch Entertainment to capitalize on the growing business opportunities. They also procured corporate sponsorships from the National Guard, Monster Energy, Hooters (who send their scantily clad ladies as part of the event) and The Vitamin Shoppe. They arranged to have a section of seats reserved for military personnel who showed up in uniform and during intermission honored the troops by awarding the Combat Sports League "medal of appreciation" to four soldiers.

Part of event's draw: special appearances by current lightweight Ultimate Fighting champion Sean "The Muscle Shark" Sherk and two-time lightweight champion and the coach for Spike TV's reality show "Ultimate Fighter 5" Jens "Lil' Evil" Pulver. The event also attracted Richmonder Joe Silva, a promoter and well-known "matchmaker" for the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

With "Ultimate Fighter" drawing huge ratings among young males, SuckerPunch also began developing its own reality TV show, "Fight School Inc.," based on the daily life and business of the Short Pump school. The pilot has been shot and the group is shopping it to various networks.

"It's much like 'American Chopper.' … the characters, both the fighters and trainers in the school, are all very unique," Butler says. "Win or lose, you get to see how they come back and fight in the next event."

SuckerPunch also hopes to tap into the region's strong military presence and plans to donate proceeds from its next event Sept. 29 to the United Service Organization and the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. The title is a rematch between Chris "The African Warrior" Ngimbi and Shane "The Kid" Campbell, which is being dubbed "The Reckoning."

And it just might be the first step in Richmond's climb into a very profitable — albeit bloody — national sport. S

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