Just five seconds into the fight, the kick comes like a piston, crunching Joe Kennedy in the thigh. The mohawked kid from Indianapolis buckles and nearly falls. Tampa favorite Carl Ognibene has landed the blow and, with his opponent suddenly vulnerable, tries to tackle him to the ground.
A mistake, Carl would say later.
The two combatants end up in a clutch; Kennedy shakes loose, lands a right with a small, four-ounce glove. Carl, unfazed, presses forward and strikes a right to Kennedy's jaw. Then a left. Then a grazing left. Then a big right. The two clinch again, and Kennedy throws a sharp knee to Carl's midsection.
The crowd at Tampa's A La Carte Pavilion roars.
It's on. Stand-up action like this — two bare-chested, bare-footed gladiators throwing fists and feet and knees and elbows — has turned Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) into one of the fastest-growing sports in America. "Banging" is only one aspect of a much more complex — and even gentlemanly — sport that combines kickboxing, wrestling, karate, Brazilian jujitsu (a style of ground fighting built around submission holds) and other disciplines. A fair amount of the action, in fact, takes place on the mat — the so-called "ground game" — where fighters tie each other into pretzels, grappling, working methodically to wear a foe down and hopefully force him to tap out, to submit. One MMA teacher has called it "hugging each other to death."
But it's the quick spasms of stand-up violence that fire up the crowds and make MMA the combat sport of choice for males age 18-34, who prefer it over traditional boxing. Last year, an MMA pay-per-view surpassed a million buys, far more than the purchases for comparable boxing PPVs. And the sport's proponents proudly point out that last October a televised match between Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock pulled 4.2 million viewers. In the 18-34 male demographic, the show outdrew its competition that night, the opening baseball game of the American League Championship Series, by 400,000.
Ognibene (Onya-BEN-ee) and Kennedy are among hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men and a few women who toil away in MMA's minor leagues for small purses and little glory. Tampa's professional MMA organization is called Real Fighting Championships (RFC).
MMA athletes train incessantly. They thrive on the combat and gym time. They have to. Their chances of making it to the big leagues of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), where they'd battle on Spike TV or pay-per-view, are slim.
Ognibene has tasted a bit of the big stage, fighting three times in front of large crowds in Japan in a league called Pride. Another Tampa kid, Edson Berto, recently won a bout in Mississippi in the inaugural event by Pro Elite, Showtime's first foray into MMA. He won by knockout in the second round. (Berto was part of an undercard that did not make the Showtime cablecast). Still another Bay area martial artist, Allen "Monstah Lobstah" Berube, was chosen for the upcoming season of the popular Spike TV reality show Ultimate Fighter, which is being filmed in Las Vegas.
A market study commissioned by a group that intends to open a martial arts superstore in Tampa this spring illustrates the sport's explosive growth in the area: 14,400 MMA participants in the metro area; 86,000 fans; 361 schools and gyms.
Backstage at the A La Carte Pavilion before the fight, Kennedy speaks to the TV camera: "I see me stompin' a mudhole in him. He's got a fight comin'. He's gonna remember the day he fights Joe Kennedy."
Months later, viewing a DVD of the bout, Carl Ognibene mutters, "Yeah, I remember it all right."
When he battled Joe Kennedy that night in September 2006 as part of the RFC's Battle of the Bay VI, Carl had a Mixed Martial Arts record of 11-4. But, he says, in many ways it was the first fight of his life.
Carl was 5 years old when Larry "The Great Malenko" Simon, one of the Southeast's most famous pro wrestlers in the '60s and '70s, came into his life. Carl's mother, Nona Ognibene, met Malenko at a wrestling event and they became a couple. The family moved to Tampa when Carl was 9.
The kid was subjected to massive doses of tough love. When he messed up, he didn't get a beating; rather, Malenko or mom would simply order him to do squats — knee bends where his butt would have to touch his heels. Carl would act up in a department store or restaurant and Malenko would bark, "A hundred squats." If Carl protested: "Two hundred squats." He'd have to do the exercises right there in the store.
Shortly before the family moved to Tampa, Carl's mother ordered him to fight a lunch-money-stealing neighborhood bully. Eight-year-old Carl, younger and smaller but with a body taut from thousands of squats, showed up in the courtyard of the Knoxville, Tenn., apartment complex wearing an oversized pair of red football cleats. He quickly got the better of his nemesis, who, on hands and knees, looked up and croaked, "I give."