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Move over boxing, there's a new heavy hitter

BETTENDORF, Iowa - The red-brick gym just a block from the Mississippi River sits tucked among a rundown karaoke bar, a white house straight out of "That '70s Show" and a candy store.

BETTENDORF, Iowa - The red-brick gym just a block from the Mississippi River sits tucked among a rundown karaoke bar, a white house straight out of "That '70s Show" and a candy store.

From the outside, Champions Fitness Center looks like a small town's bar, the place flannel-clad John Deere workers go after the second shift, where farmers looking for some fun in the city venture when it's too cold to plant or till.

The only hint that this spot helped spawn a sport that's fast and bloody - a mix of martial arts and wrestling, the kind of no-holds-barred brawl you'd expect at a roadside bar, not featured on television - is a sign that reads, "Miletich Fighting Systems."

Inside the cramped gym is a corner room with wrestling mats and guys who wear shirts that say things like "Fighting Solves Everything."

It's here that thousands of young men from around the world have come looking to turn violence into fame. Most arrive with a few dollars, a half-empty suitcase and a chip on their shoulder, hoping to be just like the 6-foot-8 man who's coming out the front door right now, walking toward the decked-out black Hummer parked on the sidewalk out front, thinking about the seven-figure contract he just signed.

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This is Tim Sylvia, a former construction worker who showed up six years ago from Maine to train with Pat Miletich, the famous former ultimate fighting champion whose gym has produced some of the sport's best fighters.

"Pat was an idol," Sylvia said. "I came for two weeks to train here. They beat the (heck) out of me. Toward the end of the week, Pat said, 'Stay.' I went home, quit my job, sold both my cars and moved here."

Now he's the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champion of the world.

"I never thought this sport would be that big," he said. "I never thought I'd have this kind of success."

That was then. Today, Sylvia owns seven cars, calls Pete Rose a close friend, says Tom Brady wants to meet him, and believes, like a lot of people, that ultimate fighting is about to replace boxing as America's fighting sport.

Miletich is the man who trained him - his ears mushed to a hunk of skin, his body bent over from all the abuse he's taken, now a coach of the International Fight League team seen on Spike television and one of the pioneers of the sport.

"Our sport is fast, it's exciting, and once you watch the speed going on, you're hooked," Miletich said. "And when you go back to watching boxing, you realize it's boring."

The rules for mixed martial arts are pretty simple. No biting. No hair pulling. No going for the groin or kidneys.

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Otherwise, have at it.

"It's so much more exciting than anything else," said Ben Rothwell, a 25-year-old professional fighter who plans to clear $100,000 this year. "And bad as it is, people want excitement. People want blood."

The sport took off in the 19th century between strongmen who fought until one forced the other to give in.

"In the late 1800s into the 1930s, these guys went around beating up the carnival strongman in submission grappling matches," Miletich said. "They had these matches in Minnesota at state fairs in front of hundreds of thousands of people. It was huge. Then boxing came around and knocked it out."

The sport resurfaced in the United States in the 1990s just as boxing began its decline, growing much like Miletich's career: first in backrooms and barrooms, then in dingy rings and cages, sputtering in every small town that would allow an all-out fight.

"In 1993 was the first ultimate fighting championship," Miletich said. "From there it started to explode."

By 2002, mixed martial arts events sold out arenas. Spike put it on television. The Ultimate Fighting Championship - which trademarked the term "ultimate fighting," the reason most in the sport now refer to it as mixed martial arts - added a reality television show.

The fights were fast, vicious and bloody. Fighters mixed wrestling, grappling, karate, Thai boxing - anything that can give them an edge in the ring.

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Matches are normally divided into three rounds - with each round about 4 minutes long. Fighters can win three ways: By forcing their opponent to submit (this often meant breaking arms if the loser refused to give in), by a knockout or technical knockout, or by a decision.

It's a contest of broken arms, blood, beatings, mental toughness and wrestling submissions. Punching, kicking, striking, pinning - all are part of a painful, exhilarating, violent dance between very angry men.

People loved it.

"It's the most exciting combat sport in the world," said Dana White, the UFC president.

By the time Miletich retired from fighting in 2001 and began training fighters, the sport had hit its tipping point. Today, it's one of the fastest-growing sports, industry experts say.

Reiter writes for The Kansas City Star.

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