By David Watts Barton, The Dallas Morning News, July 9, 1997
Cal Worsham isn’t proud of what he did. Nevertheless, there’s a hint of bravado in his voice when he reminisces about his days as a street fighter.
“If I got in a street fight, I’d do whatever I had to do, ” he says. “I’d rip your mouth up to your eyeballs. I’d poke my fingers in your eyes up to the knuckle – I’d do what I had to do to win.”
He was raised in San Leandro, in a tough neighborhood “where I got in a fight every day. After two or three years of that, I found that I was good at it, so I’d pick fights. . . . I tried all avenues. . . . I’d wait for adults and pick fights with them.”
Fortunately for Worsham, not to mention untold others, he grew up and learned to channel that aggression. In fact, he has made a career of it.
First, Worsham, now 33 and living in Folsom, earned a black belt in karate and taught self-defense. Now he’s back to no-holds-barred fighting, but this time, it’s a living: Worsham is one of the stars of “ultimate fighting, ” an increasingly popular “combat sport” that is drawing legions of fans around the world, especially in Russia, Brazil and the United States. It’s also drawing the attention of sports commissioners and legislators who want to ban it.
Broadcast five times a year on pay-per-view cable TV – there’s a show tonight from Augusta, Ga. – the Ultimate Fighting Championship has drawn hundreds of thousands of viewers and many more dollars. The draw is a high-energy spectacle that features fighters from all manner of combat sports and martial arts – kickboxers, karate and jujitsu experts, wrestlers, boxers and others – who come together to fight in a fenced-in octagon.
UFC, the New York-based video production company that commercialized the spectacle three years ago, has also released nine videos of UFC fights.
While its motto “There Are No Rules!” is hyperbole – there are rules against eye-gouging, biting and “fish-hooking” (Worsham’s street-fighting technique of ripping the mouth open) – ultimate fighting is certainly a more unrestrained sort of sport fighting than most people have ever seen.
Unlike boxers, combatants in ultimate fighting wear light gloves or go bare-knuckled and are allowed to kick or hit their opponent any way and anywhere they can, including head-butting. The bouts often go quickly to the mat, where they can become wrestling matches.
The object is to force one’s opponent to “tap out” – to tap the mat to get the referee to stop the fight. There is no time limit. If no one taps out, the fight lasts until the referee calls a halt.
Ultimate fighting – which is also promoted by other companies as “extreme fighting” – entered popular culture recently when it was lampooned on an episode of TV’s “Friends.” More significantly, it has drawn condemnation from many quarters, from state legislatures to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Critics view it as bloodthirsty, overly brutal and even “offensive to any sense of public decency or true sportsmanship, ” as Arizona Sen. John McCain, a powerful critic, wrote in a recent letter to Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman.
McCain wrote to Siegelman because Alabama is one of the few states where the UFC has found a home. Although only eight states have officially banned the sport, others, including California, have made it clear that any attempt to promote events within their borders will be blocked.
“No way in this state, ” says Richard DeCuir, executive officer of the California Athletic Commission in Sacramento. “We will shut it down.”
But a few states lack such regulatory bodies, so McCain is sponsoring a bill that would essentially require each state to create a sports commission that would have the authority to ban ultimate fighting. “He thinks it is extremely dangerous, ” McCain’s aide Paul Feeney says of the senator. “It is excessively and purposely violent and bloody. . . . It’s an ugly spectacle.”
Which, of course, is part of its appeal. But there’s more to it than that, say its fans and participants.
Allen Mollring, 34, is a nutritional supplement distributor and a former kickboxer. As a weightlifter, he was Mr. Sacramento in 1986. Training at the Rancho Cordova gym that Worsham owns with his brother Bill, Mollring says he has “never been in the octagon.” That will change when he and Worsham go to Sao Paulo, Brazil, in July.
Their Brazilian appearances will earn each $3,000 plus all expenses, with the potential of a $20,000 prize for winning. The winners of each bout advance to higher-paying bouts, culminating in the ultimate championship bout. The winner last year, Don Frye, took home $150,000.
Like Worsham, Mollring is intense, his eyes clear and focused. Yet he is not at all threatening or intimidating. Instead, he seems determined, disciplined – and excited. He understands critics’ objections but thinks they don’t understand the new sport.
“Some people want to see guys beating on each other, ” he says. “But other people love the raw athleticism of it, its extreme nature. . . . Professional wrestling is choreographed; it’s entertainment. This is real combat.”
In their training, Mollring and Worsham grapple with a string of combatants on a mat at the Rancho Cordova gym. They’ve learned the hard way that training with actual blows leads to unnecessary injuries, so they focus on the wrestling and only simulate hitting their training partners.
Because California won’t let him fight, Worsham has traveled out of state to do battle – as far as Russia in April. He does this even though he suffered what David Isaacs, the UFC’s chief operating officer, called “the most serious injury we’ve had in 150 fights.”
The injury, captured in the video “Ultimate Fighting Championship, No. 9, ” which can be rented at video stores, occurred in a fight in Detroit in May 1996. In the fight, Worsham caught a knee to the chest from kickboxer Zane Frazier. Worsham managed to fight on and beat Frazier, but the kick collapsed Worsham’s lung, and he passed out after he left the ring. He later required surgery.
It’s that sort of intensity – on the video, there’s scant sign that Worsham is seriously injured, as he goes about pummeling Frazier into submission – that appeals to some and appalls others.
Defenders of ultimate fighting repeatedly say there have been no deaths, unlike in boxing. Likewise, they point out that football players are injured far more often and more seriously than ultimate fighters have been.
But as Richard Novoa, a part-time inspector for the state Athletic Commission, says, “There haven’t been that many ultimate fighting events. If there were as many as there are boxing events, you’d see them lined up outside the hospital doors.”
Dr. George Lundberg finds the distinctions between boxing and ultimate fighting to be beside the point. He doesn’t like ultimate fighting, and he wants it banned. He’s no fan of boxing, either. He’s a forensic pathologist and editor in chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association, which called for a worldwide ban on boxing in 1983.
“(Boxing, and now ultimate fighting) are the only sports in the United States, including full-contact karate, in which one wins the event by damaging the opponent’s health, by knocking them out, ” he says from his Chicago office. “That’s morally wrong and sets it apart from football, in which there are injuries, but they are a byproduct. You are not deliberately harming your opponent’s health.”
Ultimate fighters argue that no one is fighting against his will, that the fights take place between consenting adults who have trained for the purpose.
“This is a good way for me to support my family, ” says Worsham. “It’s on pay-per-view. You have to call in; we’re not forcing anyone to watch it. I personally am a family man – I don’t subscribe to Playboy, but if people want that, that’s their choice. This is my choice.”
“It makes no difference, ” says the Athletic Commission’s DeCuir. “Our responsibility is to protect the participants, whether they are consenting adults or not.”
Back at the gym, as Worsham takes on one fighter after another in a half-hour, unbroken string of bouts that are meant to increase his endurance, a defender of his right to fight stands by and watches.
Lisa Worsham has been married to Cal for 14 years. They have two girls and a boy, ages 7, 10 and 12. “It doesn’t bother me, ” she says as she watches her husband grapple on the mat with Mollring. “I think it would freak some wives, but he enjoys it, and he’s good at it. It’s his dream. He’s got the Lord’s touch on him.”
As for Worsham, he’s feeling the strain of years of fighting, whether in the street or in the octagon. Sitting on a stool after his workout, a half-inch cut under his eye already starting to bruise, he grows reflective.
“I feel I’ve got the body of a 48-year-old, ” he says. “I’m getting ready for retirement. I just got my contractor’s license to open a heating and air conditioning business. I’m calling it AirCal.”