Sylvia and Arlovski Vie for UFC Heavyweight Title

Defending champion Tim Sylvia, above, meets Andrei Arlovski in a rematch for the heavyweight title at Ultimate Fighting Championship 61 in Las Vegas.
Defending champion Tim Sylvia, above, meets Andrei Arlovski in a rematch for the heavyweight title at Ultimate Fighting Championship 61 in Las Vegas. (By Jane Kalinowsky -- Associated Press)
By Andrew Levine
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 8, 2006

The Ultimate Fighting Championship, a word-of-mouth phenomenon that has evolved into North America's premier mixed martial arts organization, tonight attempts to capitalize on its burgeoning popularity with UFC 61, a pay-per-view event at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas.

The card's co-main event is a heavyweight title bout (205 to 265 pounds) between Andrei Arlovski and champion Tim Sylvia, who split their first two fights. That fight follows a light heavyweight matchup (205 pounds) between rivals Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock, a rematch of their 2002 bout in which Ortiz won via third-round TKO.

Ortiz was the face of the UFC during what he called "the dark years," a period shortly before 2001 when UFC was kept off of pay-per-view due to the perceived brutality of the sport. Shamrock, 42, is one of the most recognizable names in mixed martial arts, appearing in UFC 1 in 1993.

Just over a decade ago, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was basically a glorified, no-holds-barred toughman contest. UFC President Dana White and Zuffa LLC took over in 2001 and since then the UFC has tightened its rules and restrictions. It banned elbowing, head-butting and knee strikes to the head while on the ground, introduced weight classes and implemented various other protections, such as referee training, and mandatory fight doctors. The changes satisfied various state athletic commissions and allowed the UFC to move toward mainstream legitimacy.

The UFC has flooded the market with events over the past year, and a deal with Spike TV has produced a hit reality television show, several live cards and massive amounts of archived footage that captured the attention of 18- to 34-year-old males. The reality show, "The Ultimate Fighter," recently completed its third season and is the network's highest-rated program.

Tonight's show follows May's UFC 60 in Los Angeles, the company's first card there since being sanctioned by the California State Athletic Commission. It was reportedly the UFC's previous highest-selling pay-per-view event.

"When me and my partners first got into this, we said, 'This thing is a diamond in the rough,' " said White, whose company is now sanctioned in 22 states. "We always believed in it. The question was how do you take this thing that wasn't even on pay-per-view and bring it to the masses? That meant getting it on television."

The exposure familiarized a new audience to the nuances of mixed martial arts, which combines various disciplines from wrestling to jujitsu to kickboxing.

Like in boxing, competitors can win by knockout, technical knockout or decision. But the fights, which take place in a caged octagon and are normally set for three or five five-minute rounds, early on alienated the average viewer with both its grappling aspect and the ability to win via submission.

"I've been a fan of the sport for almost 14 years now -- even before I started fighting and I really saw a sport that could catch fire," Ortiz said. "It had everything. The spectacle of pro wrestling and the reality of boxing. I think once we got on Spike, fans got educated. . . . They realize we're not just falling off a bar stool and getting into a street fight."

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