Note: Please upgrade your Flash plug-in to view our enhanced content.
The Ref (Video by John Poole/washingtonpost.com; Additional footage by: Alexandra Garcia/washingtonpost.com)
Correction to This Article
An earlier edition of this story incorrectly stated that Quinton "Rampage" Jackson lost a fight at UFC 71 to Chuck Liddell. Rampage, in fact, beat Liddell to capture the UFC light heavyweight title. This version has been corrected.
Cover Story

Anything Goes

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Luke O'Brien
Sunday, July 15, 2007

IT IS WELL PAST MIDNIGHT WHEN MARIO YAMASAKI DECIDES HE WANTS TO CHOKE SOMEONE UNCONSCIOUS AT HIS BARBECUE. The Brazilian jiujitsu expert unfolds his brawny arms, tanned from a weekend of boating on the Potomac, and leans forward in his chair. A floodlight flickers on and off. His Rockville neighborhood is quiet.

"I could choke you out right now," he says.

Yamasaki jerks back in his chair and pantomimes the spasms that can wrack a person who's had the blood cut off from his brain. His dark hair is gelled up, a style one of his friends describes as "Japanese porcupine." His eyes crinkle when he's happy. They are crinkling now. When he stops twitching, a grin spreads.

Before grilling steaks this evening, Yamasaki snapped on latex gloves, the same kind he wears when he referees bouts to protect him from blood-borne diseases. His mother and his wife made farofa, a tangy dish of yucca flour, bacon and onions. His preschool daughter made wet handprints on the patio tiles. His buddies arrived with cases of Heineken and Beck's, then sat in lawn chairs for hours, telling jokes and lapsing into Portuguese. It was the kind of happy suburban scene that makes you believe the 43-year-old Yamasaki when he calls himself a typical immigrant success story.

But Yamasaki's life is hardly typical. Every few weekends, he flies to Nevada or California and steps inside an octagonal cage or a ring to watch two men battle each other in a combat sport where almost anything goes. Punches and kicks, elbow and knee strikes, chokeholds and joint locks -- it's all legal in the fierce and fast-growing sport of mixed martial arts, a gritty blend of kickboxing, wrestling, jiujitsu and other fight disciplines.

MMA has become wildly popular in the last two years. Although it is often compared to boxing, the sports are very different. Much of MMA takes place on the ground, where grappling is essential. Combatants wear fingerless, four-ounce gloves, not 10-ouncers. MMA has little of the sweet science's ballet, but it's not without artistry: the grace of a judo throw, the intelligence of a grappling transition. Most bouts end in knockouts or submissions (where a fighter "taps out" because he's taking too much punishment). Many get bloody. For a generation of young men raised on extreme sports and energy drinks, MMA is a perfect fit.

For Yamasaki, one of the top MMA referees in the world and a local gym owner, the sport is a passion. "My love," he calls it. As MMA has evolved from backwater spectacle to international phenomenon, Yamasaki has often been, literally, in the thick of the action. Now, he is one of the sport's elder statesmen -- few people have his expertise, experience and lengthy record of involvement. To do his job, Yamasaki must know bloodshed. He must be intimate with violence. And he is. He's been in countless fights and beaten up countless people. He's cracked heads and garroted throats all over the world. And yet, as a referee, protecting others is Yamasaki's priority. Here he is, the man in charge of fighter safety, standing on a patio and laughing about choking someone into anoxic seizure. The man who makes sure no one dies.

Well, who better?

DECEMBER 30, 2006. NEARLY 14,000 FANS FILL THE MGM GRAND IN LAS VEGAS FOR "UFC 66: LIDDELL VS. ORTIZ." More than 1 million more watch at home on pay-per-view. It is the biggest MMA fight in U.S. history and will gross nearly $50 million, according to industry insiders. Yamasaki -- one of just seven MMA refs licensed in Nevada -- is the referee.

The main event is a classic MMA matchup: A grappler, Tito Ortiz, tries to take a striker, Chuck "the Iceman" Liddell, to the ground and "submit" him. But Liddell, the reigning champ at the time, is one of the sport's preeminent knockout artists. Near the end of the third round, he drops Ortiz with a right, pounces and rains down blows.

This is where the referee earns his keep. There are no 10-counts or standing eights in MMA, no time granted for a fighter to recover from a knockdown. If a fighter can't intelligently defend himself, the bout must be stopped. It's a split-second decision in a battle fought at breakneck speed. A ref must be intimate with violence. He must know, for example, that a tiny laceration through the eyelid, which could damage the cornea, can be more severe than a gaping wound on the head; that a fallen fighter who lands on his side rather than his back is in danger because he is less able to protect himself from more blows. End a fight early, and fans loathe you. End it late, and, well, it's not even a choice. Ortiz is in a fetal position. Yamasaki jumps in.

The arena erupts in a throaty, boozy roar. The fans cheer for Liddell, but for the action, too -- for the right to watch a true blood sport.

It wasn't always this way. For years, MMA battled for acceptance. The sport was once banned in most of the country. Until last year, the mainstream media largely ignored it. MMA was considered too underground, too barbaric, too much like pro wrestling to warrant serious coverage. What changed things was money. A 2005 Spike TV reality show, "The Ultimate Fighter," boosted awareness of the sport. Then, last year, a free televised fight between Ortiz and Ken Shamrock rated higher among the coveted 18- to 34-year-old male demographic than the first game of baseball's American League Championship Series, according to Nielsen Media Research. In 2006, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport's premiere MMA organization, held 10 pay-per-view events, including UFC 66, that together raked in $250 million in live gate and TV revenue, according to industry insiders. (The UFC doesn't release financial info but keeps about half of the TV revenue.) To put that into perspective, consider this: In 2006, according to Forbes magazine, the Boston Red Sox had revenue of $234 million.

MMA "is at the level of pro boxing now," says Keith Kizer, the executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission. "More promoters are applying for MMA licenses than boxing licenses." Showtime is airing fights; HBO and the UFC have been trying to hammer out a partnership.

But the ultimate breakthrough for MMA was the Liddell-Ortiz fight. When Yamasaki raised the Iceman's arm in victory and the audience roared, it was more than just a cheer. It was the sound of a young sport coming into its own.

The story of MMA is an immigrant tale writ large, one of bruising adaptation. And Yamasaki is very much a part of it. The sport, it seems, has always needed people willing to choke other people unconscious at barbecues. Yamasaki's enthusiasm for MMA is perhaps best witnessed from the couch in his living room, watching old fights with him on a widescreen TV. Barefoot, in shorts and a tank top that shows off the samurai tattoo on his right shoulder, he reenacts punches as they come in -- "Pow, pow, pow!" -- and demonstrates grappling moves on the carpet. His daughter, Sophia, joins him, wearing a Hello Kitty skull-and-crossbones shirt. "Te amo," she says. He kisses her. His wife, Alessandra, tells him dinner is ready.

"Two more minutes," Yamasaki says. He must have seen this fight a dozen times.

YAMASAKI STALKS INTO HIS ACADEMY HEADQUARTERS IN ROCKVILLE ON A MUGGY SUMMER AFTERNOON. The gym is stifling. Capoeira music pulses in the background. This is Yamasaki's domain, and as he slips into his gi (the one with "Bad Boy" splashed on the pants), heads turn. "He's got that walk," says Rick Espinoza, whose kids are enrolled in classes here. "He reminds me of a shogun."

Or a gaucho. Yamasaki loves rodeo. He once dreamed of being a sheriff. He decided to come to the United States from Brazil after watching "Urban Cowboy" as a teenager. He walks in short steps, feet splayed outwards, slightly bowlegged. It's the confident amble of a trained martial artist. But it's also a gunslinger's gait.

On the mat, he starts rolling with a student, Andre Margutti. Yamasaki pins Margutti under his weight, controlling his hips. Yamasaki's nose trickles blood. It drips on Margutti's cheek. They both ignore it. "He's nonstop," Margutti says later. "Very aggressive. You don't see it, and then the technique comes." Yamasaki's trademark technique is the kimura, an armlock that strains the shoulder. It's the special move of his character in a UFC video game.

Descriptions of Yamasaki's past are peppered with tales of dust-ups -- at school, on the streets, in bars. "I used to fight in the streets every day," he recalls wistfully. "On the cement. No gloves, no protection, no nothing. You grew up like that."

He remembers one donnybrook at the Saloon Cowboy, a Sao Paulo honky-tonk with a mechanical bull in the middle of the bar. Twenty-five years ago, if you liked country music, there was no better place. "I used to go there Monday through Monday," Yamasaki says.

One night, the then-18-year-old targeted a hulk dominating the arm-wrestling matches at the saloon. "I said, 'Yo, big guy, you piece of [crap], come here,'" Yamasaki remembers. The two squared off and locked hands. Before his opponent could ready himself, Yamasaki slammed the man's arm down. In short, he cheated. "This guy was pissed," he says.

The result was a riot. Yamasaki clambered onto the bull's back and drop-kicked the big man. Broken glass. Flying fists.

Yamasaki says he escaped with the help of a police escort.

To be clear, MMA is not street fighting. It's a sanctioned athletic contest with a laundry list of rules -- no eye-gouging, biting, stomping, etc. But the sport has its origins in precisely the type of brawls that Yamasaki recounts. Brazil's no-holds-barred fight culture -- called vale tudo, or "anything goes" -- was its spawning ground.

Vale tudo fights became popular in Brazil in the early 1900s when two brothers, Carlos and Helio Gracie, began modifying the jiujitsu they'd learned from a Japanese champion living in Brazil. The wispy brothers tested out new methods in street fights. Lots of them. The result was a smooth grappling system that favored leverage and technique over strength. Exported to the United States, Brazilian jiujitsu spurred the creation of modern MMA. It is also Yamasaki's specialty, though he didn't start off a jiujitsu fighter. At age 3, Yamasaki began studying judo with his father, Shigueru, a national judo champion and coach of the Brazilian judo team. Yamasaki was more or less raised in a dojo, where the love often came with lumps.

"I always had to prove myself," Yamasaki says. "I went to a camp where they wake you up at 5 in the morning and throw cold water on you. They made us do 1,000 sit-ups and 500 push-ups. Every time you did something wrong, you bowed your head, and they hit their knuckles on you. That's the judo mentality."

A fighter who was also the son of a fighter, Yamasaki constantly had to take on other martial artists. He won tournaments throughout Brazil, including the Sao Paulo judo championships. But he didn't always emerge on top. "One thing I learned in my country was to lose," says Yamasaki, who came up a match short from being a national judo finalist. "Life was not as easy as they teach you here."

Yamasaki's most significant loss was to Marcelo Behring, the prize pupil of Rickson Gracie, who is considered the best Brazilian jiujitsu player of all time. When Yamasaki was 18, Behring walked into Yamasaki's gym and thrashed him. "I felt like I was a 2-year old," Yamasaki says. On the spot, he switched from judo, a discipline that emphasizes throws, to the ground game of jiujitsu, training under Behring. Soon enough, he was trying out new moves in Saloon Cowboy.

IN 1993, MEMBERS OF THE GRACIE FAMILY ORGANIZED THE FIRST VALE TUDO-STYLE TOURNAMENT IN NORTH AMERICA, a pay-per-view event in Denver with eight martial artists scrapping in a cage. The first Ultimate Fighting Champ-ionship had few rules and much mayhem, and it pitted disciplines against one another to see which style was best. In the opening match, a savate expert kicked a sumo wrestler in the face and sent a tooth flying. In the finals, 175-pound Royce Gracie choked out his much bigger opponent.

It was shocking, thrilling stuff. Serious fighters saw that Brazilian jiujitsu beat all comers, and soon everyone was studying it.

World-class kickboxers and wrestlers joined the fray. What had once been a clash of styles became a cross-pollination.

To detractors, however, no-holds-barred fighting was a Roman spectacle. High-profile critics such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) quickly moved to stop it. By the late 1990s, most states had banned the UFC. MMA continued to flourish in places such as Japan, attracting millions of fans. But in the United States, the UFC's owners were relegated to the few venues where the fights were still legal -- Dothan, Ala., Bay St. Louis, Miss., Lake Charles, La. Still, the UFC continued to refine the sport here, adding weight classes, judges and rules to increase safety and appease critics. Out went nasty moves such as spine attacks and head butts. No more hair-pulling, clavicle-grabbing or groin attacks. In came expert referees such as Yamasaki, who reffed his first fight at UFC 20 in 1999.

Today Yamasaki does about 15 events a year for various state athletic commissions, two or three fights each card. (Referees do not work for the UFC or other promotions.) He makes $1,000 per event in Nevada, a couple hundred more in California and New Jersey. The perks are few: a nice hotel; UFC swag; low-watt, pay-per-view celebrity. Mostly, his reward is to get splattered with blood, yelled at by drunks and bashed on fanboy Web sites. On the forums of Sherdog.com, a popular MMA site, Yamasaki can't ever seem to win -- he is described as both the "early stoppage king" and the guy who needs a "near-death KO for him to stop a fight."

"You've got two guys' lives in your hands," UFC president Dana White says about being an MMA ref. "It's the hardest job in sports."

Yamasaki doesn't care. "I'd do it for free," he says. "That's how much I love it."

Other than John McCarthy, MMA's longest-tenured ref and one of Yamasaki's close friends, Yamasaki has more experience than any ref in the sport. That doesn't stop controversy from finding him. In 2005, Yamasaki reffed a UFC fight between Phil "the New York Badass" Baroni and Pete "Drago" Sell. In the third round, Sell caught Baroni in a guillotine choke, basically a reverse headlock. A guillotine can put someone out quickly, and Sell had the choke sunk in for about 40 seconds. Because of Baroni's position -- facedown in a corner of the cage -- Yamasaki couldn't see that the fighter had passed out. He couldn't check Baroni's hands to see if they were limp or twitching. "The worst thing for an MMA ref is when a fighter's being choked and he's facedown and you can't see," McCarthy says.

Sell says Baroni was unconscious for much of the 40 seconds. Baroni declined to comment for this story, citing his concern that it might anger Yamasaki. But David Watson, the chief ringside physician for the Nevada Athletic Commission, didn't have the same compunction.

"I had a clear view," Watson says. "It felt to me like eight or 10 seconds longer than I would have liked. But I don't think it hurt Phil in the slightest."

When Sell flipped over, Baroni regained consciousness and tapped out. According to Watson, it wasn't a perilous amount of time to be out. But it looked frightening to spectators, and Yamasaki came under fire. It wasn't the first time. He missed an illegal blow to the groin in a championship fight between Matt Hughes and Frank Trigg. It almost cost Hughes the fight, and Yamasaki was excoriated on Internet forums. Yamasaki admits making mistakes but defends his overall record. "Out of 100 fights, I have maybe three or four questionable calls," he says. "I see things other people don't. I can see when a guy doesn't want to fight."

This doesn't always sit well with fans. The referee in MMA, perhaps more than in any other sport, must also be a stage manager. The fans want action, and the rules compel the ref to provide it. The most notable provision -- the "stand-up" rule, adopted in 1997 -- lets refs intervene in a fight that has slowed to a stalemate on the ground, get the fighters back on their feet and then set them back at each other. In the early days of MMA, grapplers would inevitably take down strikers and grind out unaesthetic wins that bored fans. The stand-up rule forced grapplers to learn how to punch and kick. It made the sport multidimensional, exciting.

It also gave refs another element to contend with in a sport where danger is ever present. "Everybody wants somebody to get knocked out, and one, two, three more punches," Yamasaki says. But, "are you just gonna let him get hurt for nothing? We are here for the safety of the fighters. I try to give a good show, but the fighters first. Safety first."

So when a fighter falls, the calculation must happen instantaneously: How badly hurt is he? Is he defending himself? How much damage can he absorb? Can the show go on?

IN 1988, YAMASAKI ORGANIZED THE FIRST INDOOR RODEO IN BRAZIL. The prize was a group trip to the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association finals in Las Vegas. Yamasaki, then 24, went along with the winner (who happened to be a friend of his), watched broncos and bulls for a week and then headed east to Washington, where an acquaintance had offered to help him find work. With $1,000 in his pocket, Yamasaki was chasing the American dream. It wasn't easy. He spent his first U.S. Christmas in an old Chevette, crying from loneliness. "It was the saddest holiday I ever had," he says. He decided to give Washington a year.

He took whatever work he could find. "I cleaned gutters, cut grass, did wallpaper," he says. "Every time I did something, I was proud." He worked as a bouncer in nightclubs. His friends remember the 185-pound Yamasaki subduing a 300-pound man by himself. He drove trucks, painted houses, even taught the lambada on weekends.

In 1991, he almost lost his best job to date -- waiting tables at Georgetown's Bistro Francais -- to John Riggins. In the middle of Yamasaki's shift, a co-worker shouted that someone was "moving" Yamasaki's pickup, which was parked perpendicularly behind another truck in the back alley. Yamasaki rushed outside. He says he found Riggins repeatedly T-boning Yamasaki's Nissan with the back of his truck. "He pushed it through the alley," Yamasaki says. The Hall of Fame running back known to Redskins fans as the "Diesel" then lurched off, his truck scraping the sides of buildings as he left, according to Yamasaki.

In a deposition, Riggins would say he only pushed the Nissan to get it out of his way, but he acknowledged he'd been drinking for six hours before the incident. A local garage estimated the damages to Yamasaki's Nissan at almost $3,000. When Yamasaki asked Riggins to fix his ride, Riggins declined. Yamasaki sued. Riggins countersued, claiming Yamasaki was trying to extort money from him.

None of this pleased Yamasaki. "You know what I wanted?" he growls. "For him to hit me. Then I was gonna take him down and choke him out. Today, we sign papers and fight legally. Why not fight with these?" He holds up his fists.

When asked if violence solves anything, he is quick to respond: "Lots of times."

Riggins settled the dispute by paying Yamasaki a few thousand dollars. (Riggins declined to comment for this article.) Yamasaki kept his job, kept working and eventually opened his own business -- a granite and marble fabrication and installation company. But what made him happy was training fighters. When he first arrived in Washington, he tried to teach a jiujitsu class in a health club in Chantilly. At the time, he was the only Brazilian jiujitsu black belt in a sea of karate and tae kwan do instructors. But he was hard on his students, just as his masters had been hard on him.

"I kicked the [crap] out of them," he admits. They all left. In 1994, a year after the first UFC tournament, Yamasaki tried again. He rented space in a Rockville gym and put up 1,000 fliers around town. Eight students showed up. Four were his friends. Four were from the fliers. This time, Yamasaki let his students beat him up. "I Americanized," he says. His school grew to 400 students. Now there are around 700.

Today, of the more than a dozen gyms in the Washington area offering Brazilian jiujitsu classes, Yamasaki's is still the best known. He and his younger brother, Fernando, also a jiujitsu champion, run the main gym in Rockville and six affiliate schools in the D.C. area. But perhaps the top MMA trainer in the area is Lloyd Irvin, a former student of Yamasaki's. Yamasaki has nothing bad to say about Irvin. Irvin has nothing bad to say about Yamasaki. But they eye each other as befits wary crosstown rivals. Yamasaki's primary focus has always been traditional jiujitsu. Irvin emphasizes cross-training and has capitalized on the surging popularity of MMA. A visit to his spacious gym in Camp Springs, Md., illustrates the contrast: full-contact sparring and plenty of grappling in a cage. His fighters are rising quickly in the sport.

Yamasaki used to have the best fight team in the area. Six years ago, his main kickboxing instructor left to train with another black belt and open his own gym nearby. He took five of Yamasaki's best students with him. The instructor and many of the fighters eventually wound up with Irvin. "In Brazil, they are very loyal," Yamasaki says. "Here, they're not." It still pains him.

Around the same time, Yamasaki started doing granite full time. His Beltsville company, Akropolis, lays stone all over the D.C. area. He did 370 bathrooms in the JW Marriott Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. He recently landed a $3.2 million contract for the Ritz-Carlton Residences in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Stone makes money for Yamasaki. But it has distanced him from his academy and from fighting. He still trains regularly and plans to enter the over-40 black belt division of the 2008 Pan-American championship, one of the biggest jiujitsu tournaments held in North America. But he teaches only two classes a week. Most of the instruction is handled by Fernando and another black belt.

"When I started doing the granite, things changed," says Yamasaki, who got engaged in 2003 and was soon married with a kid on the way. "I changed. I had to feed my family." He cracks his knuckles. "I could never make more than $3,000 a month in my gym. Never. I had to make a choice."

BY 2001, WITH THE UFC GOVERNED BY STRICT RULES and under the influential ownership of Dana White and casino magnates Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, state athletic commissions started to reconsider the ban on MMA. New Jersey approved events. Nevada and other states followed suit. The District legalized MMA in April. Today, more than 30 states allow MMA, and fights play to packed houses in major cities around the world. The UFC recently sold out events in Manchester, England, and Belfast. The Netherlands is an emerging MMA hotbed. And Russia can lay claim to perhaps the best fighter in the world, heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko.

But MMA now has a very American tinge. It is mass market, big business, with the kind of cool that gets name-checked on hip TV shows such as "Entourage" and attracts thousands of fans to pre-fight weigh-ins. Fighters in small events may only earn a few hundred dollars per bout, but the salaries of headliners in major promotions such as the UFC have grown steadily (although they still lag far behind what star boxers make). At UFC 71 in May, Liddell made $500,000 for a fight that lasted less than two minutes. His opponent, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, made $225,000 for winning. Those purses, another sign of the sport's progress, would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Even McCain, whom White credits with forcing MMA to establish more rules and oversight, has grudgingly come around, acknowledging that "the sport has grown up and that rules have been adopted to give its athletes better protections and to ensure better and fairer competition."

And by all best estimates, contemporary MMA, despite its carnage, is safer than boxing, according to Watson and other fight doctors. Boxing averages about 10 deaths a year, mainly caused by accumulated head trauma during a bout. Only one death has been recorded in MMA, in an unsanctioned event in Russia in 1998.

"There really is no literature, so we extrapolate," Watson says. "In MMA, a lot of knockouts come very quickly. And because they have submissions, there are other ways to end the fight. We're not dealing with people getting multiple head blows."

Although the possibility of serious injury or death always lingers in this punishing profession, MMA can thank its referees for a commendable safety record to date. Before a fight, it's just as important for the refs to get into the proper mind-set as the combatants. "You can see my face when I walk in the octagon," Yamasaki says. "I change." The normally lighthearted Yamasaki becomes laser-focused during a fight, with an ability to tune out distractions and make instant decisions that keep fighters safe. "My mind works a little faster," he says. It has to.

EVERY MMA FIGHTER LOSES. Backstage at the D.C. Armory one night in May, Orange County middleweight Sam Liera comes to terms with this reality. Liera gulps air, slumping on the ground near an open door, trying to escape the heat inside the arena. His cornermen ice the welts on his face. No one says much. Liera's three-round fight with Rodrigo Botti, a jiujitsu black belt from Sao Paulo, is among the best at the Mixed Martial Arts Championship, Washington's inaugural MMA event.

Yamasaki worked extensively with the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission and sank $33,000 of his own money into this show. His friend Omar Olumee, a martial arts instructor and the event's promoter, took out a second mortgage to bring MMA to the District. Even so, there were hiccups. The ropes and the canvas were too small for the ring. The main event was a letdown: A fighter hurt his knee in the first round and couldn't continue. Another fighter got rocked by illegal blows that escaped the attention of a novice MMA ref. At one point, according to ringside fans, a woman in the audience even choked out another fan, leaving him twitching on the ground. Overall, though, it was an entertaining card. Nearly 2,200 fans showed up, including Yamasaki's mother and his wife, then eight months pregnant with a son. The gross gate was $84,510. The fighters were little-known but competent. More important, they were game. They know small shows like these are feeders for the UFC and other big promotions, such as Showtime's "EliteXC." Do well, and you can quickly get a call up.

During their fight, Liera and Botti make the most of their opportunity. Yamasaki steps to the middle of the ring to start the bout. The fighters bounce with anticipation. Most referees have a catchphrase they yell at this moment. The best known is McCarthy's "Let's get it on!" A marketing wiz in the early days of the UFC wanted Yamasaki to scream "Let's rock-and-roll!" Hell, no, Yamasaki says.

Yamasaki turns to the fighters: "Are you ready? Are you ready?" They both nod. "Let's go! Come on!" He slaps his hands together and backs off. The two 185-pounders advance to the center of the ring and start uncorking punches.

The frenzied action lasts almost 15 minutes. Liera lands thudding overhand rights, repeatedly clubbing Botti to the canvas. But the Brazilian is better on the ground, which is where most fights wind up. The momentum swings back and forth. By the end, both fighters are gassing. They can barely lift their hands. In the last minute, Botti secures another takedown. Liera, too exhausted to protect himself, still won't quit. Yamasaki does it for him.

"I understand his position," a disappointed Liera says later. "I wasn't really defending anymore. It was a fair stoppage."

Lucky for Liera, in MMA a loss doesn't carry the stigma that it does in boxing, where a couple of trouncings can derail a fighter's career. Fans accept that the best often lose. It's part of the game.

The crowd files out of the D.C. Armory. Yamasaki strips off his latex gloves. Tomorrow, he will go back to a place where you fight with papers, not fists. But right now, as the lights dim and the welts rise, Yamasaki is in his world. Here, everything he has learned and taught is distilled into 15 ferocious minutes in a ring or a cage. In MMA, the philosophy that Yamasaki has lived by becomes real:

You win some. You lose some. You keep fighting.

Luke O'Brien lives in Washington and is a lifelong fan of combat sports. He can be reached at lukegames@gmail.com.


More From The Washington Post Magazine

[Post Hunt]

Post Hunt

See the results from our crazy, brain-teasing game.

[Date Lab]

Date Lab

We set up two local singles on a blind date.

[D.C. 1791 to Today]

Explore History

3-D models show the evolution of Washington landmarks.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity