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— Inside the gym of West Little Rock Kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, Mike Wessel and Terry Smith stalk the wide mat. Smith, an experienced heavyweight boxer, wears a long gray tank top soaked in sweat. His muscles are tightly wound and his face is calm and broad. The two come together for an instant during the sixth round, throwing and blocking punches. Wessel, who weighs 260 pounds, winces. Fluorescent lights shine down as Smith throws another punch at Wessel's face - his nose starts bleeding.

Matt Hamilton and Roli Delgado, who own the gym, stand diagonally across from each other on the mat's smooth surface while the fight takes place between them. They alternate giving Wessel advice:

Mixed martial arts hits LR

Rumble at the River

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"Don't show it in your face Mike," Hamilton says.

"Hands up Mike," Delgado says.

"Don't look like you're getting beat up."

"Time it, don't turn your head."

"This is the last round, Mike."

Wessel, who works in the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville athletics department weight room, has practiced mixed martial arts - a combination of judo, boxing, kickboxing, floor grappling and Brazilian jujitsu - since January. Hamilton and Delgado, who are coaching him, pair Wessel with Smith to help prepare him for the standing elements of the sport.

RUMBLE AT THE RIVER

8 p.m. today (gates open at 7 p.m.),

Riverfest Amphitheatre, Little Rock

Tickets: Ringside seats $40, general admission $18

(501) 663 3850,

www.subzerofighting.com

After the fight, Wessel sits at the edge of the boxing ring near the mat, with beads of sweat collecting on his fire-hydrant-thick tattooed arms. Given the tough nature of mixed martial arts fighting, Wessel, 29, only has a few years left to go pro.

"There's only so much longer I'm gonna be able to take punches like that," he says. "No one's gonna beat me because I'm not conditioned - if someone beats me it's gonna be because he's a better fighter or because I made a mistake."

Wessel views mixed martial arts fighting as his last chance to prove himself.

When he played football in college, he says he was too distracted by drinking and girls to commit to the sport the way he needed to. Though many of his friends say he should be content with his job with the Razorbacks, Wessel's dream is be on a pay-per-view fight one day, duking it out and grappling on the floor while his friends watch on TV.

Tonight Wessel will fight Texan Ben Mingle at Rumble at the River. Twenty-seven other fighters from 11 gyms across the state and region will also compete at the Riverfest Amphitheatre. Mixed martial arts combines judo, boxing, kickboxing, floor grappling and submission holds of Brazilian jujitsu.

In a mixed martial arts (often shortened to MMA) match, competitors are just as likely to come crashing to the mat from jujitsu and wrestling moves as they are from punches and kicks. Hamilton and Delgado, who have competed in the sport and who started their gym last year, are sponsoring the matches.

Jeremy Smith, a fighter who trains in Batesville, started studying karate when he was 7 years old. Now 20, Smith will compete in the 11th pairing on tonight's ticket. He started doing jujitsu and training for bouts two years ago. He says he likes that the environment of mixed martial arts is less controlled and specialized than it is in karate fights.

"It's not will it work - it has to work," he says. "It works my body in a way I've never had it work before, from my neck muscles to the tips of my toes."

Mixed martial arts fighting is a relatively new phenomenon. The sport first became prominent in the early '90s with the Ultimate Fighting Championship's payper-view fights. At that time, the goal was to see which martial arts style would prevail in a fight.

"At one point MMA had no rules, it was no holds barred, anything goes, last man standing," says Marc Ratner, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Ratner came to the group last year after being a state athletic commissioner in Nevada. He says that at the commission in the early 1990s, he refused to approve the sport for Nevada - it was too bloody. But Ratner says that in the past decade the sport has become more regulated. In 2000 he was one of the members of several state athletic commissions who met to make a unified set of rules. With the regulations in place, he says mixed martial arts is spreading in popularity and more training schools are cropping up.

"It's become a real sport," he says.

David Ferguson, owner of Memphis Judo and Jiu-jitsu, will have two fighters competing in the first half of tonight's event. He will referee the second half. Ferguson first became interested in mixed martial arts in 1994 when he was 19 and saw a pay-per-view bout at a buddy's house.

"Any young man growing up wants to be the toughest," he says. "It's a primal thing."

Two years later he started training, focusing on Brazilian jujitsu because its holds and mat strategy seemed to be the most effective in the fights he saw on television.

His first fight was in a rodeo barn in Perryville in 1998.

"Nobody in the crowd knew what was going on ... it's was a bunch of people yelling, 'Hit him!'" he says. "It was so new, nobody knew how to train for it."

Ferguson says that at the time most competitors practiced just one discipline - karate, jujitsu or kickboxing. But now that the sport is taken more seriously, most train in multiple fighting styles and emphasize conditioning.

"In the early days of fights everyone would get tired," he says. "But now everyone focuses on [cardiovascular]."

Brian Davis, who owns Gracie Barra Brazilian Jiu-jitsu in Batesville, saw the sport go through a similar evolution while he was living in Germany and working for the Department of Defense. Davis, who wrestled in college, was attracted to jujitsu techniques that allow a smaller fighter to compete with a stronger, heavier opponent. Still, the sport was anarchic. Davis' first amateur fight in 2001 was in a warehouse in a small town in Germany. He knew nothing about the other fighter and won by decision - those who thought he won cheered louder than those who were booing him and throwing their cigarettes at him in the ring.

But by the time he moved to professional fights, it was as though he was competing in a different sport. In London in 2003 he fought in a large, well-lighted, octagon- shaped ring with referees and everything was "by the book."

Davis, who will have four fighters, including Jeremy Smith, compete tonight, says he tries to impart to his students what he learned during his years of competing. He tries to create a closeknit family at his gym, introducing the students in his children's classes to his adult students and regularly having barbecues. He stresses that competitions are practice, too.

"I would rather them go and lose against a better opponent and learn what they need to improve than just walk over an opponent," he says. "I train my guys 'cause I want them to learn the art."

Though some say the sport is still too violent - a recent Fox 16 special called the contests "brawls" and showed footage of a recent blood-spattered match - most who are involved with regulating the sport stress the rules.

"There's never been a serious mixed martial arts injury in the state," says Johnny Mattingly, secretary of the Arkansas State Athletic Commission. "It's probably more cuts to the face or grazes to the nose."

Unlike boxing matches that often end when one fighter is knocked out or down for the count, Mattingly says mixed martial arts fighters can "tap out," by hitting knuckles on the mat to signal the end of a fight if they're in a chokehold or otherwise overpowered.

Mattingly says the commission regulates professional mixed martial arts fights in Arkansas and supervises amateur shows like Rumble at the River.

"It's really exploded all over the country," Mattingly says. "We just try to make sure they put together a show that's safe for the fighters and the public."

In the large workout room at West Little Rock Kickboxing off Cantrell Road, Roli Delgado watches about a dozen males and one female practice throwing punches during a cardiovascular fitness class. Delgado shakes his head and smiles.

"When I first started there weren't this many people in the state doing MMA," he says.

Delgado tries to make sure that the four fighters from his gym who will compete tonight are thoroughly trained, saying the key to winning is practice and conditioning: "It's not some mystical kung fu thing. It's athletic."

He says that he and Hamilton have focused hard on matching opponents fairly for tonight's bouts.

"We're not looking for a knockout," he says. "It's about really knowing who the fighters are."

After the cardiovascular fitness class, four pairs of men prepare to spar. Some who are planning to compete at Rumble at the River step into the boxing ring with Terry Smith.

On one side of the mat, Kevin Sniff, 24, sits with a towel around his neck after boxing with Smith. A waiter at Loca Luna, Sniff bikes to the gym every morning. He works out, teaches a children's class before biking to his job.

If he can, at night he returns to the gym to spar and then bicycles home to North Little Rock. Sniff, fighting in the third to last pairing on tonight's bill, says he has learned a lot since his first mixed martial arts fight in Sherwood last year, which he lost after getting hit by a surprise punch. Since then he has been training harder and practicing more moves. He has lost 35 pounds and says he is ready to win tonight's fight.

"That fight set the bar I needed to reach," he says. "Prior to that show I didn't know what it was - now I know."

Hamilton, 33, who was Delgado's instructor before the two started the gym last year, says his early fights were in barns and tractor warehouses. As the last of the fighters leave the gym, he says his goal is to give them everything he never had. He and Delgado have installed showers, a boxing ring and a large practice mat. He wants all the fighters to feel like they're in a professional show when they compete tonight. There are referees and two 12-foot video screens.

"Some of these guys, this may be the biggest thing they do in their life," he says. "I never want any of my fighters to say, 'Man I could've won if I'd only had that.'"

Weekend, Pages 78, 79 on 07/20/2007

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