Los Angeles Times, November 14, 2002

By James Verini

Whatever happened to that high school wrestling star, the one who practiced chokeholds in the cafeteria? Or that kid down the block who was always starting fights? And what about that linebacker in college who got all the girls but never quite graduated?

Chances are, their fates are dull. They ended up teaching gym or, worse, becoming CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. But there is a slim chance that one or two of them ended up in the Ultimate Above Ground Fighting league, a never-never land for ex-bullies and barely reformed keg-throwers everywhere.

The league is holding its Extreme Cage Fighting Championship on Friday at the Hollywood Palladium. (Note to dads: Don’t bring the family. In addition to copious amounts of blood, sweat and beers that will soak the evening’s seven cage matches, the actresses of adult-oriented Wicked Films will serve as round signalers.)

We caught up with the men of the league during a workout at the Beverly Hills Jiu-Jitsu Club. On hand were Darrin Dotson, the mind behind the as yet little-known league, as well as Mark “The Bear” Smith and Chad “Battle Dome Warrior” Bannon.

What exactly is it that appeals to Dotson about men in spandex beating on each other mercilessly?

“It’s pure,” Dotson, 37, said of the league, which allows everything from Thai kick-boxing to Greco-Roman wrestling to uppercuts. “A boxing match — you watch it, and one guy obviously won, but it goes to the other guy. But this is a sport where you get your money’s worth…. If you sit in the front row, you feel the hits.”

Smith, Bannon and another fighter, Antonio McKee, were pacing. They seemed eager to hit something.

Dotson, a former minor league baseball player with the defunct Valley Giants (he’s also been an actor, club promoter and salon owner) had always been a fan of violent combat sports. About 10 years ago, he stumbled upon an Ultimate Fighting Championship match on pay-per-view — the championship is the major leagues of mixed martial arts fighting, as the genre is known — and fell in love. In 1999, after finding investors and persuading the California Gaming Commission to take him seriously, he formed the league.

“I was a club promoter in Hollywood for a while,” Dotson said. “The only difference here is that instead of sex and alcohol, it’s alcohol and violence.” The women of Wicked Films notwithstanding, of course.

Smith walked over to a punching bag draped in a jujitsu uniform and kicked it in the stomach.

“When I saw these guys crawl into a steel cage and beat on each other, I thought that was just the coolest thing,” said Bannon, 31, a lifelong athlete and casual brawler whose outsized physique and glower give him the appearance of a G.I. Joe action figure. Bannon originally came to L.A. to get into action movies (he played a red ape soldier in the remake of “Planet of the Apes”).

As to the cage’s cool factor, Smith agreed. “You’re going to find the true meaning of, of … ”

“Of life,” Dotson interjected.

“Yeah,” said Smith, whose legs and head boast numerous visible scars. “Of what your body’s capable of.” A soft-spoken, 300-pound former high school defensive tackle who looks more pastry chef than action figure, Smith, 28, used to start street fights in his spare time. Now he trains in Brazilian jujitsu and vents his wrath in the cage. What’s left he saves for unruly customers at the Candy Cat topless bar, where he mans the door.

McKee, a sprightly bon vivant who weighs half of what Smith does, put Dotson in a headlock. Does he worry about bodily harm? “Look at my face. I’m a beautiful guy,” said McKee. “I don’t get hit a lot.”

McKee, 32, is a former state championship wrestler who has owned car stereo, video and carpet cleaning stores. “I lived the life of an entrepreneur and made lots of money. But I felt like I was missing something.”

McKee, who claimed he once trained by paying gangster friends from his native Long Beach $500 apiece to fight him in his garage, has high hopes for the league and himself: “It’s going to take a big organization to put a fight together for me to show the world what I’m capable of.”

Dotson, who readily refers to himself as a “mediocre promoter” in comparison with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, is more nearsighted but hopeful too. “Our first match was at a Marriott hotel. Now we’ve got the Palladium, which holds 2,000 seats.”

“I look on it as a good thing that I’m doing,” he continued. “Without me, a lot of these guys would have nowhere to go.”