Trying UFC for the first time.
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy
Ultimate Fighting was invented to answer the question that had persisted since the karate boom of the '60s: Which fighting style is most effective? Is my Tiger Crane kung fu deadlier than your karate? Who wins when a good boxer meets a good kickboxer? Can a wrestler beat a kung fu expert? The first Ultimate Fighting Championship was held in 1993. It was conducted in an octagonal cage, with no rules and no holds barred. Since then it has evolved into something more refined, with a few basic ground rules (no head-butts or eye-gouging) and a referee. The combatants still fight in a cage, but mainly as a safety issue, because fighters grappling on the ground can roll right out of a ring. The UFC has inspired a passionate grassroots fan base that doesn't just watch, but also trains and fights. I was shocked to discover that there are hundreds of amateur cage-fighting events a year in the U.S. "Fight Club" is alive and well.

The first three UFC events were dominated by a slender Brazilian named Royce Gracie, who won by taking the fight to the ground and using his family's Brazilian jujitsu to control his opponents.

The Gracie victories stood the American martial arts world on its head. All these guys who had been doing karate for 20 years and who had their own schools suddenly realized that they had an Achilles heel: the ground game. If the fight went to the ground (and it nearly always does), their crisp kicks and punches were useless.

So everyone scrambled to learn Brazilian jujitsu, and what has emerged is a new style, mixed martial arts. The first American to effectively blend boxing, kickboxing, and muay Thai with free-style wrestling and jujitsu was Pat Miletich, and he changed the sport forever.

Pat "the Croatian Sensation" Miletich was born and bred in Iowa, the wrestling capital of the U.S. After college he boxed and kickboxed professionally for five years, then got interested in the early UFC world and sought out the best trainers in the country. "I wanted to win a championship to give my mom something to smile about," he told me.

Before Pat, UFC fighters would stick to their one discipline and use it for everything, or maybe they were able to do two styles well. But Pat had it all: He could box and wrestle, he had submissions, he had takedowns and good kicks, and he understood how to put them all together – especially the transitions between styles, which is perhaps the most important part of professional MMA. He could find the weak spot in any fighter, then match his style to his opponent's weakness with brutal efficiency. Pat is also tougher than anyone I've ever met: He has never been put down by a punch to the head in his entire career. At 35, he is semiretired as a fighter, but is now widely regarded as the best MMA trainer in the world.

Pat is also friendly, charismatic, and fun to be with. He has two false front teeth he likes to pull out so he can give you a big gap-toothed, hayseed "I'm a country idiot" grin. His secret ambition is to climb Mount Everest, because the first book he ever read was an account of Edmund Hillary's first ascent.

My dirty little rental apartment is across the alley from the gym, and every morning I wake up in pain. I coined the term car wreck-itis: that feeling of having been in a car accident the night before, where everything is strained and black-and-blue, and little muscles you didn't know existed are ripped to shreds. Getting out of bed takes half an hour. At the gym someone asks me how I'm doing and I say, "Oh, not bad, a little car wreck-itis this morning..."

Tuesdays and Thursdays are for grappling, called "rolling," two classes during the day and an open session at night. There is nothing worse than being on the ground with a good ground-fighter; it's like being in the water with a shark. You're struggling, desperate to escape, and suddenly you can't breathe, you're smothered, you can't see, and your arms are getting twisted off, so you "tap," and it's all over. Tapping is how you let your opponent know you concede the fight, that he's caught you in a "submission." A submission is when you get your opponent in an arm-bar, or a knee-bar, or a choke; essentially threatening him with a broken limb or being choked unconscious. So he taps out, and you win.

As a novice, I get yanked, cranked, and thrashed by everyone who can get his hands on me. My biceps hurt so bad I cornered Pat about it, and he looked thoughtful and massaged my arm a bit and asked, "Are you sure it isn't a case of wuss-itis?" I laughed. What else could I do? Pat is so tough, I think it's a little hard for him to understand the difficulties the rest of us might have.

As the home of team Miletich, Champions Fitness Center has a roster that reads like a who's who of mixed martial arts. Jens "Little Evil" Pulver is a five-time world champion, and at 155 pounds hits harder than guys twice his size. Matt Hughes, Jason Black, and "Ruthless" Robbie Lawler, a crowd favorite for his explosiveness, are three of the top 10 welterweights in the world. Tony Fryklund is the badly underrated 185-pounder (he should rank in the top 10). Jeremy Horn is a legend at 28, with a record of 112-6, and Tim Sylvia is the dominant heavyweight in America.

Besides these guys, there are a dozen or so pro fighters who are up-and-coming, men like Spencer Fisher, Rory Markham, and Sam Hoger. They all have other jobs. Sam, a 22-year-old heavyweight, works as an environmental lobbyist and is getting his MBA. He's also dead set on Harvard Law.

They are all different, but they each love to fight. I end up talking a lot with Tony "the Freak" Fryklund, partly because we discovered that we went to the same junior high – my mom was even one of his teachers.