Caleb’s Cage

When he was eight, his porn-mogul uncle killed his father in a Shakespearean family feud. Now grown up, Artie Mitchell's son meets his demons in the ring.

Caleb Mitchell sat in the darkness of the O’Farrell Theatre in San Francisco one day last month, enjoying a lap dance from a woman with long jet-black hair, watching intently as her buttocks swirled into his lap. The nineteen-year-old was pretty smooth about the whole affair. His two teenage buddies who tagged along were also in the club, where they’d self-consciously separated themselves in the don’t-think-we’re-gay seating pattern. Unlike Caleb, both wore faces that revealed an internal mix of confusion, fear, and glee.

Caleb is comfortable inside the O’Farrell Theatre because he was raised here. His father, Artie Mitchell, opened the place with Caleb’s uncle Jim in July 1969, the Summer of Love. The Mitchell brothers pioneered the Bay Area pornography scene, made millions, lived high, then crashed hard–famously hard. In 1991, Jim drove to Artie’s house in Corte Madera and with a .22 rifle shot his kid brother twice in the chest and once in the head from a distance of three feet. Uncle Jim’s lawyers argued successfully that the shooting was an accident, a drug intervention gone “horribly awry.” He served three years for voluntary manslaughter and returned to work after his release.

Tonight at the O’Farrell, Jim is most likely upstairs making his weekly visit, tending to his books. Downstairs, Caleb is receiving his $20 lap dance. The Bee Gees tune “You Should Be Dancin'” fills the club, and the woman with the jet-black hair is now whispering a ghost story into Caleb’s ear. About three months ago, she tells him, she was walking backstage when out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of a black-and-white figure, like one from an old photograph. Focusing her eyes, she recognized the figure as Caleb’s dad. Artie didn’t move or offer a message; he just stood there, looking pissed off.

A few hours later, the woman tells Caleb, another dancer saw the ghost of Artie Mitchell. And she wasn’t the only one. On Sunday afternoons, when the theatre is mostly empty and the staff is working on a skeleton crew, weird, unexplainable things have happened. Doors have closed by themselves, curtains have dropped, and on windless days, letters from the marquee outside have suddenly fluttered away into the San Francisco sky.

The stories don’t seem to faze Artie’s son. Caleb listens with a “whatever” smirk, which is just about the only thing to indicate that Caleb Mitchell is still a teenager. His Van Dyke beard and widow’s peak put a few years on him and make him look a lot like his father. Caleb walks with a stride that is all business, with the kind of seriousness that embalms those who’ve lost a parent at an early age — particularly those who, from age eight, used sentences that began, “When my uncle murdered my dad … ” From there, the world tends to assume a violent hue.

Once the dancer extricates herself from Caleb’s lap, he stands up and moves to the back of the seating area to greet a few longtime employees. Some O’Farrell staffers knew Caleb when he wasn’t allowed to play downstairs. Since the killing, and the lawsuits and settlements that followed, Caleb is no longer allowed upstairs. A big round bouncer named Bear sees Caleb all grown up, waddles over smiling, and throws a fake punch before shaking the hand of Artie’s boy.

“I hear you’re a big brawler now,” Bear says.

“Yeah,” Caleb says, adding a bashful laugh.

“Helluva a way to make a living,” Bear says, “helluva way to make a living.”

“Yeah,” Caleb says. “Yeah.”

Artie Mitchell’s son is a no-holds-barred fighter. Caleb is the US bantamweight champion for the International Fighting Championship, a league based in Southern California that promotes fights at Indian casinos. He is 4-1, his only loss coming last December in Hawaii, where he was nearly choked to death in front of three thousand spectators.

The sport is simple: Two men step into a metal cage and battle until one gives up. Competitors wear nothing more than biking shorts and thin leather knuckle gloves, and there are only three rules: no biting, no eye-gouging, and no stomping on a man’s face when he’s on the ground. Even these are recent requirements, added to appease the sport’s critics and ensure “fighter safety.” The fights, critics and fans agree, are bloody spectacles.

No-holds-barred fighting debuted in 1993 to wild success on pay-per-view television; buy rates for the sport’s premier event walloped the ratings of the popular World Wrestling Federation matches. But the new kid didn’t last long in the ring: After a few years, declining audiences — perhaps weary of the sport’s low production values and inconsistent scheduling — and heavy pressure from critics were the one-two punch that knocked it off cable, and prompted potential venues to blackball the sport.

Now, however, this raw new form of sports entertainment is making a comeback. Over the past two years, boosters have made headway in cleaning up its image. No-holds-barred fighting has regained a place on cable, debuted on prime-time network television, and found itself knocking on the threshold of mainstream acceptance. “Our sport is at a crossroads right now,” says Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport’s de facto NFL. “We have fans who are coming from boxing who are bored with what their sport has become, and we’re also taking from wrestling fans who want something more, something real.”

Indeed, two recent fights in Las Vegas sold out 10,000-seat venues. By comparison, the San Jose Earthquakes — US soccer’s reigning champions and its biggest draw — struggle to pull in that kind of a crowd. Prior to this year’s World Cup, the team’s top player, Landon Donovan, was all but unknown in the United States.

Following the UFC’s lead, a host of smaller fight leagues have sprouted up in the past two years, each hoping to cash in if the sport goes platinum.

Like most fighters, Caleb didn’t jump into this sport overnight. His training started at home long ago. As the youngest of six siblings, his early years were spent as a punching bag for his older brother, Aaron. Caleb grew up suffering through all the classics: the squatting on the chest, finger-thumps to the forehead, and knee-drops to the gut. When he managed to worm away and break free, Aaron would call him Houdini. But the older brother kept after him.

“Growing up, I was always expecting to get punched,” Caleb says, telling the story with a playful cringe. “Every time I turned a corner in my house, I expected to get hit. I walked around flinching all the time.” Sitting over a salad at a Berkeley cafe, the young pugilist bobs quickly in his chair, and then weaves to the right and left to illustrate his point. “I had to be ready.”

He still does. In just 24 hours, he will drive to an Indian reservation deep in California’s Central Valley, walk into a cage surrounded by a thousand screaming fans, and brawl with another man until one of them can brawl no longer.

Caleb Mitchell is angry. Full of rage. And it’s this anger that drives him to face off against another man to the cheers of a bloodthirsty crowd. Apart from the thrashings doled out by his older brother, life inside the Mitchell home was once rosy, Caleb says. Dad was the kind of guy who took the family on frequent fishing trips off the Mexican coast and peeled off $100 bills for the kids whenever they needed money. Artie was fun and laid-back and told Caleb he’d one day introduce him to his favorite baseball players, the ones who stopped by the family business.

Artie and Jim Mitchell made their greatest mark on pornography and American culture by filming Behind the Green Door, starring Marilyn Chambers. The movie was Artie’s idea, and according to several accounts, the porn classic turned the siblings’ $60,000 investment into $25 million. The worldwide success of the film launched the Mitchell brothers’ career as porn-movie producers and adult-theater operators. The duo embraced First Amendment issues and got cozy with the media — who knew sex could be a family business? Artie was nicknamed “Artie Party” for his drinking and drug use, while Jim, the elder brother, was characterized as the penny-pinching orderly, Artie’s keeper.

In the months leading up to the murder, Caleb’s parents divorced, and he recalls the deep rifts that were tearing the family apart. He remembers how the kids took sides, begging to leave their mother and go live with their fun-loving father. He also remembers talk around the dinner table that Uncle Jim was preparing to seize control of the business and lock out his father. Times were suddenly rough.

Though much has been written about Artie Mitchell’s drive through excess and his brother’s attempt to straighten the course, Caleb believes most of it was Hollywood exaggeration, puffed up to make for a better story. “The scene at Ocean Beach where my dad snorts coke right in front of us? Come on!” The truth was his dad was a typical father who had a few beers here and there, Caleb says. Yet in the end, Artie Mitchell’s vices caught up with him and left him volatile and unhinged. “They took the last week of my dad’s life,” the son says, “and made it look like his entire life.”

On February 27, 1991, Caleb stopped briefly by his dad’s house to pick up a baseball glove. He couldn’t find it, so his father handed the eight-year-old some cash and sent him off to buy a new one. The next morning, Caleb woke up early to life-rending news: His father was dead, slain by his uncle.

The aftermath of the killing was a confusing blur of older people saying a lot of things, and using a lot of words Caleb didn’t understand. To investigators, the scene was much clearer. On the night of the murder, Jim had parked three blocks from the house, slashed Artie’s car tires, and entered his home with a handgun and a rifle. Jim, an expert shot, fired at an unarmed Artie eight times, hitting him twice in the chest. After Caleb’s wounded father retreated to the bathroom, Jim waited 28 seconds before he fired the kill shot into Artie’s eye. At the trial, a ballistics expert theorized that the shooter had dropped to one knee to steady his aim before firing the final shot at his victim. Jim was arrested a few blocks away as he hobbled along the street, the rifle jammed down one pant leg.

Prosecutors believed Jim planned the murder, while Jim’s lawyers argued their client was lost in a haze of temporary amnesia when he shot his brother, and then argued for a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. The trial was sensational: brother murdering brother. A family divided. It was modern-day Shakespeare.

For Caleb, the tragedy was just beginning. The police wanted to know everything he knew about his father and his parents and his uncle, so he sat in a chair and answered their questions over and over again. The lawyers wanted to know, too. And then the therapists wanted to know everything, and they kept asking him, again and again, at three scheduled appointments a week, how is young Caleb feeling?

All the people asking the questions were strangers, and none of them could do a damn thing about the fact that his father was dead. Talking about it helps, they kept telling him. So the best he could do at the time, because talking about it helps, was to say: Basically, it sucks.

At home, he and his older siblings argued deeply and often with their mother, Karen. One night an argument between Caleb and his mom over dishes turned physical — the mother made a citizen’s arrest of her youngest son and had him hauled away. By high school, Caleb had already left home, moving in with friends and his dad’s first wife, Meredith, in Cape Cod. The boy was determined to raise himself. Feelings between mother and son are still tense, and an archetypal family portrait has dried in Caleb’s head: “My mom is like the Antichrist,” he says, “and my dad is like God.”

The inevitable books and movie scripts that soon began circulating seemed to tell a much different story than the one Caleb witnessed growing up. To him, they suggested that the fratricide was acceptable, as if Uncle Jim was pushed to the brink by the mess Artie’s life had become. The stories put his dad’s life on trial, not Jim’s.

In Rated X, Charlie Sheen, an actor known for his drug- and alcohol-infused past, played Artie, while Emilio Estevez, Sheen’s squeaky-clean brother, was cast as Jim. Caleb and his family watched as the movie took their real lives — rich and nuanced, as real life tends to be — and boiled them down to a simple formula: Artie was drunk and bad, Jim was sober and good. Charlie equals dad, Emilio equals Uncle Jim. “All of these stories are justifications for why my uncle murdered my father,” says Caleb. “They’re told from my uncle’s side. Any time they had a chance to make my uncle look good, they did. Any time they had a chance to make my dad look bad, they did.”

Reality has been even tougher on Caleb, but he’s managed to let some of his bitterness go. On the other hand, much of it remains. Not believing the court’s conclusion, he later took it upon himself to do his own research: From interviews with his dad’s friends and family members, he concluded that his uncle showed up ready to kill his dad. He’s just not sure how premeditated it was: A few hours? Days? A lifetime? But all that stuff is in the past now, he says. He’s not looking to avenge his father’s murder. This is real life, after all, not Shakespeare, even though everyone knows who killed the king. “My uncle got away with murder,” he says, flatly.

Caleb sees his uncle from time to time, mostly in court, where the uncle has the advantage. “I wish it was me who was dead,” Jim Mitchell said during his trial. But he wasn’t dead, and Jim — who did not respond to phone messages seeking his perspective for this story — quickly assumed control of the Mitchell Brothers empire. What it was worth, Artie’s kids may never really know. What they do know, Caleb says, is that what was once half Artie’s was wrested from his family through years of legal maneuvers by his uncle’s attorneys. At one point, Caleb says, he was offered a $16,000 settlement, which he refused, and which still leaves him bitter. In the end, he and his siblings each got about $200,000, a fraction of what Caleb believes is a fair shake. “Right now I should be a rich pornographer,” the young man quips. “Instead, I’m a fighter.”

A trust-fund fighter, no less. At the Palace Casino in Lemoore, California, he’ll earn $250 for his fight, $500 if he wins. It’s a lousy purse, but Caleb doesn’t do it for the money. He does it for the sport.

That, at least, is his easy answer, a cherry to place atop his sordid family tale. For Caleb is the first to admit that he’s driven by anger. They all fucked with him: the cops, the lawyers, the shrinks, the brother, the mom, the uncle, Hollywood — all of them. It’s just how he was raised. And he spent all those years in therapy drawing this road map of his life, learning how it has ended up here, inside a cage.

He doesn’t get nervous when he arrives to fight; it’s a mental space familiar to him. That, he believes, is why the meatheads who jump into the cage with a head full of rocks and an ass full of testosterone get themselves beaten silly: It’s because they don’t know where they’re at, or how they got there, or where it’s all coming from, or how to harness their severe emotions. They just punch and kick and scream — and go nowhere.

Caleb Mitchell stays cool. He knows why he fights. He has the residue of his dad’s murder clinging to him every day, and every few months he gets to purge it. He considers fighting a healthy outlet for his soul, an experience through which all of his negative energy is concentrated and then unloaded at the sound of the referee’s voice calling an end to the match. After every fight he suffers through fits of dry heaves, a sort of exorcism, as he sees it, of his frayed nerves, his excess adrenaline, and his physical and emotional pain. “I didn’t learn how to fight so I could hurt people,” he says. “I learned how to fight so I wouldn’t get hurt anymore.”

It’s Tuesday night, and the Cesar Gracie Academy is packed. The gym, located in an L-shaped strip mall in Pleasant Hill, between an Outback Restaurant and a hair salon, is where Caleb and other local fighters come to train five days a week. Apart from some private gyms in San Francisco and San Jose, Gracie’s is the only public place in Northern California where a would-be fighter can get expert training.

Cesar Gracie relocated his fight club from a smaller space seven months ago. The new space is clean and airy and looks more like an IKEA showroom than a brawl hall, but it’s equipped with the telltale ring and punching bags, and on this particular evening a record 45 students, all males, are sweating through two hours of jujitsu instruction.

Gracie has the body of a fit accountant, and the face of a fighter — a heavy brow and a nose that’s taken some hits — but he carries himself with a casual surfer vibe that belies his vocation. The 36-year-old trainer is delighted by tonight’s turnout. “This sport is getting so huge!” he exclaims with open arms as he greets a visitor outside the gym.

So far, about a dozen of his jujitsu students have made the leap to no-holds-barred fighting. When they do, Gracie trains them in the grappling aspects of the brawl, and hires boxing and kickboxing coaches to hone those fighting skills.

In the insular world of no-holds-barred fighting, being trained by a Gracie counts for something. The name, to this small but growing community, is what Jordan is to basketball. Riordan Gracie, Cesar’s cousin, more or less invented the sport. An expert in the Brazilian form of jujitsu, he teamed up with pay-per-view producers in 1993 to dream up the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Jujitsu is an old discipline, a so-called mixed martial art that blends judo and other disciplines with street fighting. Prior to the UFC, people mistook it for a brand of steak knives. But today, thanks to Riordan Gracie, an estimated 250 jujitsu academies are scattered around the United States.

Gracie’s seminal idea was to bring together fighters of all sorts — boxers, karate masters, jujitsu experts, wrestlers, barroom-style brawlers, and so on — and pit them in a grand tournament to determine the superior method. The only rule was that there were no rules: Fighters could wear whatever they pleased, gloves were optional, and, eerily, there was only one round. A fight ended only when one fighter was “unable to defend himself,” or conceded defeat by slapping the canvas twice. The event was straight out of the 1985 Mad Max sequel Beyond Thunderdome; its promoters even lifted the film’s tag line: “Two men enter. One man leaves.”

Seeking to boost their ratings, Gracie and the promoters glammed up the event with an eye toward WWF theatrics. They scripted fighter profiles to mimic monster characters from Street Fighter, the popular video game of the day. Barrel-chested Russian men weighing 300 pounds were dragged out of their dreary lives in the archipelago (or so the story went) and pitted against 170-pound masters like Gracie, who has since retired from fighting.

Yet this was no video game. The blood, for one, was very real, and so was the crowd’s lust to see it spilled. While viewers expected to witness a gory pummeling at every turn and winced when it was delivered, the underlying appeal was watching Gracie outfox his larger opponents and wrap them in his strangleholds. One of the world’s top practitioners of jujitsu, he could kick and punch from a standing position like a traditional judo master, but did his real damage on the mat.

Jujitsu fighters are masters of grappling, and one as skillful as Gracie could tie up competitors like a boa constrictor neutralizing its prey. His “arm bar” bent the rival’s arm back at the elbow until it was ready to pop; the “triangle” wrapped opponents around the neck and chest, cutting off circulation. In his most exciting hold, the “guillotine,” Gracie would leap onto his rival’s chest like a small child, wrapping one leg around the waist and using the other one to drop him, painfully, to the mat. Tap-outs followed quickly.

Even when a heavier fighter would pin Gracie on his back, the position where most fights end, he’d somehow slither into an offensive position for the win. Sometimes he baited his rival into a false sense of dominance; it was like watching a rabbit fight a grizzly, with the hare getting the best of the bear every time. Gracie’s jujitsu skills won him three straight UFC belts, and future fighters felt compelled to at least learn the rudiments of his discipline.

As the pay-per-view audiences and the sport’s exposure grew, so did the chorus of detractors. No-holds-barred fighting was loudly protested and vilified as “barbaric” by parents’ groups, television critics, and politicians such as Senator John McCain, who led a campaign against the UFC. McCain’s tirades ultimately spooked advertisers, and promoters began having trouble locating host cities for the unsanctioned fights. Pay-per-view networks bowed to the political pressure and dropped the sport. Without the rules and regulations, its critics argued successfully, no-holds-barred fighting was technically assault and battery on a stage.

Still, the public had demonstrated a lucrative thirst for cage fighting, and the sport’s backers weren’t about to tap out early. Instead, the Ultimate Fighting Championship took its show on the road, gaining fans in England and Asia over the next three years. Meanwhile, as the various fight leagues — now banned from most municipalities — turned to the sanctuary of Indian reservations, the UFC began lobbying state athletic commissions for acceptance.

That, of course, has required a makeover. Within the past year, the UFC came under new management, hired Dana White — a former trainer and fighter — as its president, and launched a whole-hog effort to win the hearts of mainstream sports fans. Following boxing’s lead, league officials agreed last September to divide fighters into weight classes, and to require gloves, which, at just four ounces, feel only slightly heavier than biking gloves. They also adopted five-minute rounds. More recently, the league has embarked on a public-relations blitz to sell the new look, bombarding media outlets with promotional materials entitled, “From Spectacle to Sport — The Story of the UFC.”

The old UFC, White says, oversold the blood factor and got splattered by the bad press that followed. The new league, he says, is about putting on clean, fair fights. “Our sport has world-class athletes. They’re usually trained in boxing and kickboxing and some sort of grappling, like jujitsu. The object of our show isn’t to see anyone get hurt. It’s to see a fight. Now we want people in the mainstream to understand our sport like we do, so they can see it and respect it the way we do.”

The cleanup efforts seem to be paying off. Complaints about the violence have subsided, says White, noting that Senator McCain issued a statement applauding the recent rule changes. As a whole, he says, the sport hardly registers on today’s violence meter. “Is no-holds-barred fighting really shocking today?” White asks rhetorically. “But what’s shocking now? Is it Eminem? Is it ‘Jackass’ on MTV? Is it, whatever it’s called, ‘Most Scariest Videos’? Is it All of that stuff is violent, too.”

Bumfights, White says with disgust, was started by college students who paid homeless men chump change to fight. They recorded the street bouts, then sold videotapes via the Internet. “Made millions,” White says.

That’s one thing the UFC also aspires to. In September, athletic commissions in Louisiana, Nevada, and New Jersey officially sanctioned the sport — hello Las Vegas, hello Atlantic City — and league officials have California in their sights for next year. Last month, a UFC welterweight match was showcased on the Fox Network’s “Best Damn Sports Show, Period,” marking the first appearance of no-holds-barred fighting on prime-time network television.

While fighting still pales in national stature next to boxing, it has paid off for Gil Castillo. The 36-year-old was training in jujitsu three years ago when Cesar Gracie signed him up to fight on short notice. Gracie, who hasn’t fought in a few years, uses the quick pitch so, in his words, “they don’t have time to get scared.”

Shadowboxing in Gracie’s gym below a sign that reads, “The More You Sweat, the Less You Bleed,” Castillo says the minimal preparation time was helpful. His biggest fear was fighting in the cage, and he’d never have done it on his own. After winning his first match, he experienced a rush, an exhilarating sensation of overcoming fear and not merely surviving, but dominating. “I got a taste for it,” Castillo says of the feeling, “and after that, I went back for more.”

Now with an 18-1 record — his only loss was a long and bloody championship bout — Castillo is among the sport’s contenders; he ranks consistently in the world’s top ten in his weight class. He started with IFC fights before winning the notice of UFC promoters, and recently signed a contract with the bigger league for three fights that offer what, in this sport, are nice purses: $32,000, $42,000, and $52,000. That’s more than most boxers get, he says, but not as much as he makes annually as a stockbroker. Castillo says his family isn’t pleased with his second job, and after his contract is up, he’s done. “I’m 36, man,” he says. “I’m on my last leg.”

It is age, more than fear, that has Castillo set to hang up his thin gloves. Fighters and trainers say their sport is actually safer than boxing. Because the competitors don’t stand there and take repeated punches to the head, there’s less room for brain damage in the end. To date, only one death has been attributed to no-holds-barred fighting; supporters like to point out that the WWF also had an in-ring death recently — although that death was related to a stunt — while boxing has suffered several fatalities over the years.

On the entertainment side, promotional guys like White say their sport offers the most authentic form of man-to-man fighting available. It’s what sports fans are craving, he says: something to fill the void left by the stagnant, sorry state of boxing. To illustrate how far boxing has fallen, White cites the recent heavyweight championship bout between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson. What a bore, he says. Tyson’s draw wasn’t for his skill, but for his rap sheet.

White wasn’t that fight’s only critic. The Tyson-Lewis match was considered a ruse by boxing aficionados; the sport’s noted historian Bert Randolph Sugar boycotted the event, and urged fans to do the same. Sugar said anyone who paid to see the fight was a sucker, and anyone who contributed to the spectacle of Tyson was degrading his beloved sport, a sport that once crowned true champions, men of substance, men like Muhammad Ali. Those heroes are gone, Sugar said.

On the night of the title fight, video bites on pay-per-view had Tyson declaring that he’d like to make dinner out of Lewis’ children. He also said, “I don’t care how I fight Lewis. It’d be fine with me if it was a no-holds-barred brawl and we just went for it.”

The fighter later admitted to reporters, after he’d been shut up in the eighth round by a right cross to the chin, that his trash talk was marketing 101, bravado he’d created to sell tickets. Of course he wouldn’t really fight a no-holds-barred match.

What, you think he’s crazy?

What’s crazy is the heat. Driving from the East Bay into Central California in the high summer, the endless miles of flat valley floor are dry and yellow, and the landscape looks like it’s ready to go up in flames at any moment. Just past the massive Harris Ranch slaughterhouse on I-5, the musky stench of raw meat and guts streams straight through the car’s air vents and up into the nostrils.

The Palace Casino in Lemoore rises from the horizon like a cruise ship plopped down on the desert floor. No signs warn of its arrival, and there’s no need for them: The square, pink behemoth is visible from miles away. Locals point to it when they’re giving directions.

At 7 p.m., it’s still ninety degrees out, and an outdoor arena has been thrown together in a dry grass field near the casino parking lot. White plastic chairs circle the empty cage, as though anticipating a wedding, and behind them, a ring of metal bleacher seats. The black steel cage is pentagonal, with colored floodlights pointed down onto the mat from above. Pre-fight, it looks like a baited animal trap. In a way it is: As many as a thousand people will soon cram into this field, shelling out $20 a pop for a chance to see what happens inside this metal enclosure.

The lines are already long, and as the crowd begins to filter in, it’s pretty easy to distinguish the sports fans from the blood fans. A portion of the crowd consists of fighters and their families and friends who travel the circuit, bopping from show to show. These fans carry themselves with an easy assurance, having witnessed it all before. The trainers and fighters who came from as far as San Diego and Olympia, Washington, may as well be doing their taxes tonight.

The blood fans, by contrast, are anxious and stirred, already high on the whiff of violence. A group of Harley riders takes its seats near the front, and one drunk biker tumbles out of line, wiping out a few chairs like dominoes. “Man down!” his friend shouts, before joining him on the ground for a play fight. Other dudes show up from Bakersfield and Fresno wearing attitude-on-a-sleeve-clothing: No Fear, Bad Boy, and a fighter-tailored brand called Pain Inc. They stroll around the hot evening with wraparound sunglasses clipped above the bills of their baseball caps. They wear shorts and flip-flops that crunch on the dry grass, and arrive with girlfriends who have trouble maneuvering the terrain in high heels. They carry red plastic cups filled with cold Budweiser.

Sellout. The show is running thirty minutes late, and the crowd is impatient for entertainment. The sudden sound of tires screeching from the parallel road surprises everyone into silence. The screech ends in a loud crunch. For an instant, more silence, then wild cheers. “Yeah,” yells a dude, raising his beer. “Arrest him!” Paramedics, who’ve already propped up one gurney next to the cage — for efficiency, not for show — hustle to the scene, which turns out to be an SUV fender-bender.

The crowd stands for the national anthem, which concludes with fireworks blasting off like guns. The show is on! A line of bikini girls struts down the ten-yard catwalk to sounds of blaring rap-metal music — “Let the bodies hit the floor! Let the bodies hit the floor!” The young women circle the cage and return behind the black curtain from which they’d emerged.

The moment the first fighter appears from behind the curtain the crowd rises to its feet and cheers him down the catwalk. This fighter, nicknamed “The Hammer,” is a local boy from Lemoore. He is 185 pounds, most of it chest and arms, and his last name is tattooed across his back in old English-style lettering. He wears black shorts, and his face looks like he’ll settle for nothing less than murder.

His challenger plods down the runway and makes his entrance. This guy was clearly trained in a barroom and took up the challenge on some sort of bet. And while the rival’s female entourage cheers loudly, his attempts to stare down the Hammer are ineffective. The ref has them touch gloves, and the crowd lets out a collective yell of relief: finally, some action. With every second drenched in anticipation — and every moment mounting on top of the last — the fight feels like it goes on for an hour. In reality it lasts exactly one minute, one second.

The two men dance about like boxers, sizing each other up, throwing empty jabs, letting the anticipation build and not wanting to make contact just yet. But audience members are calling for blood, and the Hammer is happy to oblige: Stepping forward, he catches his overcharged opponent with two steady right hooks that cut the rival’s face like a machete. The doctor calls it off, and the Hammer’s victim, after gesturing that the doc had screwed him, looks relieved as he lists back toward the curtain. As is the custom, the MC interviews the winner center-cage about his strategy. “Just knock the fuck out of him,” puffs the Hammer, who proceeds to grab the microphone for a few slobbering “Yo Adrian” shout-outs that last longer than his fight.

In another bout, a brawler from San Jose had his nose punched and kicked back into his head. His foe left the cage literally bloodied up to the elbow, with flecks of red sprayed across his ankles. A subsequent fighter, Shannon “The Cannon” Rich, played his own highlight reel on a large video screen before his match and wore sunglasses as he did a little jig down the catwalk. Immediately after the starting bell he landed a few crowd-pleasing helicopter kicks from long range. But twenty seconds later, he was flat on his back, where he verbally conceded the bout. The crowd booed the pretty boy all the way back to his native Arizona.

Caleb’s entourage was led by a few of the bikini girls, while Cesar Gracie and the other trainers trailed behind him. The nineteen-year-old’s face was a mask of concentration, and he strode straight to the cage; there he removed his socks and shoes and did a little “raise-the-roof” gesture as the MC announced him from “Bez-erk-eleeeeeeeeeey, California.” He actually lives in Concord, but Berkeley’s more prominent on the map.

The young fighter knew little about his opponent, Ken Hamlitt. The rivals came together on short notice. Caleb had previously spent six weeks in heavy training, preparing for another fighter who canceled at the last minute. Caleb then dropped his guard for two weeks while the promoters found a replacement, which was no easy task. The thirty-year-old Hamlitt had to drop fifteen pounds in two days to make the weight class, and he barely made it.

By fight time, however, Hamlitt was back up to 158, a good thirteen pounds heavier than Caleb, and it showed. He entered the ring with a beefy waist, pale skin, and hunched shoulders, looking not so much like a fighter as like a computer geek who’d wandered into the wrong club. During the stare down, Hamlitt’s heavy eyelids indicated that he either wanted to go to sleep or run away.

At the bell, Caleb bobbed his head and danced around while Hamlitt stalked him. Caleb faked a jab, then kicked his opponent’s shin as hard as he could. The sound was like a bare foot kicking an oak tree. Then another kick scored, to the crowd’s delight, and finally Hamlitt woke up.

Simultaneously, the fighters landed hard right punches that neutralized one another. Taking a punch, Caleb says, shakes your brain for half a second and leaves you cloudy, unaware. It’s what you do in that half a second that makes or breaks the fight: Either you guard up and regain composure by muscle memory, or you drop your hands and take another shot. If the shots continue, you’re outta luck.

Both fighters regained clarity at the same moment and at first instinct threw vicious punches, missing. The pair tangled up into a ball and Hamlitt fell on top of Caleb, smashing his head into the chain-link wall on the way down. Caleb immediately wrapped his legs around Hamlitt’s midsection and guarded his own face like a lobster on his back. Now on top of Caleb, Hamlitt rained punches down onto Caleb’s face as Aaron Mitchell used to, one after the other. Would Houdini escape this time?

The crowd cheered for Hamlitt’s advantage. All they could see of Caleb was his feet desperately kicking at his opponent’s kidneys. That was enough to distract Hamlitt, who gave Caleb sufficient slack to squirm his knees to his chest and push the big guy away from him. As Hamlitt lunged back toward his rival, Caleb kicked his heel directly into Hamlitt’s chin, snapping the head back and briefly winning applause from the crowd. But Hamlitt quickly managed to smother him again, and the round ended with Caleb having spent most of it pinned to the canvas. The blood crowd wasn’t pleased.

“Do something, assholes!” one guy yelled.

“I throw shoes harder than your punches,” screamed another.

The fight fans were disappointed, too. Cesar knew Caleb was weakened by his break in training, and his heavier opponent could play the game of taking Caleb down, plopping on top of him, and waiting — a strategy Hamlitt followed for another uneventful round. For Caleb to have a chance at winning, he would need to remain standing and strike at Hamlitt with punches, kicks, and sweeps.

At the start of the third round Caleb nailed Hamlitt hard with a punch to the cheekbone and had his man wobbling backward toward the fence. The crowd could sense the clouds in Hamlitt’s head, and Cesar screamed for Caleb to finish him off, but the young fighter’s body responded in slow motion. Exhausted from spending the last ten minutes wrestling on the mat, he lurched into Hamlitt and threw a punch that had all the power of a wet noodle. Hamlitt opened his arms, caught Caleb, and dragged him down to his back, where again, he sat on Caleb and then dropped slow, exhausted punches on Caleb’s face. After a few seconds, the fighters seemed to merge into a heaving ball of flesh with Hamlitt on top.

For a good minute, Hamlitt held his rival down, gathering energy for his last barrage. Suddenly, he rose up to his knees, straddling Caleb at the stomach, and began whaling punches on Caleb’s face, like a windmill, one after the other. The crowd cheered more, sensing the finish.

Their instincts were right. Caleb’s defenses dropped, and his body went limp. It could no longer defend itself. His face bobbed as if he were asleep, and the ref wedged a straight arm between the two men, halting Hamlitt’s fist cocked in midair behind his head. The crowd cheered and booed, and immediately began calling for its next dish.

A bikini girl entered the cage with the MC and handed a dreary Hamlitt a very large trophy, which he just barely had the strength to hoist over his head. He spat out his mouthpiece and smiled.

Below him, Caleb left the cage, confused, his face swollen and blue with rivulets of blood trickling down his cheekbones. Breathing like a bull, he stood barefoot and shirtless in the evening heat, his chest heaving.

The fighter waved off his trainers and friends who gathered near him at the stairs. Then, after a few seconds, he tapped his hands together, and without a word turned away from the cage and walked across the dead dry grass toward his trailer, his demons behind him for the moment, but still very much alive.

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