by MICK LLOYD-OWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & 'm not exactly expecting a night at the opera as I order a beer and claim a barstool with a commanding view of the cage: A hexagon of black chain-link fence with heavily padded poles and a blood-red mat on the floor, foreboding violence. The Big Easy is packed with ladies dressed for a night on the town and a preponderance of tough-looking guys. Many are themselves fighters, and almost everyone I talk to is here to support a fighter they know. The air is heavy with testosterone.

"For the guys, it's fantasy and adrenaline," says event promoter Derek Cleveland as to why people come. "Whether the guy has the balls to do it or not, he wants to. Every man's a warrior and wants adventure."

A man in a tuxedo and top hat opens with "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the crowd rises as one, hands over hearts. That settles it, I say to myself. Ultimate Cage Fighting is American and God must surely approve -- despite Senator John McCain's national campaign to have the sport outlawed a decade ago. Land of the free? Home of the brave? Bring it on.

"Over time, we've tried to make it more like a Vegas-style show," says Matt Judge, director of venue services at the Big Easy. The fighters enter theatrically through a cloud of smoke, strutting to their chosen theme song -- mostly hardcore metal selections played at rock-concert volume. ("Bodies," by Drowning Pool, seemed particularly fitting.) The chiseled fighters are barefoot and wear small, open-fingered gloves. The ref pats down their trunks as they enter the cage. An announcer introduces them with the exaggerated tones you'd expect at a professional boxing bout, and they touch gloves. The circus part is over as the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters get down to business.

First up are lightweights who don't look like they could damage each other badly, but they go at it furiously and the crowd is raucous. Nothing scripted here: These guys are here to win. From my year of boxing in junior college, I understand the punching part. But it gets wilder in the cage -- elbows and knees are being thrown at full force, and it's all good. Boxers can't strike someone who's down, but in cage fighting, the blows follow the defender all the way down to the mat -- and they don't stop. Fighters will straddle their opponent's chest on the floor, raining down blows until the other guy "taps out" or the ref stops the fight. Pansies need not apply.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & ixed Martial Arts (MMA), as the name implies, is the fusion of fighting styles with fewer rules than most of the disciplines from which it evolved. Punches, kicks, throwing, grappling, choke-holds -- they're all allowed in MMA.

"It's a triathlon of martial arts," Cleveland says. "There's a lot of discipline and responsibility that comes with it. ... It takes a lot of emotional control to face the lights, face the crowd, face your fear and your doubts." Cleveland is a trainer at the Lion's Den gym in Coeur d'Alene, which he co-owns with Bodog middleweight champion Trevor Prangley. "If you win, it feels like falling on a bunch of feathers and pillows. You're on top of the world," he says, arms outstretched and eyes closed. "If you lose, it's like hell."

Cleveland notes that the sport has come a long way since it began in 1993 with Ultimate Fighting Championships. The original concept, back then, was to find out which fighting style would prevail in a true combat situation: i.e., "no holds barred." Boxers were pitted against wrestlers and karate fighters with (almost) no rules, no time limits and no weight divisions. Some of the fights were allegedly brutal, with instances of head-butting, hair-pulling and strikes to the groin earning a grim reputation for the sport. It was an instant success commercially but it got a bad rap in the media. Calling it "human cockfighting," Sen. McCain was partially successful in getting matches dropped from cable networks and many states outlawed "no holds barred" fighting.

UFC reformed by dropping the "no holds barred" moniker and by instituting more rules, weight divisions and time limits. It also changed as multi-disciplinary fighters were forced to learn a broader range of skills. "What they learned was that there is no one style that's the best," Cleveland says. "They realized they had to integrate it." Joe Rogan, a commentator for UFC, has argued that martial arts have evolved more since 1993 than in the past 700 years as direct result of UFC and the MMA phenomenon. The popularity of the sport is surging nationally and the athletic commissions of 29 states now allow organized MMA fighting.

According to Cleveland, safety is paramount. The fighters are paired by a professional to avoid mismatches, and the referees know when to stop a fight. There are ringside medics if someone gets hurt. No one can walk in off the street and fight -- they have to be a member of an established gym.

"The guy knows what he's getting into, and it's really not that brutal for us to take a hit," says amateur heavyweight Josh "the Machine" Queen. "I've been hurt way more in other sports," he says, referring to football in particular.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n the cage, someone's in a headlock between another guy's knees, but he struggles to his feet with his opponent dangling from his neck and drives him head-first into the mat. Repeatedly. My wife turns her head and winces, but everyone else cheers. Most of the fights are over within a few minutes. Several of the fighters embrace in a show of goodwill and sportsmanship. Some are bloodied, but they all walk out on two feet.

"It's the biggest adrenaline rush I've ever had, every time I step in that ring," Queen says. He's 6-foot-2 and weighs 265 pounds. "It's scary at the same time," he says. "Right before I step into the ring, I'm gagging -- it doesn't matter what the guy's record is. I'm all nerves." He doesn't show it, however: In 10 matches, he's undefeated.

Queen is obviously a local favorite, judging from the crowd's response as he enters. He plays it up and waves for more noise, ripping off his shirt, pumping up to his fight song, "Let's Go" by Trick Daddy. He's up against heavyweight Terry Jolley of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu Spokane. They trade a few blows, separate, circle, and Queen storms in with a fury of blows and a right hand that knocks Jolley out cold. Thirteen seconds into round one, Jolley's flat on his face like a 260-pound slab of liver, motionless. It's over, and Queen bounds atop the cage, arms up, playing to the fans. Make that 11-0.

"I go in there to get the job done," Queen says, noting that some of his friends tell him to make the fights last longer. "Everyone told me that [13-second] fight was worth waiting for. But if you're out there pleasing the crowd and get caught with that one lucky punch -- then for me, there goes my undefeated record that I want to keep."

Maybe it's my imagination playing tricks, but when a man leaves the building after watching a cage fight, his stature's taller and his chest is bulkier.

Ultimate Cage Fighting at the Big Easy next draws blood on Friday, Dec. 7, at 7 pm. Tickets: $20-$50.

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