DULUTH - Brutal. Bloody. Barbaric.
Those words were once commonly used to describe mixed martial arts, or MMA. Deemed too violent for civilized society, athletic commissions and television executives didn't want the blood on their hands, so to speak.
These days the spectacle-turned-sport of ultimate fighting is becoming more closely associated with promotions, profits and pay-per-views.
""MMA has grown from a sport five years ago where very few people knew the sport and followed it to one of the fastest growing sports in America today," said David Oblas, a fight promoter and president of Undisputed Productions.
Oblas began promoting fights in 2002 after watching a boxing match in Buckhead and thinking, "I can do this."
A year later, he teamed up with Amy Lynn Hoch, chief financial officer of Wild Bill's of Atlanta.
Today, the two Duluth residents co-promote what they consider the best mixed martial arts show in Georgia.
Oblas and Hoch have become a one-two combination so familiar with each other that they rarely have to touch bases while planning shows, despite Oblas' contention that "a million things have to happen for a fight to go on without a hitch."
On April 17, the duo will host the 19th Wild Bill's Fight Night, featuring local talent and nationally recognized fighters. Jesse Forbes from "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show headlines the card. Ultimate Fighting Championship (the "big league" of MMA) veterans Kevin Jordan and Diego Saraiva will be in action. World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight champion Jamie Varner will be in attendance.
"We run the biggest and best show in Georgia," Oblas said.
Oblas, a 33-year-old Roswell native, is the matchmaker. He puts together the fights that people pay good money to see. For matters outside the ropes, both promoters pitch in.
"Basically, I am responsible for everything that takes place inside the ring and we split 50/50 all the stuff that happens outside the ring," Oblas said.
The marketing. The flights and hotels for out-of-town fighters. Dealing with the Georgia Athletic Commission, which regulates the sport. Holding weigh-ins and making sure every fighter has taken and passed the required medical tests. Like a punch in the face, it's enough to give you a headache.
In the fight world, the axiom is that the fights themselves are often easier than the training and build-up to them. It's not so different for the men - and women - behind the scenes.
In addition to a lot of time, effort and know-how, putting a top-notch event together costs a lot of money.
"I'd say we spend between $50,000 and $60,000 per show, easy," Oblas said. "About $20,000 of that is for fighters' purses alone."
The "hurt business" is indeed a business. Hoch said while they consider each show, which typically brings in 3,000 to 4,000 fans, a success, they're not getting filthy rich.
"We don't do this for the money, because we aren't getting rich off of it by any means," Hoch said. "Sometimes we are lucky to break even. We do it because we enjoy the challenge and love the sport."
Like fighters, promoters know there are risks associated with what they do.
"If you're not ready to fight, don't fight because you're going to get hurt," Oblas said. "And if you're not ready to promote, don't. Because you're going to lose money."
Pre-fight weigh-ins are held at Wild Bill's for one reason: So money will be spent in Gwinnett. Fighters, their trainers and fans bring dollars to the county. Hotels, restaurants and other retail outlets reap the benefits.
"We try to promote Gwinnett businesses as much as possible," Oblas said. "This is just a great thing to have in Gwinnett's backyard."
If pay-per-view numbers are any indicator, ultimate fighting has seen a meteoric rise in popularity in recent years. In September, a UFC event at Philips Arena sold nearly 15,000 tickets and grossed about $2.6 million at the gate. In 2001, officials with the New Jersey Athletic Commission created rules and regulations to govern what was essentially few-holds-barred fighting. This paved the way for athletic commissions already regulating combat sports like boxing and kickboxing to sanction MMA events, bringing legitimacy to what many once called - and some still call - a blood sport.
Oblas doesn't deny that MMA can be violent. But it's a sport, he said, just like football or baseball. What some consider barbaric, he considers dynamic entertainment.
Fight Nights at Wild Bill's typically consist of amateur and professional MMA fights, as well as Muay Thai - or Thai boxing - matches.
Bar room brawlers need not apply.
"We don't take people who train out of their basements," Oblas said. "Those guys could maybe go somewhere else and fight, show they're good and come back, but we want quality fighters."
Hoch feels too many people equate ultimate fighting with a Toughman Contest, which often pits untrained, unskilled combatants.
"Some people think it's like a Toughman and it's so far from a Toughman," Hoch said.
Many proponents of MMA say it is safer than boxing and other sports. They point to statistics that show there are very few serious injuries in sanctioned competition and only one recorded death in the sport's North American history.
Jeff Vance, general manager of KnuckleUp Fitness in Duluth, said potential fighters in his gym go through a stringent process before getting the green light to compete. That includes training in several martial arts and participating in the gym's sparring league, allowing trainers to evaluate skills and fitness.
There's no exact formula to determine when a fighter is ready. Some, Vance said, take months. Some, years. Some are never ready.
For the ones who plan on stepping in the ring, Gwinnett will likely provide a venue for some time to come.
"Until I die," Oblas joked.
Hoch said while she may step down from day-to-day operations at Wild Bill's one day, she has no plans on hanging up her gloves.
"It is fun and I feel something that comes natural to me," she said.