Among the crowd at last month's Real Fighting Championships at the A La Carte Event Pavilion in Tampa: Shaquille O'Neal, boxing champ Jeff Lacy, a heavily tattooed guy in a Fighting solves everything T-shirt, a pregnant woman, a 5-year-old boy and my mortgage broker.
Like pizza or catchy pop song, mixed martial arts has mass appeal. Once considered a fringe blood sport, over the past decade MMA has gone mainstream and exploded in popularity.
"Most Americans base their understanding of martial arts on Bruce Lee movies or Chuck Norris movies. That's not what a real fight looks like," said Rob Khan, 37, who runs Gracie Tampa. "Mixed martial arts has a much deeper root in real fighting, in reality fighting. Boxing is a pure sport. The rules are so inhibitive where it's not even close to what a real fight would be."
To accommodate fighters looking to join the ranks of national MMA stars, dozens of training facilities and several leagues have popped up in the Tampa Bay area. While fighters dream of earning a UFC contract, they can hone their chops at fight nights arranged by Tampa leagues like Real Fighting Championships, World Fighting Championships and Xtreme Fighting Championships.
"For a small middle market like Tampa, that's incredible," Khan said. "I'd say it's one of the hottest scenes in the country."
More than 10,000 attended XFC's June 28 event at the St. Pete Times Forum, and MMA events regularly sell out A La Carte Event Pavilion's 1,300-person capacity.
Because MMA relies more on technique than brute strength, some organizations allow men and women to compete against each other, provided they're in the same weight class. Pro grappler Cristina "Midget Twister" Rodriguez enjoys fighting against men because there's a bigger pool of competitors.
"The beauty about this is that it does allow a smaller person to win if you have technique, if you have knowledge," said Rodriguez, 23, who trains and teaches at Gracie Tampa.
But not everyone sees the beauty.
For Jeff Goertz, 45, the sport is a far cry from the boxing, kickboxing and judo he grew up studying. MMA has "boiled the essence" out of each discipline, said Goertz, who co-produces a public access martial arts show in Ocala.
"A lot of people don't learn the art of what they're doing. They learn arm bars, they learn chokes, and they learn pummels. They don't get it in here," he said, pointing to his heart.
Others say MMA is too barbaric. There has only been one recorded death in a sanctioned MMA contest, but broken bones, gushing blood and fainting in choke holds are commonplace.
All MMA fights are overseen by a state's boxing commission. Most MMA organizations adhere to a common set of rules, and doctors and paramedics are on standby.
Still, MMA is as close as it gets to a no-holds-barred fight. Millions of fans can't turn away. MMA's pay-per-view events outearn boxing and wrestling.
"I love this sport because it's the truest form of expression, and it's reality," said Duane Spires, 26, a pro fighter and announcer for Real Fighting Championships.
Dalia Colon can be reached at email@example.com. Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this story. Information from Xtreme Fighting Championships, USA Today and the New York Times was used in this report.