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Boxing day 

The appeal of kickboxing as a spectator sport isn't hard to understand. Once relegated to the outer fringes of the cable-TV wasteland, the martial art has seen its popularity skyrocket due to its exemplification of the Asian ideal of mind/body harmony -- and our all-American interest in seeing fiercely toned guys and gals beat the snot out of each other in two ways at once.

I witnessed a bit of both last Saturday at Orlando Kickboxing Center, where the "Rocky Mountain Rumble" pitted visiting athletes from Colorado's World Karate & Kickboxing Center against a squadron of local brawlers. "Brawl" was definitely a word that was uppermost in my consciousness as I lined up outside the gray, garagelike building at the corner of downtown's Robinson Street and Parramore Avenue: The throng of fans that had turned out for the neighborhood event was one of the toughest-looking I had seen at an Orlando facility since Van Hagar played the Arena four years ago. Baseball caps were pulled down around square-ish heads, and halter tops and T-shirts strained against bemuscled bodies. One older guy's T-shirt displayed a takeoff of the familiar Tommy Hilfiger logo, which had been altered to incorporate the Confederate stars and reworded into the imprint "Tommy Hillbilly."

It's a bout time

A 15-minute delay in opening the doors left us all baking in the late-afternoon sun, but any idea I might have harbored about complaining to the management evaporated when I got a look at the makeshift staff that was taking tickets. Two bikers from the Harley Club peeled off my change from a roll of bills, the colors hung across their backs effectively making the case that no trouble would be tolerated here. My mind raced back to my fifth birthday, when I had watched the San Francisco Hell's Angels beat a Rolling Stones fan to death with a pool cue on the evening news. I decided not to ask for a receipt. Tax returns, I knew, meant nothing to these people.

The mood was more family-friendly inside, as a multiracial audience of kids and their parents found its way into the folding chairs that were set up to face the main ring. We all stood as a muddy recording of the national anthem emanated from a seriously overworked PA, then took our seats again for the announcement of the first bout on the card. The sound system rendered the emcee's proclamations virtually unintelligible, but it didn't seem to faze the assembled enthusiasts, many of whom appeared to be friends, followers and blood relations of the evening's competitors. Neither were they visibly upset that the program was an hour late in getting started. Again, who was going to complain?

A close duel between home-boy Shea Lowe and Colorado's Tim Mills proved to be a less-than-representative start to the proceedings, going a full three rounds and ending in a decision that rewarded Mills for his superior skills, despite a late rally by Lowe. Of the seven bouts that followed, only two lasted as long, the rest ending in TKOs and knockdowns (for which the Orlando combatants were overwhelmingly responsible).

The fighting styles and skill levels were wildly disparate. Some matches were defined by timidity, with reluctant kickboxers failing to follow through on their tentative forays or capitalize on their opponents' weaknesses. Others were closer to melees, particularly a match-up between locals Jason Cleveland and Jean Baptiste that amounted to little more than a technique-deprived blur of flying hands and feet. Cleveland won what we later learned was his first-ever fight, but hats off to the judges who had been able to follow any of the messy, whirlwind action.

Girl power

The most exciting spectacle was a ladies' clash between Coloradan Mercedes Mercury and the Center's own Marisol Esquilin, who the printed program advertised as the IKF National Superlight Champion. Superlight, my kazoo: As she entered the ring to the pounding strains of Metallica's "Wherever I May Roam," I noticed that Esquilin's tree-trunk legs were thicker than homemade molasses. She quickly turned Mercury into similar goo, pummeling her hopelessly overmatched adversary with punches and kicks that connected like two-ton hammers. After she scored a first-round TKO, Esquilin vaulted to the ropes and beat her breast with her fists, a female Tarzan declaring her dominance of the jungle.

Mercury was in tears during the short rout's final moments and remained sobbing through the announcement of the win -- a reaction provoked by pain, shame or a combination of both.

Her moment of glory over, Esquilin wandered around the premises, accepting plaudits and offering moral support to her fellow fighters. I wanted to collar her for an impromptu interview, but circumstances kept getting in the way. My own fear, for instance. As soon as I had convinced myself that she wouldn't respond to the unsolicited approach of a skinny guy and his notepad by issuing a disdainful jab to my solar plexus, she was off to help Cleveland remove his gloves after his own victory. If the two of them had a thing going, I wasn't about to get in the middle of it.

Later, I spied Esquilin standing alone and downing a Diet Coke. Just as I had worked up the chutzpah to walk over for a quick "hello," she unknowingly dashed my plans by nonchalantly crushing the can in her hand before depositing it in a nearby trash bin. On its face, that's not such an impressing show of strength; hell, even I can do it. It was just the WAY she did it, if you know what I mean.

"You're not going to write that she crushed it on her forehead, are you?" the friend I had brought along taunted. As if Esquilin needed me to make her look tougher.

Last licks in

The card culminated in a USA-light-middleweight contest between hometown combatant Tony "Hitman" Haddock and Colorado visitor "Insane" Duane Ludwig. Living up to his nickname, the 20-year-old Ludwig prepared for battle by pacing across the canvas and solemnly holding his head as if in prayer. He didn't have a prayer against Haddock, however, who came out of the gate exhibiting some strong defensive moves that belied his 33 years. Building on that foundation, the Hitman let loose with a left hook that took Ludwig out in the second round, inspiring the audience members to bolt out of their seats and his gloved compadres to swarm the ring in tribute to their new champion. Haddock played the moment for all it was worth, throwing his fists into the air and bellowing something that I couldn't hope to hear above the roar of the crowd.

Such justifiable exclamations of triumph notwithstanding, the evening had been marked by a palpable tenor of civility. The fans had been notably respectful of all of the out-of-town athletes, and Esquilin had embraced Mercury warmly as the beaten woman had blubbered over her loss. My friend told me that he had later seen the two engaged in a postfight conference, with Esquilin apparently offering well-meaning advice about possible improvements to Mercury's training regimen.

Too bad the tone hadn't filtered down to the two young kids seated in front of me, who became so caught up in the excitement that they began to throttle each other mercilessly until the woman seated to their right admonished them to "play nice." Somebody remind me again what a bad influence black trenchcoats are on our youth.

OK, so I kid kickboxing -- mainly because Haddock and Esquilin aren't here to hear me do it. But there's no denying that the activity represents a healthy alternative to street violence for a community of young people who don't always have an unlimited number of social options. That thought was confirmed by my friend, who related that his own experiences as a student of the sport had brought him into contact with an unbelievable number of aspiring felons. As long as places like the Orlando Kickboxing Center provide a supervised, sanctioned outlet for their frustrations and hostilities, I'm squarely in their corner. Just don't ask me to hold the mouthpiece.


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