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Top Contender: MMA card drawing quite a crowd
By TJ MADIGAN - Calgary Sun


Dustin Sutley

Hidden in the midst of a strip mall in Forest Lawn is a lone doorway. Even with detailed directions, it took me almost half an hour to find, and once I let myself in, I still had to navigate a series of dimly lit stairwells and corridors to find my way to a padded basement gym.

The room was somewhat reminiscent of Stu Hart's legendary Dungeon, not just because of the obvious interior design similarities, but because in the middle of the floor were a pair of muscular young guys locking each other in grappling holds.

But unlike the Dungeon, they weren't practicing for an acrobatic stunt performance in a WWE ring -- they were getting ready for a real fight. Dustin Sutley took a break from his sparring session to give me the back-story.

"I'm getting ready to fight a guy from Indianapolis this weekend," he explained. "He's fought three times before and this will be my first fight, but I'm psyched to take him on. I've been training really hard for this and I just can't wait to get in the ring."

Sutley doesn't seem like the kind of guy that would enjoy beating the hell out of grown men in his free time. He's an articulate fresh-faced 20 year old from Okotoks. He's a first-year business student at SAIT and works as a server at Earls. But he's also 164-lbs of solid muscle (having dropped from the 190-lbs mark to make weight) and just so happens to spend every spare waking minute training for a career in MMA.

For those who don't know, MMA (short for Mixed-Martial Arts) is a hybrid of kick boxing, jiu jitsu, karate, kempo and countless other fight styles, promoted as a flashy Vegas-style attraction with the element of real athletic competition that is absent from pro-wrestling. Although there are major difference between the two genres -- most notably the fact that one is real and the other is scripted -- MMA and pro-wrestling have such a crossover fan base that they are invariably covered in the same breath by grappling media types. But that dynamic is changing as MMA threatens to not only catch up with wrestling's level of popularity, but overtake it.

The genre exploded last year with the surprise success of Ultimate Fighter on Spike TV, a reality show in which a group of unknowns competed for a contract with the UFC. Not only did the show earn critical acclaim but the ratings were off the charts, often beating Monday Night Raw's numbers in key demographics. Major advertisers quickly came on board, tagging MMA as an easy way to reach wrestling's 18-34 audience without associating themselves with WWE (which, particularly in American advertising circles, still has that outdated stigma of being a lower class TV product, watched primarily by inbred rednecks with no disposable income).

Now networks on both sides of the border are jumping on the MMA band wagon, scrambling to find enough fighting content to capitalise on the buzz while public interest continues to soar. Even in Calgary -- traditionally a wrestling hot bed -- the reaction for the city's first live MMA show has blown even the most optimistic expectations out of the water.

King of the Cage, which goes down tonight at 6 p.m. at the Stampede Corral, has sold over 2,000 tickets in advance, and the promoters are expecting upwards of 6,000 Calgarians to attend, paying as much as $320 apiece. Compare that to WWE's last visit to the Corral around a year ago, which barely drew 1,100 fans, even with significantly cheaper ticket prices. This is great news for Sutley, who will make his pro debut tonight in front of a packed house.

"It's going to be awesome to fight in front of thousands of people," he said. "And it's a great chance for Calgary to see this style of fighting up close for the first time."

There will be nine other Calgarians taking part in the event, headlined by a light heavyweight fight between Winnipeg's Joe Doerksen and Brendan Seguin of Detroit. UFC stars Chuck Liddell and Rich Franklin will also make guest appearances. The show will be taped to air on TSN next month.