The Fight Club

Din Thomas slips a punch
Colby Katz

It's the second round of an extreme fighting match in Atlantic City on Friday, and the crowd isn't happy. Fighter Din Thomas, who trains in Fort Lauderdale, dominates the no-holds-barred bout with jabs and right hooks more akin to boxing. The quick punches keep opponent Matt "The Terror" Serra from turning the contest into a wrestling match, which could end with blood-spurting injuries or broken bones. With the gore to a minimum -- in a sport where fighters often end up looking as if they've been doused in pig's blood -- the 11,000 fans don't have much to cheer about.

Even if they were screaming their heads off, the loudest of them would still be the giant-like man at ringside. The lead screamer is renowned heavyweight boxer Shannon Briggs, who once downed George Foreman and made a run for the heavyweight title. "That a boy! Jab! Jab!" Briggs yells in the otherwise quiet arena. He punches his massive arms in the air like shots from a cannon, and his blond dreads flail behind him.

From the crowd, a very brave or, more likely, very dense fan lets Briggs have it. "Shut the fuck up, Briggs!"

Briggs stands up and points toward the grandstand behind the ring. "Fuck you!" the boxer bellows. The crowd roars as Briggs aims obscenities at the general area of the stands from which the curse came. "Come down here, you fuck!"

To figure out why Briggs is in the crowd and why he's getting so fired up over extreme fighting, you need only to look at the patch on the back of his jean jacket. It's a round emblem with the insignia of a South Florida fight club called American Top Team, which has recruited Briggs to endorse the fringe sport. Thomas is wearing the patch on his right tush, as do 20 other professional extreme fighters.

American Top Team, with five gyms from Miami to West Palm Beach, has quickly become extreme fighting's biggest and best training program. Resort developer Dan Lambert of Fort Lauderdale has sunk untold millions into the club since founding it in 2001. In December, Lambert will open a 20,000-square-foot gym in Coconut Creek that, he says, will become the world's largest martial arts training facility. Joseph Cunliffe, who writes for Ultimate Athlete and Grappling magazines, says none of the country's dozens of ultimate fighting clubs compare in size or popularity. "They dominate right now," Cunliffe says. "Their style and personalities are just phenomenal."

In addition to the pros, American Top Team trains more than 350 amateur students who pay $90 a month to learn a mix of martial arts. Those who will go on to pro bouts will give 20 percent of their winnings to the team. Thomas' contract for Friday's match promised him $10,000 for losing and double that for a win. Still, those winnings from the five or so fights each pro will have yearly, plus tuition from the amateurs, don't come close to paying the bills, Lambert says. "Could the club make money some day? Maybe," Lambert says during a chartered Gulfstream flight to Atlantic City. "But for me, it's all about the fun of it."

Lambert, a 34-year-old lawyer and jujitsu brown belt who supports the fight club from the millions he has made in vacation resorts and a cruise line, already has a reputation as something of a bad boy. Two years ago, he settled a lawsuit filed by 17 states and the District of Columbia, accusing him of running vacation scams that conned tens of thousands of travelers using Robin Leach as its spokesman. "Instead of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, those who accepted Leach's invitation were treated to 'Lifestyles of the Hoodwinked and Put Upon,'" former Florida Atty. Gen. Bob Butterworth said at the time. Vacationers were allegedly promised free trips to Florida and the Bahamas but instead paid thousands of dollars in hidden fees, according to the suit. Lambert's Fort Lauderdale-based companies, National Travel Services and Ramada Plaza Resorts, agreed to reimburse vacationers up to $1.5 million.

Lambert now says the lawsuits were nothing more than "a dispute over advertising material" that he settled to avoid multiple lawsuits. "What really happened and what they claimed were far from the truth," Lambert says.

Meanwhile, Lambert's club entered extreme fighting at an ideal time, when the 10-year-old sport was making a comeback. In 1995, just two years after the founding of a league called the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Sen. John McCain led opposition to what he called "human cockfighting." Governors outlawed it, and cable companies agreed to stop carrying it. The loss of pay-per-view revenue devastated the sport. Two years ago, organizers made rule changes that allowed its return in four states, including Florida, and to cable. No longer can fighters gouge eyes, butt heads, or break fingers -- much to the disappointment of spectators.

With the comeback assured, American Top Team wanted to find a boxer whose expertise would complement the club's mostly Brazilian experts in jujitsu, which employs a subtle, less bloody wrestling style. Lambert struck gold last year with Fort Lauderdale's Briggs, who came with a recognizable name and who promised to teach boxing techniques to the club's fighters.

Expanding the fight club further, Briggs hooked up with rapper Vanilla Ice, who's trying to change his glitzy shaved-eyebrow image with a new career in dirt-bike racing. Later this month at Fort Lauderdale's War Memorial Auditorium, American Top Team has scheduled an event combining boxing, ultimate fighting, and dirt bikes. The three-day "March Badness" is supposed to start March 27 with a boxing match between Briggs and a yet-to-be-determined opponent. "We're becoming like the Hells Angels of sports," Briggs says. "I mean, we've got boxing, extreme fighting, and Motocross. What more do you want?"

Briggs' support during Friday's match may have helped get the 26-year-old Thomas into the third and final round still on his feet. Thomas, a well-spoken former barber who runs an Orlando martial arts school, begins the third round by quickly jumping away from a lunging Serra.

Serra, ones of the hard-chargers of the sport, specializes in taking opponents down on the mat. He wins by hyperextending his opponents' limbs to the point of fracture or punching and slamming his forearms into their faces until they submit or pass out. But American Top Team trainers spent months in a four-day-a-week training program teaching Thomas how to avoid Serra's takedowns. Once a week, his training culminated in a session Brazilians call bloqueio, in which Thomas defends himself against a different fighter every 15 minutes for four hours. "It's like when you put an animal in a corner," says his trainer, Marcelo Silveira. "He's going to go crazy. We are all animals, and we will all go crazy if cornered."

With less than a minute left in the match, Serra makes a desperate grab for Thomas' knees. This time, he connects and sprawls Thomas across the mat. Serra lies on Thomas' stomach and pins his arms. Then, methodically raising one gloved hand after another, Serra smashes Thomas in the face with lefts and rights. Just 20 seconds remain. Thomas squirms as the punches land. As time expires, the final onslaught appears enough to save the match for Serra. The judges make a split decision going against Thomas, who, despite the final onslaught, looks unscathed. Blood runs from Serra's forehead and from his nose into his mouth as the referee holds his hand up in victory.

It isn't until Thomas is back in the locker room that he gets the good news: The judges miscalculated in tallying the points. A simple mistake in arithmetic. Honest. Thomas was the victor after all. For the American Top Team, it's an outcome fitting for a sport once beaten and now back for more. A sweat-soaked Thomas offers a smiling conclusion: "Justice is served, you know?"

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