Taneisha Kyle is 16 years old, a junior at Eureka High School, and she's just been locked inside a cage with a woman who wants to kick her ass. Hundreds of amped spectators surround the chain-link octagon where the fighters have squared off.
"Let's go, Taneisha!" one man yells above the rumbling din. "Get her! Get her!"
Kyle bounces on bare feet, shifting her weight from side to side, her golden, corn-rowed head lowered and gloved hands raised as she stares across the canvas at her opponent. Jamie Nevena, a tattooed 26-year-old from Union City, stares back. The surrounding overhead spotlights give each fighter and the referee six shadows apiece, which radiate from their feet like spokes on a wheel.
It's the NorCal Fight Fest at Blue Lake Casino, a mixed martial arts (MMA) event where tickets sold for $90 a pop, and after four unremarkable matches and a tedious two-hour intermission, people are hungry for action. This, the only female fight of the night, has them pumped. Their shouts and whistles bounce off the massive metal awning overhead and spill over the beer booth, past the ambulance that's parked on stand-by and into the enormous parking lot.
Kyle, just seconds away from her first MMA fight, slaps her thighs and swivels her arms. She has the solid build of a softball power hitter and her cherubic face -- the eyes nervous but mouth set and determined -- is locked on Nevena.
With three metallic clangs, the fight begins. As the crowd cheers, Nevena advances, her muscular shoulders hunched and lips bulging around her mouth-guard. She throws a series of sloppy punches at Kyle's head, then kicks at her legs. Kyle goes for a wrestling-style take-down, and the two grapple, shove and stumble across the mat. Kyle pins her opponent, then sits upright and unleashes a flurry of punches -- right, left, right, left, connecting with Nevena's ears and face.
The crowd leaps to its feet and erupts in joyous shouts. One onlooker throws a hand over his mouth, laughing. "Oh shit!" he says. "Oh shit!"
Nevena bucks Kyle off, scrambles to her feet and throws a couple of punches down at Kyle, who's landed on her back. But Kyle quickly swings a muscular thigh up behind Nevena's neck and wraps both legs around her opponent, snaring her head and left arm. When Nevena rolls out of it, Kyle seizes the arm, pins it to her own chest and arches her back, trying to bend the elbow the way it's not supposed to bend.
"This is what I came here to see," one guy shouts to his friend. "This is the most exciting thing I've ever seen!"
Kyle keeps the upper position for the rest of the first round, punching Nevena's face and kneeing her ribcage. When the bell rings Kyle stalks back to her corner, breathing heavily. Her cheeks are flushed and her cornrows have sprouted wispy tendrils. A man unbolts the cage door and trainers come rushing in with ice packs and little wooden stools. Kyle's corner men are Pueo Balliett, one of her trainers, and Jason Kyle, her dad.
Next through the gate is a pair of scantily clad ring girls holding "Round 2" cards aloft as they sashay around the perimeter in high heels and star-spangled bikini tops, ass cheeks falling out of their red, white and blue hot pants. Trainers pepper their fighters with instructions -- keep your hands up, move in on her, ground and pound.
Thirty seconds into round two, Kyle is in trouble. Her head is trapped under the vise of Nevena's right armpit. For a full minute Nevena leads Kyle around by the neck, the headlock threatening to cut off her oxygen. Somehow Kyle wriggles out, and before the round ends she turns the tables, locking Nevena in a headlock of her own. Nevena looks ready to "tap out" (a hand-pat motion that signals surrender) when the bell rings. Two of three rounds are complete.
The rapt crowd whistles and hollers, and as the two combatants sit battered and panting, the ring girls return to parade around the cage while the Black Eye Peas blare: "What'choo gon' do with all that ass, all that ass inside them jeans?/I'm a make make make make you scream, make you scream, make you scream ... ."
The trainers and ring girls file out, the cage door is locked and a woman in the crowd yells, "C'mon, Taneisha!"
Kyle swings her fists into fighting stance like she's loading a pair of pump-action shotguns, and when the bell rings she descends on Nevena like a predator. Nevena swings a wild hook, then Kyle swoops in and grabs a leg, upending her. Flat on her back, Nevena hides behind her hands as Kyle fires 13 piston-like rights to the head. Kyle pins Nevena's left arm down with her knee and unleashes 11 more right hands. She pins the right arm with her upper body, and with her opponent virtually defenseless she starts pounding away. Twelve right hooks to the head. Eight more. She swings and swings -- 50 unanswered punches in a row. Nevena can only squirm and flail her legs. Sixty straight punches. Seventy. There's not a ton of power behind each punch. But still, they're punches to the face, and Taneisha's dad raises his hands, wondering why the ref hasn't stopped the fight.
"C'mon, ref!" another man yells.
Eventually Nevena scrambles to her feet, but Kyle quickly grips her head into another figure-four trap between her legs, and this time it's airtight. Nevena can't breathe. Stumbling, she flails her arms, then sinks to her knees. Finally, she taps her hand in defeat. The bell rings. The crowd roars. Kyle hops to her feet, pumping her hands and shouting. Her dad runs into the cage, and she leaps into his arms, gripping his neck in a koala-bear hug like the giddy 16-year-old she is.
With a lust for violence and an open invitation for amateurs, mixed martial arts contests have taken age-old Eastern disciplines of honor and self defense and transformed them into a primal spectator sport. While the "sport" has taken a while to reach Humboldt County, it has arrived. The NorCal Fight Fest on Oct. 15, when Taneisha Kyle won her first bout, was the 11th such event held at Blue Lake Casino. The very next weekend, for the 14th time, Cher Ae Heights Casino hosted an all-amateur boxing/MMA exhibition with the spelling-impaired title "So You Wanna Fight Cuz Ya Think You're Tuff." Even with $90 tickets, the Blue Lake event drew more than 300 spectators. The Trinidad one brought in more than 1,000.
After being outlawed by many state athletic commissions in the 1990s, professional MMA developed a unified set of rules in 2001 and has since grown to surpass boxing in popularity. Kicking, choking and submission holds are allowed, as is striking your opponent when he's down. But there's no head-butting, hair-pulling, groin attacks or throat attacks, among a handful of other outlawed moves. The ferocious, often bloody contests draw huge crowds. Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) tournaments now air on Fox, where a recent fight attracted more than 8 million viewers.
Locally, the line between trained martial artists and barroom brawlers is fuzzy. The NorCal Fight Fest included fighters with a wide range of experience levels. On the afternoon before the event they showed up in the casino parking lot for their weigh-in and physicals. (All participants must submit copies of blood tests that show they are free of HIV, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases. They also must undergo a criminal background check and pass a physical exam.)
Two of the men standing in the sunny parking lot that afternoon couldn't have been much different, despite sharing the same age (24). Joe Soto -- short, 145 pounds of pure muscle -- is a fallen star of MMA. In 2008 he earned $100,000 for a single fight, winning the first-ever featherweight championship for Bellator (a competitor league to UFC). But after two consecutive losses, including a title defense where he caught a knee to the face that knocked him down and detached his retina, he found himself in Blue Lake fighting the headline bout for just $2,500.
The other man was Aaron Williams -- tall, 265 pounds, chubby -- a volunteer firefighter and former high school wrestler from Hoopa who got into cage fighting after being "called out" at a bar.
The pro and the amateur offered vastly different reasons for participating in what's essentially legalized mutual assault with an audience.
"It's not really about fighting," Soto insisted. It's about perfecting his wrestling and jiu-jitsu skills, he said. "And it's not like a street fight or a brawl. It's more beautiful than that. It's an art."
Williams' goals were simpler. "I just like to see their eyes when they get scared," he said with a big grin. "I love the adrenaline. There's no other drug that can match it."
Both would win their fights the following night. Williams, in the first bout of the evening, scored a second-round technical knockout when his opponent fell to his hands and knees, unable to block Williams' sledgehammer punches. Soto closed the night with a convincing victory over another Hoopa fighter, Romeo McCovey.
The Cher Ae Heights event was different. Fights like it are held in Trinidad every six months or so, and they're strictly for amateurs. "No pros, just average Joes," said Don Arnott, the Canadian promoter and organizer behind "So You Wanna Fight." His events, organized as tournaments with single-round fights of just three minutes apiece, are held in numerous North American locations every year. "What makes our event exciting is we'll have up to 30, 40 fights in one night," he said. "Nobody knows what to expect."
The many men and the handful of women who climb into the ring in Trinidad come almost exclusively from humble backgrounds -- electricians, janitors, prison guards, fishermen. With no experience required, their fights are often sloppy affairs full of wild haymakers and clumsy tussling. They can also be brutally violent. The last event in Trinidad left the plastic-covered mat so splattered with blood it could have been mistaken for a crime scene. Which, from the crowd's perspective, is evidence of a good night's entertainment. Nothing triggers a louder roar of approval than a knockout: One second a fighter is throwing punches; the next his body goes slack like the power's been cut, and the air in the casino's packed conference room goes thick with cheers as he drops like a bag of meat.
In July, So You Wanna Fight came under legal scrutiny in Canada. Following a competition, one of the fighters had to be rushed to the hospital when he collapsed after winning two bouts. Surgeons performed emergency brain surgery, drilling a hole in his skull to alleviate pressure caused by severe internal bleeding. Appalled, the British Columbia Medical Association demanded the province ban all mixed martial arts events. (So far, no ban has been implemented.)
Nick Kukuruza, the organizer of Blue Lake's Fight Night, makes no apologies for the violence of MMA. "I've had people get knocked out so bad we thought they were dead," he said. "That's not a joke. That's real." But he argued that the sport is no more violent than football. He even claimed a personal aversion to violence and said that he and Blue Lake Rancheria's Tribal Gaming Commission have implemented safeguards to prevent serious injury.
Ultimately, Kukuruza argued, the impulse to fight is innate. "Believe it or not, most of us have this inside of us. There is a streak a violence."
Fighting as sport can be traced to the ancient Olympic games and spans every inhabited continent. But if it's true that we all possess the impulse toward violence, it's also true that we fear that impulse. Spectator violence and the cultural hand-wringing that accompany it are seasoned opponents, and violence usually wins. Boxing was officially banned from Roman times until the 17th century, and again in the 19th century it was prohibited in England and much of the U.S. But people's hunger for conflict springs eternal.
At MMA events, the fighting taps into something primal, the crowd slavering over violence like Roman plebs at the Colosseum. When intermission was announced at the NorCal Fight Fest, one man standing alone and gripping a $6 cup of Budweiser inexplicably leaned his head back and howled. In Trinidad the following week, violence hung in the air. Two women in the front row kept shouting at a photographer who was blocking their view. "Sit down, fat ass!" they yelled.
At one point, a waitress carrying chicken strips in checkered paper boats walked past the sinewy ring girls and delivered the food ringside, thus completing the rare full set of Animal Cravings of the American Male -- sex, violence, beer and fried chicken.
The Humboldt County Sheriff's Office contracts with the casino to handle security, and the officers frequently have to break up fights in the crowd.
Another sign of how society distrusts its violent instincts: In the last year and a half, a surprising number of heinous local crimes involved men with at least a passing interest in MMA, and news coverage highlighted their hobby as if it were the human equivalent of being a pit bull. Jarrod Gaylen Wyatt, who stands accused of brutally murdering and mutilating his friend and training partner in Klamath last March, had one professional MMA fight under his belt. Mikal Xylon Wilde, accused of killing one man and trying to kill another at his Kneeland marijuana grow, once trained at the Fortuna gym of Nick Kukuruza, the organizer of NorCal Fight Fest. (Kukuruza said he had to kick him out.) And Leon Bigleggins, charged with the murder of a 4-year-old boy, was a mixed martial artist in training.
Intuitively, it's tempting to assume that MMA fighters, who are often willing to inflict violence in the ring, would be more likely to commit violent crimes. Research has revealed no such connection. "There are no experimentally controlled studies showing that those who practice combat sports may become more violent or aggressive as a result of practicing combat sports," psychologist Janel Gauthier of Quebec's Universite Laval writes in the 2009 book Combat Sports Medicine. "Actually, the available evidence suggests exactly the opposite."
Many positive values have been attributed to combat sports: physical fitness, self-defense, discipline and even mental health. "For example," Gauthier writes, "it has been suggested that the practice of combat sports can help to reduce stress, calm and clear the mind ... overcome fear and anxiety [and] enhance self-esteem."
Traditional martial arts like karate and jiu-jitsu (which, roughly translated, means "gentle technique") were historically taught alongside moral values, including nonviolence. Like the reluctant heroes played by Bruce Lee, practitioners of martial arts were historically taught to do everything possible to avoid physical confrontation. At least one local gym does not allow its students to enter MMA competitions; if they do, they're not allowed to return.
Kukuruza says the guys who are truly dangerous may try MMA, but they rarely stick with it. They don't have the self-discipline required. By the same token, dedicated MMA fighters don't have the blood lust you might expect. When he says this, he's upstairs in his Fortuna gym, standing on an old canvas that, after many fights, was retired and used for a hand-painted sign. There are so many blood splatters on the canvas it could be an abandoned Jackson Pollock painting. And the sign, which advertised the 10th Fight Fest in Blue Lake, includes a giant Roman numeral "X" painted bright red, little droplets falling from it like blood from a butcher knife.
Taneisha Kyle's parents divorced when she was 5, her dad retaining custody of her and her younger brother. At 6, she went to visit her mom.
"There were some older boys there," her dad, Jason Kyle, recalled recently. "They teased her, held her down, gave her a hickey next to her eye. She came home crying and I was like, 'Hey, you want to learn self defense?'"
She took to it like a fish to water. By 8 she was asking for permission to wrestle, but her dad, who'd been a wrestler himself, resisted. Three years later she was still asking, so he allowed her to try out for her school's wrestling team, fully expecting her to give up within a month. She didn't quit, and when her dad moved the family from Oregon to Eureka, she kept on wrestling. On Eureka High's squad, she frequently beats guys her size or bigger.
A few years ago, she and her dad both started training with Kukuruza. "It's been a great bonding thing with her," Jason Kyle said. He described his daughter as a natural leader with a good head on her shoulders. At a recent practice in Kukuruza's gym, where she trains for an hour or more nearly every day, Taneisha Kyle said that after high school she'd like to study criminal justice so she can become a detective. But that's a long way off. For now, she wants to keep fighting.
"Pretty much right after my fight [in Blue Lake] I just wanted to go right back in there," she said. "I didn't really care about the attention. I just wanted to do it again because it was, like, such a rush."
Her dad used to get very worried that Taneisha would hurt her neck wrestling, though he tried not to let her see his concern. She always bounces back from minor injuries like jammed fingers. Last year she sprained her ankle badly, but she came back quickly from that, too. Her dad's concern has diminished over time, though he said, "It's still in my heart and my head."
Given MMA's relatively recent acceptance as a sanctioned sport, there have been only a handful of scientific studies on the medical risks. Along with the well-known risks associated with boxing -- most of which stem from head injuries -- MMA, with its grappling and submission techniques, can lead to broken bones, torn tendons and dislocated joints. Around 25 percent of all professional boxing fights lead to injury. The rates of martial arts injuries vary widely depending on the discipline. Karate, for example, is more dangerous than judo or taekwondo.
Regardless of the fighting style, brain injuries are the most dangerous consequence. When a sudden blow to the head bounces the brain around in the skull it can cause a variety of symptoms, from headache and dizziness to loss of consciousness, memory problems and changes in emotional functioning. The symptoms usually go away in a matter of minutes, hours or days. But repeated blows to the head can cause permanent brain damage.
Very few studies have compared the frequency of chronic brain injuries in MMA to those in other sports. Part of the problem, according to researcher Paul McCrory of the Melbourne School of Health Sciences in Australia, is that there's no universally accepted definition of such injuries. So far, evidence suggests that the rate of serious head injuries in MMA is comparable to other sports, but researchers have called for larger, more rigorous studies.
It took some effort to convince Blue Lake Rancheria's Tribal Gaming Commission to let Taneisha fight, but with both her dad and trainer insisting she was ready, Gaming Commissioner Jason Ramos finally relented. Her dad was scheduled to fight the same night in what might have been the first-ever father-daughter combination on the same fight card. But his opponent arrived in Blue Lake without his blood paperwork, so the fight was scratched.
He didn't have to wait long for another one. The following Saturday he showed up in Trinidad for "So You Wanna Fight."
The smoky, low-ceilinged conference room at Cher Ae Heights Casino is packed with people in various stages of inebriation. Stumbling into rows of metal-frame chairs, they shout encouragement, insults and advice at the fighters. Every few minutes, radio DJ Dana "The Burlyman" Hall calls a new pair of combatants into the boxing ring, with its red, white and blue ropes. Huge flat-screen TVs in the corners magnify the action.
Each corner -- red and blue -- has its own dedicated corner men, who often don't get their next fighter's name before offering such sage advice as, "Deliver damage!" or "Get him on the ground and beat the shit out of him!"
The first of several women's bouts features a fighter in tiny black shorts, a black sports bra and fishnet mesh covering her torso and legs. About halfway through the three-minute round she and her opponent seem to realize how silly they look, blindly flailing their arms and staggering around, and they join the crowd in laughing at the ridiculous spectacle of it all.
When Jason Kyle steps into the ring, his corner is already dotted with blood stains. His opponent, a Southern Humboldt man named David August who's 12 years younger than Kyle, leaps into the air and stomps his feet with a guttural shout like a Maori tribal dancer trying to intimidate his enemy.
The bell sounds ,and August comes storming across the ring. Kyle, punching as he backpedals, stumbles backward and lands on his ass. August pounces, his arms a blur as he hovers over Kyle punching him again and again and again. Kyle curls into a fetal position, and with his legs drawn up under August he finds purchase with his feet, kicking his opponent away and stumbling back to a standing position.
August moves in with another relentless barrage of jabs and hooks, one of which collides with the side of Kyle's head, snapping it sideways like a tetherball at the end of its rope. Kyle collapses. His knees hit first, then his upper body slumps forward awkwardly. For a few seconds, before he gets up and shakes it off, Kyle just lies unconscious, his neck bent at a severe angle, face pressed to the mat and eyes open but empty. The crowd explodes with glee.