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Forget dog shows and crab feeds. For bone-crunching, blood-splattering, knock-you-out action at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, the only place to be Saturday night is at cage combat.

Never heard of it? Cage combat, or mixed martial arts as it also is called, pits two men gladiator-style inside an octagon rimmed by a chain-link fence and hordes of raucous fans.

The sport makes its official debut in Sonoma County with the Cage Combat Fighting Championships on Saturday at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds' Grace Pavilion, where $125 buys a ringside seat for close-ups of fighters and scantily clad ring girls.

"You're going to see blood. You're going to see people get knocked out. You're going to see people go to sleep. That's just an aspect of the game," said Franco Burcina, a 30-year-old father of two from Santa Rosa and one of 26 men scheduled to fight Saturday.

Burcina's almost in fighting shape, needing to shed another nine pounds by Friday night's weigh-in to make the 190-pound weight class.

But is Wine Country ready for combat fighting at a location normally associated with gem and flower shows and, the weekend after the fight, a Christian revival concert?

Fair Manager Corey Oakley did not return several messages this week seeking comment. A fair board member declined comment Wednesday, and other board members could not be reached.

Other officials, however, expressed concern about the event.

"I know nothing about it but I can tell you this is not something I would support," Santa Rosa Mayor Jane Bender said. "We're working incredibly hard to prevent gang violence and youth violence, and we don't need role models like this."

The competition has been advertised in newspapers and on radio but hasn't garnered wide attention. The county Board of Supervisors, which appoints fair board members, was not briefed on the event, Supervisor Mike Reilly said.

"Something like this, I'd expect them (fair officials) to pick up the phone but so far they haven't," he said Tuesday. "I assume they've approved it and it's being closely monitored and evaluated."

Despite the provocative title Cage Combat, supporters of the sport insist it's relatively safe compared to other athletic events and that no one ever has died at a sanctioned mixed martial arts competition.

Ultimate fighting, as it also is known, combines boxing, karate, wrestling, jujitsu and good old-fashioned street brawling. The sport draws well-trained athletes from the ranks of former college wrestlers, expert martial artists and boxers.

Fueled by cable and pay-per-view TV, the sport is attracting a growing fan base, including 18,000 spectators for a March event at San Jose's HP Pavilion. That was the largest crowd to see one of these competitions in the United States.

The state sanctioned the sport this year, officially legitimizing what used to be no-holds-barred backroom brawls with the motto: "Two men enter, one man leaves."

"People think of these fights as blood baths but I've seen worse cuts and bleeding in boxing," said Todd Middendorp of Napa, who along with his twin brother, Tully Middendorp, is promoting Saturday's fight. "The rules that California and Nevada have set up err on the side of safety for fighters."

Todd Middendorp, 38, said Sonoma County Fair officials were not reluctant "at all" when he approached them about hosting the event at Grace Pavilion.

"I'm not sure if they know exactly what it is, but they're excited about it and they're coming to the show," he said. "They may hate me afterward, but I explained to them what it was."

The sport has a local celebrity in David Terrell, who owns Norcal Fighting Alliance on Industrial Drive, where many of the local fighters train. Terrell has fought in events sponsored by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the top organization in America catering to the sport.

New rules forbid, among other things, head butting, eye gouging, biting, hair pulling, groin attacks or "putting a finger into any orifice or into any cut or laceration on an opponent."

There are strict weight classes and doctors on hand should a fighter get injured.

"I'm not trying to hurt the person," said Burcina, who works in construction to support his training. "If I hit him or he goes to sleep, I'm going to be the first one to pick him up and see if he's all right, buy him a beer afterward. I expect the same in return."

Supporters say the chain-link fence protects combatants better than ropes in a boxing match by preventing a fighter from falling out or hyperextending his neck.

They also argue that the gloves, which weigh four ounces compared with eight ounces for pro boxing, are safer because less cushioning means fewer blows to an opponent's head before a fighter risks injuring his hand. There is no standing-eight count in ultimate fighting; the referee or the ringside doctor can end the bout at any time.

A fighter also can end a bout by tapping his opponent's body or the mat three times in succession.

"I love it," said Kyle Pimentel, 22, of Santa Rosa, another fighter on Saturday's card. "It's the oldest sport if you look at it. Greco-Roman style was two people beating the crap out of each other until one gave up."

Todd Middendorp, whose day job is in sales, said he has sunk a considerable amount of money into Saturday's fight, his first as a promoter.

He estimated he's spent up to $100,000 for license fees, medical and general liability insurance and advertising. He also paid for security guards and a contract with Santa Rosa police, who will have four officers at the event.

Police Capt. Tom Schwedhelm, a former boxer, said his concern isn't with the fighting but with the alcohol that will be served at the event.

"From a policing standpoint, generally it's the problems associated with alcohol or intoxicated persons, whether it's a fashion show or a fighting event," he said.

Officials with the State Athletic Commission also will be on hand Saturday to see how well it goes before deciding whether to grant Middendorp a permanent license.

"I just hope to break even financially and have all the fights be competitive," Middendorp said. "At the end of the day, people are paying for entertaining fights."

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