THE CROWD FILLS IN. ABOUT HALF could pass as fighters. The girlfriends may not all be trouble, but they have perfected the look. Think deep Valley, Inland Empire, high desert. Queues quickly form at the two bars. Three adult-video actresses from Wicked Pictures take seats behind a red table beside the snack counter. The sex workers, two blondes and a brunette in scoop-neck T-shirts, smile and sign autographs

If you don't understand why someone would pay to watch two seminude adult males step into a chainlink cage for the purpose of beating one another into submission, then you are not at the Hollywood Palladium on the summer-hot Friday night of November 15. A sporting crowd of 1,500 cognoscenti have forked over at least 30 bucks each to witness seven no-holds-barred brawls sanctioned by the Universal Above Ground Fighting (UAGF) league.

Many of the fighters have been in the auditorium for two hours before the doors open at 8 p.m. Dressed in loose sweats, they flock to the cage. This enclosure, designed to contain and heighten the hostilities, is set near the middle of the auditorium's floor, raised two feet above a sea of chrome-legged chairs. The combatants stare into the octagonal structure, at the padded posts and heavy chainlink, at the yellow mat on the floor. The area within the cage is spacious, but not spacious enough to keep one of two large belligerents from being thrown across it like a rag doll.

Mark “The Bear” Smith, the card's headliner, shakes hands ringside before the fights begin. Light on his feet despite carrying almost 300 pounds, the Bear laughs and pulls play punches, acting as if he and Boo Boo, another fighter, are about to hunt for Easter eggs. “I'm not hardcore and pissed off at the world,” insists the big redhead. “I love to fight. I've always loved to fight.”

A mandatory “rules meeting” is held in a room hidden behind one of the bars. About 30 fighters and trainers agitate on green cement benches. Fists and jaws clench. It is impossible for rivals to avoid eye contact.

The designated referee explains that anything goes, except for 21 forbidden tactics, including small-joint manipulation (“That means bending back something like a single finger”), throwing an opponent out of the fenced area or grabbing clothes.

An MC wearing a tuxedo and black tie enters the cage, and out boom the deep, portentous tones of God, if God were on a regimen of steroids and malt liquor. The first two fighters are both making their pro debuts. The smaller man's belly overhangs his shorts; he weighs 235 pounds. The other warrior is bulkier and taller and modestly retains his T-shirt.

There's something edifying about seeing a big lug punched in the face, but the fun doesn't last long. A five-minute round is eternity for these behemoths. They drag in glacial slow motion and are met with lazy boos. In round two, the smaller of the hulks scores a takedown and sprawls on top of his beached opponent. The bottom guy is unable to squirm out from under the inert bulk.

The next two adversaries, at about 180 pounds, are comfortable taking off their shirts. The quicker grappler lifts his opponent shoulder-level and slams him to the mat. The audience is happiest when one fighter squats on his colleague's chest and pounds him in the face, and there is much happiness during this bout, until the referee steps in. The entire match lasts 47 seconds.

The UAGF is decidedly minor-league in the sport of recreational battery. Matchmaking is haphazard, and few of the seven fights are competitive.

The evening's climax comes when the three Wicked Pictures representatives stalk around the ring and toss free T-shirts out of the cage. The mob surges forward, and a throng six thick surrounds the chainlink, raising their arms as if in worship.

After a few more lopsided pummelings, Mark “The Bear” Smith ambles toward the cage in a plush brown robe that makes him look like the spawn of a Benedictine monk and a California grizzly. Smith's victim is a 240-pound reputed judo champ from Victorville, California. In Russia, a former judo champion might become Vladimir Putin. Here, he stumbles into a bear hug, is tossed to the ground and taps out, all in the span of 35 seconds.

A scuffle breaks out in the crowd, instigated by two young women in low-waisted denim. The referee wrests the microphone from the MC and hectors the knot of shoving gallants. “We don't go to your house and start crap; so cut it out before me and my friends come over there and start a real fight.”

Promises, promises.

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