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California- It’s touted in ads as “pure might battling pure fear,” a marriage of “raw power and brute force” complete with girls, guts, blood and plenty of grit.

And while so-called gladiator or ultimate fighting has gained legions of new fans and celebrity supporters nationwide, the planned appearance of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at a major pay-per-view fight in Columbus, Ohio, this weekend could fire up not only sports aficionados but the governor’s critics as well.

That’s especially true because Schwarzenegger signed legislation in September paving the way for such fights to be legal in California — where the first such state-sanctioned card is planned at the HP Pavilion next week in San Jose.

The sport, also known as cage fighting or mixed martial arts, has been blasted by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as “barbaric” cockfighting with humans. New York state banned the practice several years ago after Gov. George Pataki called it a “Neanderthal sport.”

But those associated with the action-packed events argue that they’ve responded to the criticisms in recent years with reforms that make ultimate fighting far safer — and far more regulated.

Schwarzenegger is scheduled to make a star turn Friday at a “gladiator” match called the Gracie Fighting Championships, touted as the spectacular kickoff to the Arnold Fitness Expo and Arnold Classic, which features amateur and pro fitness competitions, challenges and expos in 30 sports this weekend in Columbus.

Fight night at Columbus’ Nationwide Arena will draw an estimated 8,000 fans and a live pay-per-view audience of at least 300,000 more. Organizers say “some of the toughest fighters on the planet” will engage in five-minute freestyle “mixed martial arts” matchups using a potent blend of karate, boxing, wrestling, Thai kickboxing, judo and ju jitsu.

The California governor’s presence at this — and all the Arnold Classic-related events — has been trumpeted on the Internet and in ads bearing his photo and name. Video spots previewing the evening’s title matchup promise that fans will witness “bone-crushing submissions.”

Margita Thompson, spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger, said Wednesday that the governor will fly to Ohio Friday night and will proudly attend as many of the Arnold weekend events as possible. “This is who he is,” she said of her boss, the former world-class bodybuilder and Hollywood action star. “It’s not surprising.”

Last year, the California governor announced he would cut all financial ties to the Columbus event that bears his name, and its Ohio-based parent firm, Classic Productions, after news stories revealed he held a $5 million-plus contract with Muscle & Fitness and Flex Magazine, two publications produced by tabloid giant American Media Inc.

Paul Wachter, the governor’s financial adviser, said then that the governor would continue to attend Classic events but would receive no income from them. “It’s not about the money. It never was,” he told The Chronicle in an interview last year. “The fundamental principle is, the guy loves this whole thing.”

Pay-per-view fight promoter Wayne DeMilia, a longtime acquaintance of the governor, said Schwarzenegger is unquestionably a draw for the estimated 120,000 fans and 15,000 athletes who will attend the weekend’s events and see him as “a god” in the fitness world.

Schwarzenegger’s presence is particularly anticipated at the gladiator fight, where he will present legendary boxer Joe Frazier with a lifetime achievement award, DeMilia said. Former San Francisco 49ers receiver Jerry Rice and former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield also will attend, DeMilia said.

Already, such gladiator-style fighting events have become a hot ticket, DeMilia said, thanks to plenty of action, fast pacing, buff macho competitors and colorfully staged theatrical touches like bikini-clad “ring girls.”

“It’s legalized barroom brawls. They get in there and pound each other,” DeMilia said.

Male fans “like it because it’s vicious and macho,” DeMilia said, “and the women like it because they’re built nice. There’s a sex appeal.”

DeMilia said that in response to concerns about violence, the sport promoters in 2001 created weight classes and time limits, required more safety equipment and cracked down on dangerous practices like biting, scratching and stomping during matches, which are performed in cages or octagonal rings.

That’s a change from just a few years ago, when “ultimate fighting” was “a fight to the finish with virtually everything you could think of,” said Armando Garcia, executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission. “Now it’s more mainstream.”

Some critics, such as New Jersey-based American Medical Association board member Dr. Peter Carmel, are openly skeptical about the claims of safety and say the practice poses severe health risks to fighters.

“I have no doubt if we bring back lions and Christians, we would fill coliseums,” he told the Sacramento Bee last year. “Do I see a future in it for the entrepreneurs? Oh, yeah. It’s a brilliant future. Do I think these men in this sport have a future? It’s bleak.”

In an election year, Schwarzenegger’s presence at such an event illustrates the Republican politician’s unique salesmanship credentials, but it also could hand his opponents some ammunition about his judgment.

“What a photo op — to have Arnold with some bloody competitors who have just beaten each other up for entertainment,” crowed Democratic activist Gloria Nieto. ‘That’s exactly the image we need for California.”

Michael Semler, a Cal State Sacramento professor of government, said Schwarzenegger’s already shaky approval ratings may suffer if voters question such events outside the state and ask, “Isn’t being governor a full-time job?”

He calls the fight night appearance “a short-term gain for high risk,” adding, “I don’t know of any other governor … who has been engaged in such business on the side.”

But Hoover Institution research fellow Bill Whalen, who has advised state Republican officials in the past, said critics are racking their brains over “how politically correct can one be” when it comes to a unique elected official who established his name and his fortune in the competitive world of bodybuilding.

“This is old home week for him,” said Whalen, adding that the Arnold Expo and Classic and its related events are Schwarzenegger’s way of “going back to the world he came from. These are his people, this is his community, and this is where he comes from.”

Schwarzenegger will appear in Ohio just a week before California’s first state-sanctioned ultimate fighting match, planned for March 10 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose. Already, unofficial fights have begun in recent weeks at Native American-run casinos like Cache Creek.

A 2004 bill by state Sen. Liz Figueroa, D-Fremont, which the governor signed in September and which went into effect this year, mandates that the state Athletic Commission develop regulations for such events and take the responsibility for overseeing them.

Garcia, of the commission, said not a single opponent came forward during the public comment period to take a stand against the measure or the matches, which also are legal in Florida, New Jersey and Nevada.

The bill’s effects already have been seen: At least eight major mixed martial arts events are scheduled at major state venues in the next two months, Garcia said, adding that “this looks to be a big year for us.”

While critics may try to capitalize on the governor’s connection, Whalen said, “It’s a classic example of bringing up an issue that (California voters) don’t care about.

“They’re worrying about environment and education,” he said, “and not about the governor going to a brawl in Ohio.”


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