LOS ANGELES After coming on strong among young men in the last several years, the sport of mixed martial arts is headed for a clinch with mainstream pop culture.
This Saturday, CBS will become the first legacy network to show full matches in prime time. In the wee hours after "Saturday Night Live," NBC is airing a series with fighter profiles and bout footage. Two movies set in the MMA world hit theaters in recent months, including one by acclaimed writer David Mamet, and more are on the way.
But can the brutal sport of chokeholds and sharp elbows truly cross over?
Karo Parisyan says it already has.
"Grandmas have recognized me before on the street," the Armenian fighter said during a break during training at his friend's backyard gym in the San Fernando Valley. "Grandmas! I'm like 'Do you watch UFC?' And they're like 'Yeah, my son watches it and I sit there and watch with him.'"
Parisyan is part of the sport's dominant organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. A series highlighting pros' stories in and out of the ring, "The Ultimate Fighter," is the highest rated original series on Spike TV, averaging nearly 2 million viewers over seven seasons.
A much-touted fight between Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Dan "Hollywood" Henderson drew 5.8 million viewers to the network last season; that's comparable to TNT's audience for last week's NBA playoff games.
Nielsen ratings don't tell the whole story.
Widely circulated Internet videos reflect MMA's underground roots. They were part of "Never Back Down," the formulaic kid-learns-to-fight tale that took in over $30 million worldwide since its March release.
And they made a star of bearded 34-year-old Kevin Ferguson, known as Kimbo Slice. He's only fought in two pro matches, winning both. But online clips of him convincingly pounding nightclub bouncers in Miami backyards, filmed by the pornography outfit where he was working as a bodyguard, drew millions of viewers.
Ferguson, who according to MMA lore named one of his six kids Kevlar, is the main attraction on CBS' first card. He's been doing the publicity rounds for the network, including donning a cowboy hat to present Rascal Flatts with a trophy at the recent CBS-televised Academy of Country Music Awards.
"It's been a new experience," Ferguson said softly after posing for cameras at a CBS press conference. "You only have once chance and one opportunity to walk down that road, and when that opportunity comes, you have to step up to the plate."
There's an equivalent upside for the Tiffany Network. CBS traditionally has the oldest audience of all the networks. MMA skews the opposite direction.
"We saw an opportunity to really kind of plant our flag on a growing sport," said Kelly Kahl, the network's top scheduler. "And if that helps us get a little younger, then so be it. That'll be terrific."
Fights will air live to the East Coast and will be tape-delayed in the West. The network committed with the EliteXC organization to air four "Fight Nights" and could add two more if ratings are high.
"We've reached some advertisers we don't typically speak to," Kahl said, noting that ads for beer, fast food and video games would air during Saturday's bouts. "Those are the kind of things that don't really show up on CBS on Saturday night."
Another seemingly odd fit for MMA: Mamet. The famed playwright is known for tough guy, macho talk. But he's not exactly on the cutting edge of youth culture.
Still, he set his latest film in the world of MMA and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Champions of the latter technique, Rorian and Royce Gracie, helped launch the UFC back in the early '90s.
"The Brazilians used to go around to all the dojos and all the boxing gyms in Los Angeles when they first came and they said 'Bring out your best guy,"' Mamet said. "And they would tromp them. And so out of this came the idea of mixed martial arts."
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as an instructor, "Redbelt" reflects Mamet's passion for the technique. He'd been practicing for five years at a Santa Monica dojo, time enough to mull over the philosophies behind the punches.
"The older we get, the more we want to know how to get on in the world," Mamet said. "The world is made up of conflict, so the question is: How does one deal with conflict? How does one learn to avoid conflict? How does one get better at dealing with conflict? And how does one deal with the conflict within one's self?
"And these are the issues that martial arts and particularly my experience with Brazilian jiu-jitsu deals with. Because what it teaches you is not to use force, or to use as little force as possible. However strong you are, however big you are, if you run out of energy, you've just lost the fight."
Hollywood certainly hasn't run out of energy when it comes to MMA. It looks to figure prominently in the upcoming Terrence Howard-Channing Tatum street fighting film "Fighting," by writer-director Dito Montiel. Also on tap or just released: Two MMA documentaries and two lower-budget features, "Never Submit" and "Red Canvas."
Meanwhile, the fighters will keep reveling in the attention.
"It's only 16 years old, the sport, and it's going through the roof," Parisyan, the UFC fighter, said. "No disrespect to any other sport or boxing, but I think we swallowed boxing already. Boxing has been around for 100 years but no one's fighting anymore. They're trying to hold on and the UFC, man, is blowing up."