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12:21 PM Mon, Sept. 24th

Rage in the Cage 112: Fighters battle opponents and rules

Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier
Jo Jo Thompson, top, was aggressive against Mark Anderson while rules restricted him to open-handed strikes.

Matt Hinshaw/The Daily Courier Jo Jo Thompson, top, was aggressive against Mark Anderson while rules restricted him to open-handed strikes.

PRESCOTT VALLEY - The attraction to mixed martial arts for many is, of course, the brutality.

States that sanction MMA regulate it through boxing and athletic commissions to make the sport safe while still violent.

The regulations in Arizona are different than most and this frustrated the fans at times at Saturday night's Rage in the Cage event at Tim's Toyota Center.

The first 14 of the night's 20 fights were amateur fights, meaning they couldn't use closed-fist strikes to the head and had to slap instead.

This drew boos from the crowd as fighters would get in position to do damage, but were unable to capitalize.

Howard James, competing in the second fight of the night and the first of four competitors from Prescott Brazilian Jiu Jitsu/Mixed Martial Arts lost his fight by decision.

James had his opponent mounted - meaning he was on top with total control - in position that usually leads to a lot of damage to the man on the bottom. But he was unable to finish with open-handed strikes.

"I kind of went away from it because I didn't think they would be good enough," James said of striking. "It makes you want to take it down to the ground because you really can't punch."

James lost but still got the cheers from his hometown crowd. He and his fellow fighters struggled at times with the restrictions, but still pushed the pace to keep the fans into it.

James' teammate Danny Hilton, 21 and fighting for the first time, won by a guillotine choke - trapping his opponent in a head lock and wrapping his legs around him - early in the second round.

"It threw my whole game off," Hilton said of the striking rules.

Even though he is inexperienced, he, like the other fighters, is used to training with closed-fists. But while it's frustrating, most of them understand.

"It's probably a good thing I didn't get hit with a fist," Hilton said after his first experience in the cage.

The announcer would say things to the crowd like "do you want to see a knockout?" But it didn't seem likely until the pros came out later in the night.

Then came Prescott's Bill Burke.

The 36-year-old Burke, fighting in his second fight, got a quick takedown in the first.

After he and Richard Cruz got back to their feet, they clinched and Burk picked up Cruz and dropped him with a thunderous slam.

After a couple more slams and escaping a potential choke, he caught Cruz with a right-hand slap that rocked him and sent him to the ground.

He got on top but could not finish the fight with open-handed slaps as the round ended. But between rounds, the referee called the fight, declaring a technical knockout.

"I didn't see it coming," Burke said of how he won. "My wrestling was a little better, I had some good slams there. But I stepped into it, I let it go and it worked out. I got pretty lucky there."

For Burke and his team from Prescott BJJ/MMA, it was their first taste of the Arizona rules, usually fighting in nearby states like New Mexico.

"We had to train more specifically for this event," said Jon Kessler, head instructor and corner man for the Prescott gym. "It's a little hard for the guys who are kickboxers to box with open hands."

By the end of the night as it got into the professional fights with closed-hand strikes, a good number of fans had left, either because of the late hour or the rules, which many were complaining about during the intermissions.

While the fights picked up even more with the pros, the rules came into play again with Prescott fighter Travis Degroat.

Degroat was controlling his fight with Daniel Madrid, repeatedly taking him down and working from the top.

In the second round, he caught a high kick from Madrid, put him down again and started to hit him.

Only open-handed strikes are legal to the head of a downed opponent, even for the pros, and no elbows are legal at any time.

The referee warned Degroat and deducted a point for hitting Madrid with his forearm. In the third round, the same ruling led to a disqualification for Degroat who was obviously upset.

Even Madrid seemed disappointed to win that way and raised Degroat's arm, acknowledging his performance.

"They said I was hitting him with my forearm," Degroat said. "My hand was open. Who gets disqualified from a cage match for playing too rough?"

The rules are going to change to the "Ultimate Fighting Championship rules" on Aug. 1. Rage in the Cage is likely to return to Prescott Valley by the end of the year so while the crowd was into Saturday night's event, the boos could be a bit more scarce next time.

Joe Riggs, an eight-time UFC veteran with a professional record of 39-9, won the main event with a rear-naked choke in the second round - locking his arms around Matt Dempsey's neck from behind and forcing him to tap out.

It was not Riggs' first time fighting under Arizona rules, but the effects were obvious even for him at times, in dominant positions but unable to inflict damage.

But the night still ended with a crowd-pleasing finish rather than a decision. Even the UFC gets booed for lack of action sometimes. But there were plenty of cheers on Saturday as well.