Tattoos poke out from the collar and sleeves of Pat O'Malley's T-shirt. His face features a collection of nicks and scars. A small cross is inked where a widow's peak would be, if his head wasn't shaved to stubble. His voice sounds like he ate the bottle his last beer came in. But he seems almost gleeful about the contradictions he represents.
"I've got a nerd job, where I sit behind a computer all day long" - he works in customer service - "and people come up to me and say, 'Oh, I wouldn't mess with you!'" he says with a gravelly chuckle. "I'd probably be the safest person to mess with. I'm not going to do anything to you!"
O'Malley, 37, is one of the most accomplished mixed martial arts fighters in Madison. Known by many as "ultimate fighting," the sport combines skills from boxing and wrestling as well as international disciplines like jiu-jitsu and Thai kickboxing.
Mixed martial arts has overtaken boxing and pro wrestling as a spectator sport among the coveted 18-34 male demographic, thanks largely to Spike TV's coverage of Ultimate Fighting Championship. According to >Sports Illustrated, UFC's 2006 pay-per-view revenues were almost $223 million, compared with $177 million for boxing on HBO and $200 million for World Wrestling Entertainment.
And with considerable effort from O'Malley, the sport is finding an enthusiastic audience right here in peace-loving Madison. Along with fellow fighters Ron Faircloth and Nick "The Goat" Thompson, O'Malley started a series of fight promotions called "Madtown Throwdown" at the Alliant Energy Center's Exhibition Hall three years ago.
Fittingly, the 12th Madtown Throwdown, this Saturday night, is subtitled "The Dirty Dozen." Plenty of $25 general admission tickets are still available, but the $100 ringside seats sold out almost immediately.
"The premium seats are always the first to go," says O'Malley. "Between our sponsors and our extremely loyal fans - I try to keep from calling them customers, because they're people who want to partake in a sporting event, not just purchase a product - we've sold out 20 ringside tables that sit 10 people. So that's 200 tickets gone before they're even printed."
The last three events have sold an average of about 1,500 tickets, largely thanks to regular fighters like O'Malley and Faircloth. But local up-and-comers, including 27-year old Travis Hefty, who will be fighting for the third time on Saturday, are also a big part of the draw.
"The equation seems to work with a good number of hometown guys who don't want to lose at home," says O'Malley. "There's a lot of pride there. These guys aren't getting a $20 million payday, but there's no price for people coming up and saying, 'Hey, aren't you that guy?'"
Hefty, a soft-spoken MATC student with a mop of dark, curly hair, doesn't come across as a tough guy, like O'Malley. But it's clear his four-plus hours of daily training have him in excellent condition. O'Malley calls him one of the most talented fighters in the area and a name to watch for in the next few years. If Hefty shares O'Malley's confidence, he doesn't show it.
"I'm really not too good at anything else, honestly," Hefty says.
O'Malley says he's found success by knowing what both fighters and fans want and not selling either short. The result is a relatively straightforward night of fighting devoid of the hype and Vegas-style showmanship associated with boxing.
"It takes two guys with a lot of heart, three months of training, a bellyful of piss and vinegar saying, 'I'm not quitting,'" says O'Malley. "I've had some fights where I've thought it could have been better. But every show has two or three fights where everyone says, 'That was worth the price of admission.'"
O'Malley often uses the term "pure" to describe his sport, which used to be how boxing was viewed. A simple test of strength and toughness, stamina and technique, even grace. And O'Malley thinks there's benefit to exposing more people to mixed martial arts fighting, even at a young age.
His oldest son, Dallas, was a state champion wrestler at Stoughton High School, weighing in at 215 pounds. He's going to Iowa State on a scholarship this fall. But O'Malley notes with pride that his son sees fighting as competition, not as a way to solve problems.
"In good conscience, I can say I taught my kid that because I let him see this. It's not a dirty sport that needs to be swept under the rug. It's an athletic endeavor. And if anyone thinks it isn't, I'll work out with them without putting a hand on them for 20 minutes and, guaranteed, I'll have them puking in the bubbler."