At first glance, Kelly Anundson looks like a back-alley brawler's worst nightmare.
He climbs out of the boxing ring at White Rock Gym near Ballentine, where he has been training for South Carolina's first sanctioned mixed martial arts (MMA) fight card - a rock-solid 5-foot-11, 205 pounds of bulging biceps, shaved head and beard-stubbled face.
If there's a local poster child for the visually brutal exercise that has spawned the wildly popular Ultimate Fighting Championships and StrikeForce TV shows, this guy seems to be it - until, that is, he speaks.
Then you discover an intelligent, 25-year-old Washington state native, a three-time All-American wrestler in junior college and at Newberry College who carried a 3.1 GPA while earning his degree in leisure services. The soft-spoken Anundson says he views MMA not as an outlet for aggression or a legalized way to beat up people, but as a sport - and, he hopes, a professional career for himself.
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"It's something new and, I think, misunderstood," he said. "Some people have called it 'human dog-fighting,' but if you understand it, it's as technical as boxing, and a lot think it's safer (than boxing).
"I consider it an honor to be part of South Carolina history. I hope everyone will accept it."
So do Sam King and Andrew Stokes, local promoters who will stage the mixed boxing/MMA lineup Saturday at the Radisson Conference Center, Broad River Road and I-20. (Weigh-ins will be 6 p.m. Friday at the Wild Hare sports bar in The Vista.) They're looking for a sellout of 1,000 to 1,200, which seems a reasonable goal given crowds of 12,000 to 18,000 have jammed arenas in Chicago, California, Las Vegas, Atlanta and elsewhere.
Michael Tyler, chairman of the S.C. Athletic Commission, which petitioned state legislators for two years to make MMA legal, believes Saturday is a jumping-off point for South Carolina - the 38th state to allow licensing of the burgeoning sport - to belatedly cash in on the phenomenon.
"We're losing money," Tyler said. "We had fighters calling us, asking when we'd have it, and then taking revenue elsewhere. We felt this was a great opportunity."
Tyler has seen it. He attended a recent UFC card at Atlanta's Phillips Arena where, "if I'm not mistaken, $3.5 million worth of tickets were sold and 600 hotel rooms booked," he said. "This can be a great economic boost, and South Carolina needs that right now."
Promoters and the state might make money Saturday, but not those competing in 10 scheduled MMA bouts (seven boxing matches are also scheduled). Professional MMA is legal in South Carolina, but this inaugural night will be conducted under amateur rules.
"The S.C. commission can now approve professional shows, but this isn't one," said Cory Shafer, president of Florida-based ISKA, which is sanctioning and overseeing the event. "The first one is always a test run, and the commission was more comfortable having an amateur event first."
Fights will be three rounds, three minutes per round, rather than the professional standards of five five-minute rounds. Fighters will wear 7-ounce gloves instead of the pro-standard 5-ouncers. Other restrictions include no forearm or elbow strikes, no knee strikes to the head, and limited below-the-waist submission holds.
Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, can't wait. At the athletic commission's request, he and Rep. Jim Merrill of Berkeley County co-sponsored the MMA bill, which passed this year after being rejected in 2008. Knotts, who boxed while in the Navy and locally, has reserved a table at the Radisson for himself and friends.
"I want to see firsthand what it's like," Knotts said. "I've watched it on TV, and I told Tyler (when he asked Knotts to sponsor the bill), 'Look here, I'm the most avid boxing fan in the State House.' It's a man's sport - well, actually, women do it, too - and it's huge nationwide.
"I really do think (a combined MMA/boxing debut) is a good idea, let the community get a chance to see it. A lot of people in South Carolina who travel to Georgia and Florida and the Midwest to participate and compete, this gives them a chance to do that locally."
The primary issue that led to the Legislature's initial rejection of MMA, Knotts and Shafer said, was its image. Unlike previous "no holds barred" or "tough man" fighting, UFC and its brethren are tightly controlled with "32 things that are considered a foul," Shafer said - and, he said, a safer track record than boxing and even such traditional sports as football.
Tyler and Knotts also stress safety regulation, plus the chance for S.C. fighters like Anundson who come from a variety of other "combat sports" to ply their trade at home. But no one denies a driving force behind MMA is the profit potential.
"It's an up-and-coming sport in America," Knotts said. "Anywhere you go, they've got a pay-per-view fight coming on at the sports bars."
For the past year, Anundson has built on his extensive wrestling background by working with White Rock's Dominic Robinson-Neal, a one-time professional boxer, U.S. Army Ranger and boxing coach for 25 years.
"He's phenomenal," Robinson-Neal said. "You'll see him on UFC one day."
Newberry College wrestling coach Jason Valek, who said Anundson qualified for the U.S. Olympic Training Center and was a USA Wrestling All-American, agrees.
"He was a tougher kid than he was a good wrestler," Valek said."He'd beat up kids even when he lost. He's one of the toughest S.O.B.s I've ever seen."
Anundson hopes that's enough. "I'd like to see how far I can take it," he said. In four out-of-state MMA fights, he's 4-0.
Saturday, Robinson-Neal will be in his corner. Valek, Tyler and Knotts will be in the audience, while Shafer oversees physicals and referees. All hope the night will be as exciting as they expect.
For sure, it will be historic.