DENVER — SOME call it ''human cockfighting.'' Even promoters of an upcoming Ultimate Fighting spectacle call it ''the bloodiest, most barbaric show in history.''
For its part, Denver would like to call the whole thing off.
In the two years since its global debut in the Mile High City, Ultimate Fighting - a bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred form of boxing - has grown into a raging success. Almost 300,000 viewers from 29 countries are expected to watch the Dec. 16 ''Ultimate Ultimate'' tournament on pay-per-view TV, in which eight martial artists will kick, punch, and throttle each other for a $150,000 prize. But city and state leaders are vowing to make this event, no matter how successful, the last of its kind in the state.
Last week, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb (D) forbade the city-owned National Western Events Center from hosting the tournament. He said the center's private management breached their contract by not informing the city of its list of upcoming events. ''We want to promote a safe city, not a violent city,'' the mayor said at a press conference.
Mr. Webb said he had made a value judgment based on his conversations with other politicians on Ultimate Fighting and decided that it's not an event the city should condone. Webb also said pay-per-view customers would get a negative image of Denver if the fight took place in a city arena.
Ultimate Fighting has been taking some knocks recently as officials in Charlotte, N.C., and Brooklyn, N.Y., and local officials in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and South Carolina have canceled and prohibited the brawls.
But don't expect any cheers from the growing number of fans for Ultimate Fighting.
''I don't like to see government trying to control something like this,'' says fight fan Paul Rivera, who lives in the Denver area. ''It is as safe as hockey, football, and boxing.'' There are rules in Ultimate Fighting, he notes, such as no biting or eye-gouging, and doctors are at ringside to keep things from getting out of hand.
Even members of the Denver City Council spoke up to oppose a city ban on Ultimate Fighting.
''I don't support censoring the use of our facilities,'' said Denver City Councilwoman Cathy Reynolds. Mindful of civil liberties, she said that Ultimate Fighting may be ''bad theater'' but she wasn't prepared to tell people what they should spend their money on to see.
The promoters, who say they will hold the event in another arena in Denver, at first threatened to sue the city for breach of contract. This threat prompted one of Webb's top aides to respond casually, ''They can get in line.''
The showdown between Denver and the promoters, Semaphore Entertainment Group, reached a head on NBC's Today Show recently. As host Bryant Gumbel looked on, SEG president Robert Meyrowitz asked Webb whether he had ever seen an Ultimate Fight. The mayor admitted that he had not.
''The event is not as the politicians are portraying it,'' says Campbell McLaren, vice president of SEG. ''We have a spotless safety record.'' SEG says that in 10 events, the worst injury has been a broken finger. There are no timeouts or rounds in Ultimate Fighting, and matches are concluded either when a contestant surrenders or loses consciousness.
Meanwhile, Webb has drawn much support from public figures for his stand, including kudos from Republican US Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and John McCain of Arizona and Colorado Gov. Roy Romer (D). Governor Romer complained that he had tried to ban Ultimate Fighting himself, but had no legal tool at his disposal. This tool may be coming shortly, however, with state Rep. Nolbert Chavez (D) of Denver pledging to offer legislation next year to ban Ultimate Fighting in the Rocky Mountain State.
And on the city council, most members seem to support the mayor. ''I think in the end your decision will prove to be the right one,'' Denver City Councilman Ed Thomas told Webb.