Utah shadowboxes with 'Fight Club' phenomenon

A clandestine boxing club based on the film draws the attention of lawmakers and shocks conservative state.

Its recent missive, blinking from an untended Web site, sounded like something from a summer-camp brochure: "Where friends once gathered to enjoy each other's company in a new, wholesome way," it began.

But this was no gather-around-the-campfire kind of wholesomeness. Once a week, dozens - sometimes hundreds - of young men and women would gather at a secret location in Provo, Utah, to watch two brawlers smash each other bloody.

This was Fight Club, named and fashioned after the controversial 1999 film in which men, disillusioned and numbed by a commercialized world, beat each other to feel alive. Its leaders referred to themselves only as "Mad Dog" or "Badger," and came from Utah Valley State College and Brigham Young University. They had even been Mormon missionaries.

For now, the fighting has stopped with the onset of summer vacation. But organizers say they'll start again - now, the updated Web site boasts, "Where friends continue to gather to enjoy a relaxing beating."

The discovery that scores of students are finding redemption in what, to many, seems a bacchanalian rite has rocked this most conservative of states.

Already, a state legislator has said he'll introduce legislation to ban fight clubs if the group tries to reconvene. The move has brought new scrutiny to a phenomenon that law-enforcement officials acknowledge they know little about - as in the film, "The first rule of Fight Club is you don't talk about Fight Club."

"Kids have always gone in the basement with gloves on and punched each other," says Larry Fullmer, Utah's boxing commissioner. "But this time, the word got out, so they started getting a lot of people."

There have been other examples of copycat violence linked to "Fight Club," based on a 1996 Chuck Palahniuk novel.

A teen in Auburn, Wash., was hospitalized after a fight. About 20 boys had gathered in a garage to hold "Fight Club"-inspired bouts. And teens in Wisconsin said they were moved by the film when they tortured two other kids - although their actions didn't mirror any of the scenes.

But Provo's Fight Club is by far the most prominent example yet found. Participants fought on a concrete floor in a ring with one rope slung around two-by-fours. The boxers used gloves and mouthpieces, and organizers say a referee kept the participants from getting too nasty, and there were paramedics available at ringside. Three judges declared the winner.

Yet some lawmakers are skeptical of whether these precautions actually kept participants safe. State Sen. Pete Suazo calls the practice too dangerous, noting that sanctioned amateur boxing hires ringside physicians and uses trained referees who ensure a certain amount of decorum.

An amateur boxer himself - and Utah's chief of officials for the US Boxing Association - Senator Suazo threatened legislation to ban, or at least regulate, the clubs.

While outside regulation seems anathema to the fight-club mentality, founders dismiss any notion that they are antiheroes on the radical fringe of society.

"The fact that we are all return missionaries really has nothing to do with our choice of sporting activities," the Fight Club Web site read before it was updated. "Because we box does not mean we don't uphold high standards. It is sad to see that so many people in our community are quick to jump to conclusions and judge people about whom they know nothing."

Indeed, organizers have found themselves having to deflect pointed questions about their morality in a community deeply rooted in the Mormon religion. And for BYU students, their adherence to the school's honor code - which encourages clean living, avoidance of alcohol, honesty, and abstinence - came into question. So far, the school has taken no action.

"We looked at disturbing-the-peace type issues, but my counterpart at BYU looked at it from the side of their honor code," says Derek Hall, a Utah Valley spokesman.

Those concerns, however, didn't stop many people from coming. The meetings were founded on flexibility and spontaneity. "They were very careful to give notice only two to three hours before the match on their Web site," says Suazo.

The result was a mass meeting at some clandestine location. In fact, the response was so great that organizers say they were even surprised by it. "Our intention was never to draw large masses of people together for a Monday night fight," they had written on their old Web site.

Every time the police were called in - as a result of neighbors' complaints about the crowds -the event was breaking up, says Provo police Capt. Keith Teuscher. "I think they've backed off, but if they continue, it would be very secretive."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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