This is a shoe that's been waiting to drop... It's a long article - too long to cut and paste at this moment. This is just the first fifth or so of it.

MMA fighting: Inside look at the brutal sport's rising popularity and danger
Andrew Mills/The Star-Ledger
Print By Matthew Stanmyre/The Star-Ledger
on November 10, 2013 at 12:05 AM, updated November 12, 2013 at 1:22 AM

At 11 o'clock on a Thursday night in August, the thermostat inside George Sullivan's apartment is cranked to 90 degrees.

This might as well be hell.

Over the next 20 hours, Sullivan, a professional mixed martial arts fighter from Brick, must lose 13 pounds. If he fails to shed the weight -- 7 percent of his 184 pounds -- he will jeopardize a full payday for his fight two nights later in Atlantic City.

"This smells," Sullivan says. "It makes you light-headed. You're miserable. Plus, the alcohol is burning every cut."

Sullivan strips and eases into the scalding water.

"Ahh!" he howls. "It burns!"

The intensity of the alcohol takes over the room, making it difficult to breathe. But Sullivan soaks for 20 minutes before staggering out of the tub and climbing back into his sauna suit.

He lies on the floor for another 15 minutes and has a friend cover him with towels like a mummy to seal in heat. When he gets up and peels off the suit, sweat pours out like rainwater from an overturned bucket.

Sullivan then moves to the toilet, where he slumps forward, bare-chested. He uses a silver $25 Visa gift card to scrape sweat from his arms, legs, head and torso. This allows the water to leave his body more efficiently.

"It feels like the world's pushing in on me," he says. "I literally feel like I'm being squeezed."

A little after 6:30 the next morning, following a few hours of sleep, Sullivan ambles into Bally Total Fitness in Brick. He weighs 180 pounds, nine short of the goal.

The next five hours are a test of will and sanity.

Sullivan sits in the sauna for 20- to 30-minute intervals, chewing orange bubble gum and spitting into a paper cup to rid himself of more fluids. He's again slathering Albolene and scraping sweat. It has been more than 10 hours without food and he won't even sip water now.

The only thing Sullivan has put into his body since he woke up is a half-cup of hot tea with honey.

George "The Silencer" Sullivan, a professional mixed martial arts fighter from Brick Township, takes a bath in scalding hot water laced with epsom salt and isopropyl rubbing alcohol to cut weight before his August 2013 MMA fight against Philadelphia brawler Jesus Martinez in Atlantic City.
He checks his weight every hour or so.

By 8:01 a.m., he's 176.7.

By 8:46: 174.8.

By 9:55: 172.6.

By 10:37: 171.2.

After each spell in the sauna, Sullivan, 32, is a snapshot of a slightly different man. Once robust and imposing, he is now gaunt. His eyes are foggy and vacant. His feet and ears are purple and swollen. His brain hurts and his heart, he says, beats at an odd clip.

"Oh my God, you look so skinny!" says his fiancee, Christine Rusher. "I hate this."

By 11 o'clock, Sullivan gets under 171 and wobbles out of Bally.

The final score: 13 pounds in 12 hours.

At 7:32 that night, a sinewy Sullivan stands on a scale at the Gypsy Bar inside the Borgata Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City. He has eaten exactly one and a half ice pops since leaving the sauna. The display shows an even 170, now down 14 pounds from the previous night. With a look of exhausted satisfaction hanging from his face, Sullivan steps off the scale and guzzles from a bottle of Pedialyte that has been mixed with water.

In just 26 hours, he will step into the cage at an astonishing 195 pounds. The life will have returned to his face and body, just in time to slug it out with a brawler from Philadelphia named Jesus Martinez in a welterweight title bout. The fight could net Sullivan enough to cover his rent for the next year, or about $13,000, after he pays his training expenses.

This is how it works in one of America's fastest growing sports.

Mixed martial arts, or simply MMA, is cage fighting that mixes punching, kicking and grappling. Likened to human ****fighting and blood sport by detractors, its intoxicating mix of athleticism, intensity and violence delivers something people have been lining up to see since Rome built the Colosseum.

Still in its infancy, MMA already has entrenched itself in popular culture. It is a success on pay-per-view and cable, and it has started to gain a foothold on network TV.

But hidden from the excitement of fight night is a jarring world few outsiders see. The training, preparation and sparring required before even stepping into the chain-link-enclosed cage is unlike anything in sports, including boxing.

Regardless, tens of thousands of men and women are flocking to gyms that are sprouting up like yogurt shops and nail salons in strip malls across the country. Inside, punches, kicks and knees are exchanged in training sessions that can turn more violent than blood-soaked fight nights. Some fighters spar three and four days a week and accept punishment beyond all conventional limits.

Daring fighters allow training partners to punch them in the face to test their chins. Smaller fighters take beatings from larger men to measure themselves. And injuries are routinely ignored or hidden.

Most within the MMA community are quick to dismiss critics and any suggestion of long-term risks, but a growing chorus of medical experts believes fighters are on course to develop brain diseases similar to boxers, pro wrestlers and football players.

"No matter how you're getting hit, you're going to have damage," says Charles Bernick, the principal investigator of a groundbreaking study in Las Vegas focused on examining the brains of boxers and MMA fighters. "I don't think MMA people are immune to it. Whether you look at them separately or together (with boxers), you still get these findings."

Adds Vincent McInerney of St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson: "I'm stunned -- stunned -- that they've been allowed to do this. This is absolutely barbaric. It's like bare-knuckles fighting again. And they're using elbows and knees. This is crazy beyond belief."

Bernick and McInerney are among the nationally recognized experts on head trauma and brain injuries interviewed by The Star-Ledger during a six-month investigation of MMA. Several marveled that there has been so little discussion about the sport's long-term risks, given the NFL's landmark legal settlement with former players earlier this year.

The Star-Ledger's reporting found several fighters with frightening tales about brain trauma. One fighter, for example, says he slurs his speech for up to 36 hours after sparring sessions. He also was found wandering a department store, oblivious to how he got there. Others tell stories of being dizzy for months after a fight and unable to remember people they've met a few days earlier.

"There's no denying these fighters will have a problem in the future because they're exposed to extraordinary amounts of brain trauma," says Chris Nowinski, co-founder and executive director of the famed Sports Legacy Institute in Boston. "I've read the defenses, saying that boxing is worse because they continue to fight after a standing-eight count. But it's a small nuance.

"You're striking each other in the head. The reality of mixed martial arts is you're able to throw kicks and knees to the head, which exposes the fighters to even greater brain trauma than you can bring with a fist."

And more troubling to some, pre-fight brain scans aren't required in every state, and when they are, doctors say the average CT scan or MRI does not always detect concussions or signs of cumulative damage that can lead to neurological diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) -- the same kinds of diseases plaguing many former boxers and players from other contact sports.

For their part, MMA's proponents argue the sport is safer than boxing because there are fewer head shots.

There are two main reasons for that, they say: In MMA, most of the body can be targeted so there are fewer punches to the face and head, and, secondly, a lot of the action happens on the ground, where fights can be won with "submission" moves such as neck chokes and arm and leg locks.