BURBANK, Calif (Reuters) - Electrically charged knives hum and crackle as two fighters circle each other on the gym floor, slashing and kicking out.
Closing in they throw punches and swing elbows before crashing to the mat to grapple as the crowd cheers them on. One slips a hand free and sends a several thousand volt jolt into his opponents ribs to end the fight.
Two more fighters quickly take their place, swinging hefty sticks, thwacking, punching and head-butting one another in a brutal battle accompanied by the rhythmic thumping of drums.
Welcome to the world of the Dog Brothers, a Los Angeles area fight club that draws combatants from various walks of life for twice-yearly, no-holds-barred brawls with fists and assorted weapons that often end in welts, bumps, bruises, if not blood.
The self-styled tribal brotherhood emerged out of the martial arts community in Southern California in the 1980s, where their hard sparring methods set them apart and gained them notoriety.
Their meetings have no referees, no prizes and few rules, and the fighters’ only protection are gloves and a fencing mask. They are now drawing a growing number of participants from across the United States and around the world.
“This is like the ultimate. You’ve got striking, you’ve got grappling, you’ve got weapons, anything goes,” said Matt Booe, a karate instructor hoping to fight with hefty, blunted knives at a recent gathering in Burbank, just north of Los Angeles.
“It gives you the idea of really finding out what martial arts are like, not just doing pretty forms.”
The Dog Brothers was founded twenty years ago by martial artists schooled in Filipino stick fighting, who ditched padding to develop their own mixed style of high speed, full-contact brawling.
They held their first bruising series of fights over three days in a city park — during which they took their name from a “Conan the Barbarian” comic book — and have continued to meet regularly ever since, with first aid help always on hand.
Members of the group call their twice-yearly rumbles a “Gathering of the Pack.”
Participants pay no fees, but have to sign a waiver stating that there will bring no lawsuits, and agreeing to one rule: “be friends at the end of the day.”
“When I face someone with a stick, I get hit and I hit him, everything else, all the little things, the bills, the reports, are gone,” said Jesse Aarons, 25, a produce store manager from Canada, explaining the gatherings’ allure.
“It makes me feel alive. I have never felt better than when I am doing this.”
There are no prizes to be won. The reward for those bold or foolish enough to take part at several gatherings is, at the discretion of the elders, the chance of membership of the Dog Brothers Tribe, and the right to their own “Dog” name.
Co-founder Marc “Crafty Dog” Denny says a serious credo that he calls “higher consciousness through harder contact” underlies their methods, and gives those who take part a necessary outlet for their aggression.
“Aggression has its reasons in nature,” said Denny, 56, who teaches martial arts but no longer fights at the gatherings. “It’s about developing it in a healthy way before it discharges inappropriately.”
“It’s helping people reconnect and be healthy with it,” he added.
Recent gatherings have drawn a growing number of participants from as far afield as Mexico, Canada and Europe. Spectator numbers are up too, and media interest is also on the rise.
Analysts say the popularity of the fight club is probably best understood in the context of a rising interest among both participants and viewers in extreme sports such as climbing without ropes, parachute jumping off tall buildings and wilderness survival challenges.
“It’s like these extreme experiences where they drop a group of three or four guys without food and water into the middle of the wilderness and they have to survive for four or five days, and they come out feeling like they are brothers,” said Ron Astor, a professor of social work and education at the University of Southern California.
“This is awfully similar I think,” he said. “Pushing yourself to the edge.”
Members of the hard-knocks club agree that trading blows leads to an intense bonding experience for them.
“We are here to test ourselves and test each other, but the default assumption is that we are going to care for each other,” said Corey Davis, 50, a burly union rep known as “Pound Dog,” his head bleeding and forearms striped with welts after several bouts.
“Oddly enough, what I feel is love. Honestly, I wish I could find a church with the same spirit of support and love.”
For others, the experience was transformative.
“You’re different than when you came in,” said Brian Stoops, 30, a school teacher known as “Guide Dog.”
“You’ve put yourself through an experience that most people would go out of their way to avoid.”
Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Eddie Evans