Northwest Arkansas Times: July 29, 2007
Blood, sweat & no fears: Local mixed martial arts movement follows national trend, explodes in popularity
The judges named the man a victor, but it was hard to tell by looking at him. Following a July 13 fight at the All Star Sports Arena in Springdale—the second of Josh Rogers’ mixed martial arts career—there was no press conference or flashbulbs in sight. Instead, he sat among a sea of chairs that, like Rogers, had seen better days.
“Look at you,” said Rogers’ wife, Carrie, after checking on her bruised husband. “I think you look more handsome now than you did before.”
“I’m glad you think so,” he replied.
During his MMA debut on May 12, it took him about as much time to defeat his opponent as to go through a fast-food drive through. In that fight, he defeated his opponent in 45 seconds with a triangular choke hold. As evidenced by his puffed-up face and blood-dabbed body, his fight July 13 at an even called “Throwdown in the Ozarks: Cage of Punishment” with Siloam Springs resident Juan Parra was an entirely different story, lasting all three three-minute rounds.
“It’s what I thought a long fight would be: It hurts and you’re tired,” Rogers said.
In what turned out to be a controversial ending, Rogers was named the winner after apparently taking the first two rounds through a series of double-leg takedowns in spite of being pummeled by Parra for at least half of the fight’s duration.
“He’s an extremely good opponent,” the 28-year-old Fayetteville native said of Parra. “It was tough. He had a wicked hook that got me every time.”
Before the pain set in, he felt adrenaline—and a sense of empowerment that coincided with the hard-rock music pumped through the venue’s speakers—course through his body. It’s this feeling that will keep Rogers training four days a week, and in turn, has made mixed martial arts one of the world’s faster-growing sports.
“I get nervous every time before he goes in there, but I have confidence in him,” Carrie Rogers said. “He loves to do this.”
Gigantic and growing
Long before Rogers and his fellow fighters stepped into the hexagon-shaped steel cage, event promoter Scott Harper was busy scurrying around the arena, making sure that all of the cogs, bells and whistles were functioning smoothly for his first fight as a promoter.
“We’ve been running around all morning with our heads cut off,” Harper said.
It was in the same venue at an event on May 12 that Harper first participated as an MMA fighter after being a longtime fan of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport’s top circuit. He decided he wanted to run his own shows and within weeks KSK Promotions was born out of his Bella Vista home.
“We saw the potential of the sport to grow,” Harper said. “My wife [Kristie] and I started crunching numbers and thought this would be fun to promote because we’re all into the sport.”
To say that the sport has seen a recent increase in interest on the local, national and worldwide fronts would be an understatement without the use of words such as surge or explosion. The UFC was established in 1993 with the original gimmick of having a tournament filled with the most skilled combatants in all of the major martial arts, including karate, jujitsu, boxing, kickboxing, wrestling and sumo.
Now, 14 years later, as pay-per-view and gate numbers continue to soar, the sport deemed by some as too brutal and bloodthirsty has become too hard to ignore. The May 28 version of Sports Illustrated included an eight-page feature on the sport titled, “The New Main Event.” The UFC raked in $233 million in pay-per-view revenues in 2006, compared to boxing on HBO at $177 million and World Wrestling Entertainment professional wrestling at $200 million, according to the article.
The popularity of the UFC has certainly created a ripple effect in the Northwest Arkansas area, creating fighters, schools and promoters.
“It’s not even a year ago. It’s still a baby,” amateur MMA fighter Joe Bacanay said about the sport’s popularity in the area.
Bacanay, a 31-year-old Springdale native, trains with Rogers at Bloodline Submission and Grappling, which is housed at Wolf’s Grin in Bentonville.
Rogers said that since he started attending Bloodline in January he has seen a 33 percent increase in the number of committed students. He estimated that there are at least 100 serious MMA fighters in the area who maintain a strict training regimen.
Other area programs that offer MMA training include TCB Boxing in Rogers, the Arkansas College of Martial Arts in Fayetteville and Warrior’s Way in Springdale.
Brent Smith, who started Bloodline after moving from Los Angeles about four years ago, said that he has a goal of setting up a specialized MMA training facility by Jan. 1. Smith added that out of the aforementioned 100 area fighters, only about 20 to 30 of those men actually compete in fights. Of those, Smith said only he and fellow Bentonville resident Shawn Fitzsimmons participate in pro-level fights.
Although not from Northwest Arkansas, David Heath has been raining in Tulsa with Smith, Fitzsimmons, and several others in preparation for his upcoming UFC fight against the favored Renato Sobral at “UFC 74: Respect” on Aug. 25. Heath, who has a 9-1 career record in MMA and has been fighting since 2003, has a story most fighters would love to claim for their own: He is a Nowata, Okla. native who, after training at more than 50 schools, has made it to the biggest stage in the sport.
As far as advice for aspiring fighters, Heath said that one has to stay humble and hungry, no matter the size of the ego boost that results from winning.
“In the sense that no matter how good you get there’s always going to be someone better,” he said. “You shouldn’t think too highly of yourself for beating somebody up. Keep the sport in perspective. People get caught up. They think fighting is a bigger thing than it really is in the grand scheme of things.”
Bringing the fight
Brandon Wilson, a Lowell native, is credited with getting the sport rolling in Northwest Arkansas when he cofounded Champions of Rage Entertainment, also known as C.O.R.E., with two business partners, Aaron Kimball, who owns TCB Boxing, and Gunther Vincent. The trio put on “Extreme Fight Night” an event that drew 2,500 patrons. Wilson promoted his second fight, called “Extreme Fight Night 2,” on July 7 at the outdoor stage at The Gypsy in Fayetteville.
“There’s a lot of people interested in the national brand UFC,” Wilson said. “Nobody’s ever done it here. It just baffled my mind that nobody had. So I said I’d do one… I think right now mixed martial arts is going to bypass every ring sport in the nation, if not the world. There’s so many ways to win. It doesn’t matter the size, how long you’ve been training, a guy can come and get you in less than a round in a submission.”
Through such means as a submission, MMA fighters, fans and promoters alike say that the sport is not as vicious as its opposition claims. One of the sport’s biggest battle cries is that it’s safer than boxing.
“They give you 10 seconds to recover and your endorphins kick in and tell your body you’re ready when you’re really mentally not. Then you get hit again and again and again. That’s what causes brain damage,” Harper said of boxing. “In this sport, you get knocked out, it’s over.”
Clad only in shorts and padded gloves just large enough to cover the fist, MMA fighters compete for up to three rounds by using all forms of martial arts from the powerful kicks featured in Jean-Claude Van Damme movies to the grappling techniques of Greco-Roman wrestling. Often, however, a fight never fully matures as an opponent goes down by tapping out. To tap out, a fighter must make a tapping motion on the ring—or whatever else he can get a hold on— as he begins to lose oxygen or blood flow, or the pain becomes too great.
“Submission I think is the best way to win because the other person is consciously saying, ‘I’ve had enough of fighting you,’” Rogers said.
Bacanay, who was able to defeat Springdale’s Albert “Spider Monkey” Mendoza in the second round of his July 13 fight with a rear naked chokehold, said the most pain inflicted in a ring is “not as bad as you think. It doesn’t hurt when you do it, to be honest with you.”
Still, it’s the safety of the sport and the potential for serious injuries, which take place more frequently with amateurs than professionals, that has John Mattingly of the Arkansas State Athletic Commission concerned.
Mattingly, who has been the commission’s secretary for three years, said that around last October the applications to be amateur MMA promoters began to rapidly increase. Beginning with a March 10 event in Jonesboro, the ASAC decided to require all MMA fighters to sign affidavits that say they have never acceptable more than $50 to be in a fight.
Although Arkansas is just one of the 19 states where MMA is legal, the state is near the end of the line when it comes to how much power it has to regulate amateur events. Piet Wilhelm, a former MMA fighter who runs several schools in Tulsa and served as the referee for the July 13 event, said that states such as New York and New Jersey require fighters to undergo a long list of prefight health inspections, including a CAT scan and various blood work.
“In Oklahoma and Arkansas, the only thing they require you to have is a heartbeat,” Wilhelm said.
The commission has far more regulations and restrictions for pro and semipro fights than were established in 1999, but with a lack of professional promoters in the state, the focus is mostly placed on the growing number of amateur fights.
In order for a fight to be legal, a member of the ASAC has to be in attendance. Under an ideal setup, doctors will be on hand to give physicals before the fight and do checkups afterward. Ideally, promoters will provide health insurance in case serious injuries to occur.
“If we don’t do that somebody’s going to get real hurt and that’s going to be bad for the sport,” Mattingly said.
Mattingly was one of several representatives from the state who attended the Association of Boxing Commissions’ annual national convention in Miami this past week as states attempt to find a way to regulate a sport that has clearly become the new king of the ring, knocking out the purists and pugilists of boxing during the process.
“It is taking away from boxing but boxing’s been losing ground for several years,” Mattingly said. “There’s more action. Younger people like more action. As long as they get that, it’ll continue to grow.”