The Amateur: Mixed Martial Arts, Part III

There are many sports out there. ↵Spencer Hall isn’t good at any of them. Join him as he shows off his ↵athletic anti-prowess while attempting various sporting activities for ↵the first time in the “The Amateur.” ↵
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Today we continue Spencer Hall's first-hand encounter with the world of MMA. Read Part I of this experience here and Part II is here. Now, Part III, in which he descibes the five things you will see at an MMA fight ...
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↵One: Mean-Looking Dudes.
The leading per capita group of mean-looking dudes anywhere on the planet would be a randomly selected group of MMA fighters. Take this bet above, say, a group of Navy SEALS, because they are far too clean-cut, and generally not covered in badass Russian prison tattoos. I went to the glorious Atlanta International Convention Center to King of the Cage to see Cale Yarbrough fight, and quickly discovered the single greatest concentration of frightening-looking people on the planet. ↵

↵The first fight -- one of 14 on the evening in total -- involved two scary looking men. Then, two more fought, and two more, and so on and so on until I'd seen enough to be convinced of their superlative terror status. Lean muscle, scars, tattoos, cauliflower ear, and well-practiced dead-eyed warfaces: that's what we're talking about here in every instance. The only thing that would make them more frightening would be fangs and poisonous spikes on their back, though I'm not altogether sure a couple of them didn't have them. (See: Australian MMA, where I'm sure fighters have evolved all of these and more.) ↵

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↵Two: All Fighters Prepare Differently. As I said: I'm here on assignment to watch Cale fight. I email him the day before, and among other scintillating journalistic questions ("Hey, aren't you nervous about climbing into the ring with someone who wants to beat the crap out of you?") I ask him what he eats on the day of the fight. He answers: ↵

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↵⇥I like to eat chicken tenders for lunch. It probably isn't the best thing to eat but it usually makes me feel good and when I feel good, I fight good. ↵
↵After a few months of deprivation, the man's allowed a few chicken fingers. (It works for Usain Bolt. He eats chicken nuggets before races.) When you see fighters on a long slate of fights, though, it becomes obvious that every fighter has their own M.O. when it comes to training. When Cale takes the ring he looks lean but fit, not too gaunt, obviously in shape but not starved. Most look like they've been a similar diet of misery and good nutrition. ↵

↵The lower you go on the totem pole, though, the more likely you are to encounter someone whose idea of training probably involved little besides nutrition. One early match involves a man who, in more charitable times, would have been described as "jolly." After a minute of grappling, he slams facefirst into some kind of metabolic wall, and then spends the rest of the match taking a very stubborn nap in the middle of the ring. Unless there's a specialty in sloth-fu available at a local gym, I'll just assume he spent the night before training with Cuervo lifts and aggressive chokeholds on jalapeno poppers. ↵

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↵Three: Women Who Like Violence. They're there, they're real, and they're spectacular. The women who turn out for MMA without being part of date night are there for very obvious reasons: they came to watch buff shirtless men beat the hell out of each other. I sat in the front row before the fight in front of two women who, coincidentally enough, were students of a kickboxing gym there to support a few fighters who trained at their facility. We talked for a while, and the one who looked almost precisely like Katy Mixon from Eastbound and Down got to the point quickly. ↵

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↵⇥Her: I know it's sick, but watching two guys kick each other's ass is hot. It turns me on. ↵⇥

↵⇥Me: If it works for you, I don't judge. ↵⇥

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↵⇥Her: Exactly. Hey, why isn't your wife at this fight? ↵⇥

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↵After that I began stuttering uncontrollably, and decided it was time to get a beer. ↵

↵Four: People on Date Night. Date night at MMA exists. Revision: Date night at MMA appears to be flourishing, judging from what I saw. To my right was a lesbian couple clearly thrilled to be sharing the special moment of watching a grappler pound the head of a man so loudly it sounded like a foley artist punching an uncooked turkey in a sound studio. (It's a noise you do not forget.) To my left, a straight couple decked out for the occasion -- the guy had his particularly nice fitted on, while the woman had on stretch leopard pants clearly reserved for special occasions. ↵

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↵There were families, too, including a few dads clearly there at the behest of their kids, and a few kids who were obviously there because Dad wanted "to spend some time with them." I recognized those last ones immediately; they wore the same look on their faces I had when I spent quality time with dad at the bar filling out his football picks for the week at the Corner Pub. Most appeared to be having a good time, as it's very hard to be bored during an MMA fight. (At the worst the slightly out-of-place kids or dads were at least mildly horrified, and that beats being bored any day.) ↵

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↵Five: You Will See Someone Get KTFO'd. This will happen. The initial run of fights on the undercards at this installment of King of the Cage ran to the submission side of things. This was fine by me, as a submission struggle has its own kind of desperate drama to it. The slow agony of watching someone with a grappler in a superior position is a bit like watching an antelope attempt to shake off the bite of a lion; at first the prey is convinced they can get out, then there's some struggle, and finally the moment of last effort arrives with a lunge, one usually resulting in a quick armbar or surrendered choke. ↵

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↵Then there are fights like Cale Yarbrough's. I don't recommend ever going to a fight where you personally know a fighter in the ring. I knew Cale from an interview, a phone call, and an email or two, and the tension of watching someone climb into the ring is unbearable. (It is infinitely worse for the family members. Cale's dad was there, and told me quite directly, "I don't like that he does this. I can barely watch.") ↵

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↵It's made worse by point one: everyone fighting that night is, with their shirt off at least, one of the most intimidating looking people you will ever see. Even the smaller fighters terrify: one smaller undefeated fighter had kerosene blue eyes visible from halfway across the cavernous convention hall and looked like what you would imagine a backwoods East Tennessee ninja to look like. His father helped the impression -- or at least the guy who had to be some blood relative, an older gentleman who looked just like the fighter but 30 years older and wearing a beard Rasputin would describe as "long." I imagined the fighter's childhood as one long awesome training sequence, with the bearded guy running him through agility courses while being chased by black bears and wild dogs. ↵

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↵Cale's opponent, Justin Hall, was a tall but still jacked fighter with tattoos, a shaved head, and brain-liquefying Muay Thai strikes he fired through the air while warming up in his corner. He looked, like everyone else, perfectly capable of destroying whomever walked in the ring to fight him. Yet, when the bell rang and the two started to fight, a flaw in his game appeared quickly, one visible to even me, the extremely casual observer. I'm not an expert, but I am fairly certain getting hit in the face is a bad thing, and Hall seemed perfectly content to let Yarbrough do exactly that. ↵

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↵Cale, content to stand up, landed punch after punch after punch, many with that awful, visible head recoil that happens when someone hits your head hard enough to get the skull wobbling like a bobblehead stuck to a car dashboard. Hall somehow made it out of round one, but in round two a combo from Cale knocked Hall into another, more pleasant dimension. ↵

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↵This is where you have your MMA moment, by the way. Hall is lying prone on the ground and apparently talking with the spirits, but the ref stands back for a second. He's not ignoring the situation, but rather observing. Cale bounds down, raises his fist, and immediately begins pummeling the prone Hall on the ground. The ref stops the fight, but not until he's sure Hall won't return from the great beyond. Yarbrough finishes the fight sitting on the top railing of the cage, his arms raised in triumph. Hall leaves the cage with a man under each shoulder. If he remembers any of what I just described, I would be very surprised. ↵

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↵After the fight, I ask Cale: "Why'd you punch him when he was clearly out on the ground." Cale shook his head, took a bite of the refuel bar he was destroying in large bites, and stopped me. "You have to do that. I've seen way too many fights where the ref doesn’t stop it, the guy gets up, and goes on to win the fight. You can't rely on the ref. You have to end the fight." ↵

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↵That, more than anything else, may sum up the awesome toughness of the people who do this: you might win a fight in MMA after being knocked out and recovering. The very nice guy who I just watched punch a prone man in the face looks at me and makes sure we've had that little moment, and then finishes the rest of his snack. He pats his very relieved-looking father on the back, and points to the seats. ↵

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↵"Let's watch the rest of the fights." ↵

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↵Part IV, a.k.a. Spencer Gets Punched in the Face, appears Thursday. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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