The Amateur: Mixed Martial Arts, Part I

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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Hardcore Gym, like most really important places in the world, sits in a corner suite of a plain strip mall off a four lane road. Walk in, and it's a bare, spare place with blue rubber mats on the floor, a logo featuring a gorilla with burly arms folded across its chest painted on the wall, a few weights, some punching bags, lots of jump ropes, and an ominous looking sparring area off to the right. A few guys sprawl out and tussle on the mats. ↵

↵It smells like bleach, feet, and the unmistakable aroma of dude. Rory Singer -- dude, MMA fighter, and owner -- walks over and says hello. Rory wears a pair of board shorts and nothing else; he's built like most MMA mesomorphs, shaped into lean planes of muscle by hours of high-intensity aerobic work and grappling capable of leaving even the best-conditioned athlete in a heaving mound of uselessness. He sits me down, asks me if there's anything I need, and hands me a waiver. ↵

↵

↵"Did you bring a cup?" ↵

↵

↵I pause. "No." ↵

↵

↵"Well, you'll be fine. Just be careful. Hey, George. Get that blood up, okay?" ↵

↵

↵ ↵There is, as Rory says, some blood on the floor. Yay, blood! ↵

↵

↵I'm here to do two things. First, interview the fighter, one Cale Yarbrough, a former Ultimate Fighter contestant and current aspiring MMA fighter with a spotless record, in order to figure out why someone would step into a cage with someone else and risk getting their grey matter knocked from their ears. Second, begin to figure out how anyone does this in the first place, and at least get my feet wet attempting it. ↵

↵

↵I've already gotten off on a bad foot by not bringing a cup, but that alone says something: this is a sport with a likelihood of accidental testicle damage. This probably eliminates half the male population from the beginning. Throw in a mouthpiece, and we're now talking serious attrition in terms of people willing to do this. I put my things down and find Cale, who's just coming off the mat after a sparring session. He needs 10 minutes to jump rope. Most people can't jump rope steadily for 10 minutes, much less at the end of a workout. Again: ominous signals are already piling up. ↵

↵

↵In the meantime, I meet Adam Singer, Rory's brother and co-owner of Hardcore. If his brother is the statue, Adam is the pedestal, a thick, burly guy directly from "Guys Who Play Bouncers In Movies" central casting. He's going to be my instructor today. If all of your professors looked as intimidating as Adam does, you'd have done a lot better in college. Perhaps you only had a few B's, you say? You still would have done better. ↵

↵

↵He points to my pants. "Got a cup?" ↵

↵

↵I shake my head. "No." ↵

↵

↵"Well, just be careful." ↵

↵

↵I take one last look at the waiver. It says the following. ↵

↵
↵⇥sprains, strains, twists, and cramps ... the possibility of serious injury ... torn ligaments ... the remote possibility of crippling or death ... ↵
↵Ominous sign number three, spotted. I sign the waiver and find Cale for the interview. ↵

↵The Fighter ↵

↵

↵Cale Yarbrough does not look like the sort of person who likes to hit people. In fact, he seems like another laid-back UGA guy getting a degree in psychology. Doesn't have a girlfriend, but "has some girls who are friends." Drives a truck or truck-ish vehicle of some sort. Goes to church every Sunday with his family. ↵

↵

↵These are all true and verified; later on, I'll sit post-fight with his dad, who can't stand to watch him fight. ("The only way I get through this?" He points upward. "Prayer. Lots of prayer.") What is also true is that Cale decided, after being a successful multi-sport athlete in high school, that he wanted to beat people up in a ring for fun. I know this because I've seen him fight, including the time he blew his nose all over a fellow contestant on The Ultimate Fighter while preparing to punch his prone opponent in the face from a classic ground 'n pound superior stance. The same laid-back 22-year-old sitting shirtless in the chair in front of me also does that stuff in his spare time when he's not attending class, watching TV, and doing what other college seniors do. ↵

↵

↵His own path through the sport illustrates just how complex MMA fighting is: he started off more of a muay thai fighter initially, doing stand-up striking and clinching, but then came to Hardcore, the gym that produced fighters like Brian Bowles and Forrest Griffin. In other words, guys as comfortable on the ground as they are standing up, a stellar combination since MMA at its highest levels involves equal parts of both. ↵

↵

↵(This is the nasty trick the sport plays on you; later on, when I'm actually in the cage with a fighter, the shock hit me: not only can you get punched in the head, but you can then get immediately upended and choked out in seconds. It's all so complex, the only hope is not think at all, but only in a very thoughtful way. This sounds contradictory. It is. Bear with me.) ↵

↵

↵"Some guys start out more standup, some guys start off on the ground. It really depends on where you're coming from. Thanks to the guys here, I've been able to really grow my ground game." Cale talks like a pro athlete, but here just four days out from a fight he has more concerns than a pro. He has a macroeconomics test on Friday; his weigh-in is on Thursday night in Atlanta. Yarbrough will finish his last days of training, scarf down one more meal of nothing but vegetables (all he's been eating for weeks), and then head to Atlanta for the weigh-in, drive back that night, wake up, take the exam, and then drive back to Atlanta for his fight on Friday at the King of the Cage. ↵

↵

↵"It'll be fine, but it's a lot in two days." Yarbrough looks relaxed. His hair is fight short. He has the demeanor I will come to associate with most fighters: completely and totally relaxed, as if all of them had a resting heart rate somewhere in the low 20s. None of them seem wary, or even the faux-relaxed arrogance of many amateur meatheads. (The guys who grunt very loudly on the bench press in the gym, or while doing heavy shrugs -- those meatheads.) He laughs when I mention the student newspaper piece on him in which he mentions getting drinks bought for him by other guys. ↵

↵

↵"I didn't even think they'd print that, to be honest. I just kind of said it, though they do offer you drinks." ↵

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↵"So it was less a sort of romantic drink buy, but more of a bromantic one, right?" I ask. ↵

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↵He laughs. "Definitely. When you're an MMA guy, you do get these guys who get a little bromantic." ↵

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↵He's been turning the drinks down for months now leading up to his fight, along with anything else that tastes remotely like real food. As for why someone would do this in the first place -- besides the bromantic drink offers -- he hesitates, and then smiles. ↵

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↵"It's kind of hard to explain unless you get in there and do it. It just kind of bites you. I got bit. You'll have to try it for yourself." ↵

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↵That, I tell him, is what comes next. ↵

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↵Continue reading: Check out The Amateur: Mixed Martial Arts, Part II. ↵

↵

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

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