In an unassuming beige garage on the edge of town, two muscular, tattooed young men circle around and around, punching, kicking and grappling with one another with all the intensity of a dogfight. A lightning-fast back kick misses its mark, blocked instinctively by the other fighter. Though he avoids a potentially devastating kick to the head, the force of the block causes him to stagger backward into a black chain-link fence. He tries to counter with a punch, but he’s betrayed by a cramped bicep, perhaps injured in a previous fight.
When a timer sounds, the two fighters bump fists and smile. They’re not adversaries in some shady underground fight club that only meets in secret. Instead, they’re training together at The Kennel Fight Club, a mixed martial arts gym in Springfield that teaches fighters how to open the proverbial can of whoop-ass in legitimate, state-regulated fighting matches held in countries all over the world. Called MMA for short, mixed martial arts demands absolute dedication: intense physical training, a regimented diet and sometimes painful sparring.
MMA won’t teach you how to break boards or display your moves in crisp solo forms. It will only teach you to utterly destroy your opponent with powerful strikes and by bending limbs in directions they’re not supposed to bend. And if it’s fighting you want to learn, Springfield is the place for you. The city has become a destination for fighters looking to claw their way to the top of the heap, with dozens of professional fighters – many of whom are ranked in the top 10 for their weight classes worldwide – and a growing number of promising amateurs. At the same time, the traditionally macho sport has become accessible for women, children and older adults who may have no desire to actually fight.
MMA is a full-contact combat sport that – as the name suggests – mixes elements of many martial arts with the focus of realistic hand-to-hand fighting. Fights take place in an octagonal ring surrounded with chain-link fencing. Like boxing and other fighting sports, MMA divides fighters into weight classes and separates amateurs from professionals. Amateurs generally fight three rounds at three minutes each, while professionals usually fight five rounds at three minutes each. Title matches at the professional level are five rounds at five minutes each.
To win, a fighter can knock his opponent out, make him submit by tapping out, or gain the most points in a 10-point system similar to that of boxing. There are a handful of rules, like those banning biting, head butting and hair pulling. Drugs, alcohol and steroids are all banned, and some MMA organizations test fighters for banned substances.
Modern MMA has its roots in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu developed by the Gracie family. Royce Gracie, 46, the world-famous MMA fighter who won the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993, spoke with Illinois Times in a phone interview from California, having just returned from Kuwait for a tour of Gracie-style MMA gyms overseas. Gracie says he grew up learning to fight from his father and older brothers, which made him tough and eager to prove himself. Gracie’s father, Helio Gracie, is considered one of the forefathers of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and many members of the Gracie family have become successful MMA fighters.
“My family is very competitive,” Royce Gracie said. “You tell us what we cannot do, and we’ll prove you wrong. We always competed against each other and wanted to be the best.”
It was that drive to be the best that led to the creation of the UFC. Gracie says his family wanted to know which martial arts discipline was best, so they organized the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in Denver, Colo. Royce Gracie bested seven other fighters in that tournament, and the UFC soon became a popular alternative to more traditional fighting sports like boxing and professional wrestling, with lucrative worldwide pay-per-view events, a reality TV show and fighters from other disciplines vying for a chance to claim a UFC title.
Gracie said that MMA’s realism is what draws so many fans. His last professional fight was in 2007, and he now teaches seminars at MMA gyms around the world.
“People always want to know who is the best,” Gracie said. “Everyone has their opinion, that Bruce Lee was the greatest or Muhammad Ali was the best. … It’s like people going to a hockey game to watch a fight. People are attracted to that.”
That’s exactly why Aaron “The Hillbilly Havoc” Carter, a professional MMA fighter from Quicksburg, Va., moved to Springfield. He excelled at wrestling in high school, but says he wanted “a different kind of high.”
“When I was done with high school, all I knew was to compete,” Carter says. He trains at The Kennel Fight Club, 3600 S. Sixth Street Rd., which opened in November 2012. “The ultimate goal is to be the best. That’s anybody’s goal. I eat, sleep and breathe MMA. That’s all I think about: fighting.”
Corey Anderson, another fighter at The Kennel, moved from Rockton, Ill., near the Wisconsin border, to Springfield for training. He started out boxing and will make his professional MMA fighting debut on March 2.
“I just like competing. It’s that competitive urge,” Anderson said. “You’re going out there, and it’s one-on-one. I’m not a team player. I’ve got to do everything myself. I know if I lose, it’s my fault, and I’ve got to make this guy quit before I do.”
Anderson’s March 2 fight is part of Capital City Cage Wars, a local adaptation of the UFC matches that have become so popular on TV. Held at the Prairie Capital Convention Center, Cage Wars pits locally trained fighters against others from central Illinois and beyond. It’s organized by Springfield entrepreneur and Muay Thai black-belt Mylas Copeland and martial artist John Geyston, who owns John Geyston’s Martial Arts Academy with three locations in Springfield. Geyston is a former MMA fighter who toured with Royce Gracie and who now teaches Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, karate, self-defense and other disciplines. Asked to estimate the number of MMA fighters in Springfield, Geyston says he has about 70 amateur fighters on file, which isn’t all-inclusive and doesn’t include the professional fighters in the city. Capital City Cage Wars typically pulls in about 1,500 spectators per event, Geyston says.
That’s around the same as another MMA event in Springfield – the Freedom Fight Series, organized by Team Warrior Concepts, 4179 W. Jefferson St. Scot Ward, owner of Team Warrior Concepts, started his gym in Springfield 18 years ago, before MMA experienced a surge in popularity. Ward is a former MMA fighter, and he coaches a stable of amateur and professional fighters, including his son, Trevor Ward.
The Freedom Fight Series, held at the Illinois State Fairgrounds in the Illinois Building or the Exposition Building, typically brings fighters from other states and even other countries to Springfield. One recent event brought a team of MMA fighters from Mexico, and Ward’s team, dubbed Team USA, will soon travel to Dublin, Ireland, to compete in a similar tournament there. He recalls the early days of MMA shows, when he could barely get 100 people to attend. Now his shows at the fairgrounds often have capacity crowds.
“How did all those people find out? Word of mouth,” Ward said. “I had so many sponsors stick with me when the state tried to shut us down in the early ’90s, not understanding the sport. Now, we’ve kind of evolved, and the majority of sponsors have stayed with me since day one. You look at the crowd and think, ‘This is awesome. This is why we train so hard. This is why we spill gallons of sweat out there, to learn the techniques and be able to perform for them.’ It’s just a great feeling.”
Why do so many fighters train in Springfield? It’s almost a chicken-and-egg situation, with Jim Burke, general manager of The Kennel Fight Club, explaining that it’s because of the number of experienced professional fighters already in Springfield.
“The reason people are coming to Springfield is that we have developed a name, with as many seasoned pro fighters as we have,” Burke says. “We are becoming a destination. They’re seeing what we’re producing. We’re producing winners. We run probably the hardest practices I’ve ever seen.”
But not everyone who trains in MMA is a fighter. Sean Watts of Springfield joined Team Warrior Concepts with his 12-year-old son, Hunter, after Hunter grew dissatisfied with playing football. Hunter has thrived at MMA training, Watts says, building his confidence, strength and sportsmanship.
“It’s not that I promote violence at all,” Watts said. “I’m at the opposite end; you know, turn the other cheek. But if something does happen, at least he’ll have the ability and soundness of mind to defuse the situation.”
Participating in the training has also given Hunter a new role model, Watts says, explaining that Trevor Ward at Team Warrior Concepts works with younger trainees during the gym’s youth MMA classes. At age 22, Ward ranked first in the nation in the amateur 125 lb. weight class by the International Sport Combat Federation. Watts says he appreciates that Ward goes out of his way to be a positive influence, even letting younger trainees carry his title belts into the ring with him before fights.
“The thing I really like about the club is that they’re all good kids like Trevor,” Watts says. “They don’t walk around acting tough. When they’re done sparring, they hug each other. There’s a real sense of camaraderie.”
That sense of camaraderie often extends to the ring, as well. Both amateur and professional fighters in Springfield say they rarely see any ill will between opponents after a match. John Geyston says local promoters tend to avoid matching fighters who can’t get along.
“Will there be adversarial relationships once in awhile? Sure, those occur,” Geyston says. “But we want to match the guys who, even if they’re not pros, have a professional mindset. This is a sport. The Cardinals don’t have to hate Cincinnati to play them and to bring their best game. For many of these fighters, their friends are their ex-opponents. We see the camaraderie and the brotherhood.”
MMA fights in Illinois are regulated under state law by the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. Promoters, professional fighters and trainers have to maintain a license with the state, and each event, whether amateur or professional, requires a doctor and ambulance on hand. Each fighter goes through a pre-fight medical exam, as well as a post-fight checkup. Event promoters must carry $50,000 worth of insurance for each fighter, and anyone from the doctor to the referee to the fighter can stop a fight at any time.
Asked what he thinks of criticisms that the sport is too violent, Royce Gracie, the UFC champion, points to other popular sports which aren’t explicitly violent, but which nevertheless produce injuries.
“One of my son’s friends broke his nose during a soccer game,” Gracie says. “I’ve never broken my nose during a fight. Does that mean soccer is violent because kids break their arms and legs and get injured? Should we ban racing because someone dies in a race car crash? And they advertise alcohol on their cars, so is the message they’re sending that we should drink alcohol and drive?”
Jim Burke, general manager of The Kennel Fight Club, says fighters at that gym follow a “strict ethical and moral code” that specifically bans violence outside the ring.
“One of the bad raps that MMA has gotten as a whole is that people tend to think that they’re rough guys or hooligans, that they’re going to start fights or get in trouble,” Burke said. “I have to tell you, having owned many businesses in my life, I have never been around a more disciplined, contained group of guys in my life. They’re not thugs. They don’t start trouble. They’re professional fighters, who, if they were to behave that way, would lose their professional licenses.”
In fact, Vince Eazelle of Springfield says his MMA training helps him control and channel anger into something productive. Eazelle is a second-degree black belt and trainer at John Geyston’s gym.
“It keeps me focused; it keeps my edge,” Eazelle says. “It channels anger so I’m not lashing out at others and being destructive. … I want to make sure I take my life lessons and pass them on to these young kids and even these adults who may need help, to give them something else instead of the same-old, same-old.”
With that discipline comes an anti-chauvinistic tenor that makes it possible for women to enjoy the sport with acceptance instead of ridicule. Tamikka “Boom Boom” Brents of Springfield is ranked number 10 worldwide in the professional 145 lb. weight class. (Scot Ward says she was previously ranked number one, but lost standing due to inactivity.) Brents trains at Team Warrior Concepts and says she feels very comfortable in the male-dominated sport.
“I grew up with two older brothers, so I was always a tomboy playing football with the guys and wrestling and stuff,” Brents says. “I was just kind of used to it, I guess. You’re always going to have those skeptics who don’t like girls fighting, saying it’s too violent, but for the most part, I’d say 95 percent of the people I’ve talked to say it’s cool. They like girls fighting.”
The same holds true for those who train in MMA but don’t plan to compete. Dara Bahlmann of Chatham is a mother of five who started training at John Geyston’s Martial Arts Academy about eight months ago and now has her brown belt. Bahlmann says she began training because she wanted to stay fit, but also because she wanted to learn self-defense skills. Training with men, she says, helps her feel more confident that she can take care of herself.
“While my own motivation took me through those doors, the welcoming atmosphere is what keeps me going back,” Bahlmann says.
Like Bahlmann and many others, Mylas Copeland, a student at Geyston’s gym and a co-owner of Capital City Cage Wars, has no desire to get into a cage and fight. Copeland says he trains in MMA for the fitness and focus.
“It gives you a different level of confidence,” Copeland said. “I’m here for health, I’m here for wellness, I’m here for the strength, and I’m here to prepare for the unknown. … Ninety percent of the people here aren’t training to ever fight. We’re coming here because we want to make ourselves better.”
Contact Patrick Yeagle at email@example.com.