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Wednesday, June 18, 2008 03:39 pm

Blood, sweat, and cheers

Springfield's ultimate fighters take it to the limit


Justin Robbins knelt on the living-room floor in his Piper Glen home with his 4-year-old daughter, Sydney. The pair held hands, closed their eyes, and prayed for Matt Hughes — a self-proclaimed country boy from Hillsboro and nine-time Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight champion who was fixing to fight Georges St. Pierre in a live, nationally televised showdown.

Robbins had been traveling from Springfield to Hughes’ southern-Illinois home for weeks, training with the mixed-martial-arts star and preparing him for his upcoming battle (Hughes lost and now holds a 43-7-0 record). A Sacred Heart-Griffin wrestler turned MMA fighter, Robbins soon followed Hughes again, this time to his brand-new gym, the Hughes Intensive Training Squad, in Granite City. There he has joined the growing ranks of young men who make it their job to pour blood and sweat into training eight hours a day, five days a week.

Thanks in part to Hughes’ popularity and his efforts to prime a new stock of Illinois fighters, MMA — a combination of jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing, and wrestling — has exploded across the state.

Springfield bounded into the action with Warrior Concepts, the capital city’s full-service MMA training facility, which attracts everyone from local fighters hoping to ascend to the next level to guys and gals searching for a new hobby. Even legislators, who once deemed the sport barbaric, cleared the path for MMA’s continued acceleration this month by establishing new guidelines that legalize the sport.

“This sport has grown from what was little more than organized street brawling to a legitimate sport,” Daniel Bluthardt, director of the Division of Professional Regulation, says. “It has grown to the point where the sponsors of the legislation said — and I would agree with them — that it’s time that the state regulates it to make sure it is safe and fair.”

Robbins began wrestling in the fifth grade, qualified for the state championships as a high-school student, and briefly flexed his muscles at MacMurray College in Jacksonville before returning home to work at Inno-tech Plastics, the family business, as a machine operator.
He married his girlfriend, Katie, on June 2, 2001, and seemed ready to settle for a quiet life.

Instead he kept thinking about his wrestling days, the UFC fights he watched on VHS tapes, and the stories he heard from his UFC fighter roommate in college. Robbins missed being in shape and competing and knew that if he started MMA he’d be hooked. He began training with Gregg Giddings, a Springfield martial-arts master. He then transferred to Warrior Concepts and trained and fought for nearly two years before making the decision to go full-time last summer.

Scot Ward

After working with Hughes at his training camp in December, Robbins felt a connection with world-class coaches such as Marc Fiore and Matt Pena and fellow fighters like Robbie Lawler at the H.I.T. Squad. Even though his wife and two daughters still lived in Springfield, he knew that the move would be the best thing for his career.

“If I’m going to work, I want to do something that I truly love and have a passion for,” Robbins says. “At the level I’m competing at, I can’t go to work from 9 to 5 and then go train for two hours. It’s just not going to work like that.

“So I decided to put all of our marbles into this thing and see what happens.”

Robbins wakes up and helps his wife get Sydney and 1-year-old Kamryn ready for daycare. He leaves his house at 7:45 a.m. and gets to Granite City around 9:10 a.m. For the first hour and a half, the fighters work on cardio, weightlifting, and exercises such as climbing ropes and flipping tires. Robbins boxes for an hour, takes a break, and then boxes again after lunch. In a pro class that runs from 6 to 7:30 p.m., the full-time fighters wrestle, grapple, or spar with one another, depending on the night of the week. Robbins showers, leaves the gym, and arrives home around 9:20 p.m. He follows the same schedule Monday through Thursday.

“Thursdays are hard because you’re already beat up for the week and tired,” Robbins says. “I just want to go home and see my family.”

He spends Thursday nights in Granite City and works out for the last time on Friday morning. Fighters circuit train and do plyometrics but are then sent home to relax for the weekend. Robbins, who says his strengths are his cardio and his heart, never imagined that he’d be spending every day with Hughes and his other trainers. The confidence and knowledge they give him, he says, make his whole week worth the effort.

“They’re pushing you every day and you’re doing the same stuff they’re doing,” Robbins says. “It gives you peace of mind, confidence, and lets you rest peaceful at night knowing that you’re doing the right thing.”

After watching the UFC gain momentum, Scot Ward decided 14 years ago to set up his own shop in Springfield. He used his background in jiu-jitsu, boxing, muay thai kickboxing, and wrestling to develop his MMA skills and then opened Warrior Concepts to show other fans the moves.

Today Ward — a correctional officer at the Logan Correctional Center — works alongside five other coaches who teach nearly 40 people, including kids as young as 12 years old, all aspects of MMA. Although he trains 16 amateur and professional fighters, he says his gym isn’t just about pushing people into competitions.

“I have a lot of guys who come in to train because they want to get self-confidence, learn the discipline, and have fun,” Ward says. “Maybe they don’t ever want to get in the ring. They have both options.”

Ward says they begin with basic wrestling moves and work their way through the process. Students first find out how to take an opponent down. After getting the basics of “shooting in” and forcing an opponent to the ground, students learn how to position themselves using wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu moves. Once in position, the student submits and defeats the opponent using classic maneuvers such as the triangle choke (a move in which the opponent’s neck is trapped in a triangle formed by the opponent’s own arm and the attacker’s thigh and calf) and heel hooks (the attacker uses the opponent’s heel to twist the leg and knee). Along the way students also learn boxing and muay thai kickboxing tactics for the stand-up portion of the match. Ward helps students facing upcoming fights identify and compare their strengths and their opponents’ strengths. Then they’ll outline a game plan.

Brian Carter

“Every fighter is different,” Ward says. “I might have a great wrestler, and we need to work on stand-up and defense and conditioning. Or I might have a good striker that I need to teach to defend the takedown or get up from the bottom.”

Warrior Concepts offers a five-day-a-week program, but, because all of his fighters have full-time jobs, Ward encourages them to get in at least three weekly workouts. Because of their limited training time, he also asks that they condition on their own so they can work on technique at the gym. Brian Carter, Warrior’s primary heavyweight fighter, who works as a union carpenter, refers to the training as “Marine Corps boot camp on steroids.”

In addition to running stairs and sprinting up and down hills, Ward pushes Carter and the other fighters to jump rope, throw sandbags, and beat on tires with sledgehammers. They don headgear, gloves, shin pads, and chest protectors and spar to prepare for the wear and tear of matches.

Most of the students have experience in physical sports such as wrestling or boxing, Ward says, so they’re often successful. Guys who like to start fights in bars, he continues, don’t usually survive the training.

“It’s a matter of putting in the proper training time for every fight and staying with it,” Ward says. “That’s what separates an amateur from a pro and a pro from a champion. You’re not going to get from here to there if you don’t put time in.”

When asked about his last fight, Robbins says he logged tons of training hours but missed another crucial element of MMA fighting: He didn’t execute his game plan.

On May 31 at the Prudential Center, in Newark, N.J., Robbins was on top of the world. It was his first contracted fight in a series of three with Elite Extreme Combat, an organization similar to the UFC. He was listed on a show card that debuted live on CBS and on the Internet, and he was sponsored by national MMA backer Tap Out.

Robbins competed in the 140-pound, or featherweight, division against Wilson Reis, a Brazilian-born fighter and jiu-jitsu instructor from Pennsylvania. He knew that his advantage lay in striking, so he planned to keep the game on his feet and away from potential ground submissions — but, Robbins says, he didn’t defend the takedown and ended up on the ground anyway. He was defeated with a rear naked choke submission — Reis got behind him, squeezed his neck with the crook of his elbow, and pushed on his head — after four minutes and six seconds in the first round.

“You have to go into every fight with a game plan, and, if you don’t live by your game plan, don’t expect anything else but failure,” Robbins says. “That’s what happened. I didn’t live by my game plan at all.”

Robbins was almost caught earlier in the fight by an armbar submission, when Reis hyperextended his elbow backward and above his head. The sound of ligaments popping, Robbins says, must have caused his opponent to back off.

“I think he just let go because he was disgusted at how it sounded,” Robbins says. “It sounded like sticking your hand in a bag of potato chips and squeezing everything.”

Like many MMA fighters, Robbins is no stranger to injuries. He broke his hand when he fought a guy who was 6-foot-4 and weighed in at 155 pounds — a giant compared with his own 5-foot-5 and then-132-pound frame. He won the fight but ended up in surgery and had a pin sticking out of his knuckle for six weeks.

Robbins’ last serious injury occurred in August, in a Las Vegas show, when he tore his posterior cruciate ligament in his knee during the first minute of the first round. He finished the fight, went home, and spent the next two-and-half months in rehabilitation.

Robbins admits that his wife worries about his getting hurt but says she supports his MMA career. She’s held special prayer services for him at West Side Christian Church and has been to all of his fights but the last one. Robbins says she gets into it and offers proof in video footage on which she can be heard cheering and screaming in the background.

Even though some parents may disapprove, Robbins says, he also likes that his daughter enjoys watching his fights on TV or on the Internet.

“Some people might think it’s wrong that I let a 4-year-old watch it, but she’s fine,” Robbins says. “It’s what Daddy does.”

Robbins, whose record is now 12-4-1, has premiered in two pay-per-view showcases and says he feels like he’s “on the top of the food chain” in his weight class. MRI results showed a fractured elbow, but doctors say a cast isn’t needed and the injury should heal on its own. He has already returned to the H.I.T. Squad, working on what went wrong and looking to win the next time.

“At this level of the game, it’s mostly mental,” Robbins says. “It depends on who shows up and who executes their game plan the best. Do I have all of the tools to be a world champion? Absolutely.”

On June 1, MMA became an official sport in Illinois.

Previously a provision in the professional boxing act provided an exemption to MMA — what Bluthardt calls “backdoor regulation.” Now, he says, the sport is fully regulated and must adhere to a stricter set or rules and standards.

Most of the regulation revolves around safety and fairness issues. To address safety, legislators crafted rules for new insurance requirements, stating that every fighter must be insured for $50,000. The state will also begin testing fighters for everything from HIV to hepatitis to steroids. Before fighters are allowed to fight, Bluthardt says, they must provide copies of all medical records and tests within 48 hours of the match and may be subjected to random drug testing.

Legislators also looked at fairness, Bluthardt says, and hashed out a new process for state approval of matches. To avoid mismatches between someone who has a 15-0 record and someone who has a 4-20 record, he explains, legislators decided that it was important for each event to be reviewed independently of the promoters. The state will review all submitted information, ensure that all participants — fighters, promoters, corner people — are licensed, and assign appropriate, licensed referees and judges. Bluthardt says the state hopes that the growth in MMA will mirror that of professional boxing, especially now that the effort has been made to improve the quality and safety of the sport.

“We’ve had more professional boxing events than we’ve ever had,” he says, “so we’re taking that same approach to mixed martial arts.”

Robbins agrees that the new laws will be good for MMA in Illinois, especially after his experiences in already regulated Nevada and New Jersey. The shows will feature real fighters, he says, because promoters won’t be willing to put money into guys who won’t draw tickets. Promoters will have to play by the rules, he says, which includes paying for all injuries. When Robbins broke his hand, he was only paid $500 by the show promoter but doled out $1,000 for medical costs. That wouldn’t happen under new guidelines, he says.

In addition to managing and training, Ward also works as a Springfield show promoter. His last show, on May 17 at the Illinois Building, featured 12 fights and attracted nearly 1,200 fans.
Ward says he’s not sure whether the new rules will work in his favor, especially if it means big cost increases. Not only will he have to increase his current insurance policy from $10,000 to $50,000, but he’ll also have to pay for medical tests and medical costs. That could lead to higher-priced tickets and less action for the fighters, he says.

“They have to look at it so a common guy can put on a good show and let some fighters get some experience and be able to feed these other big shows,” Ward says.

At any rate, most fighters and promoters agree that the rules will help weed out stereotypes of their sport. MMA was once compared to cockfighting and dog fighting, especially because fights are held in a caged octagon or ring.

In the beginning, Ward says, this perception worked because it attracted fans to pay-per-view and gave them something they’d never seen before. But the ultimate-fighting image eventually backfired when it began to draw negative attention from the press and legislators.

“They used that as a tool to sell: no rules, anything goes, ultimate fighting,” Ward says, “so then everybody was, like, ‘Holy shit, this is going to be crazy. They go in there, in a cage, like two dogs.’ It worked, but then it didn’t work.”

Eight or nine years later, Ward says, people are realizing that mixed martial artists are well-rounded athletes with an arsenal of traditional techniques. He adds that MMA isn’t as dangerous as other combat sports. There’s no standing 10-count, as there is in boxing, and there are only three five-minute rounds. If a fighter can’t intelligently defend himself, the referee steps in and calls the match, and a fighter who wants to quit can “tap out” at any time and end the fight.

MMA, Robbins says, has changed his life. He doesn’t have to get up every morning and head off to a job he hates. Instead, he says, he gets to wake up and spend all day at the gym. Maybe he’ll live to be 200, he jokes.

The relative amount of danger that surfaces during a match makes him appreciate his family and their support, and the intensity of the sport has developed his will and his mind. Once he gets in the cage, he says, it’s all about proving who works the hardest and who wants it the most.

“You don’t have to depend on anybody else to get the job done,” he says. “If you want it, you have to get it yourself. If you lose, you have nobody to blame but yourself.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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