In just under two weeks, my oldest brother, Chad, will fight Johnathon Moore for the Ax Fighting 145-pound title, which is more or less the amateur mixed martial arts championship for the greater north-Seattle area. Chad has seven wins and one loss, and that loss came in his very first fight at the hands of, yes, Johnathon Moore, whom Chad will now fight to try to avenge his loss and win a novelty-size belt and a waist-high trophy. It’s similar to the plot of Mighty Ducks 2.
Before a fight, Chad trains after work four times a week for two to three hours at Charlie’s Fight Club, owned and operated by Charlie himself. Quick note on Charlie: Any male who’s physically large and not a total dick is often described as “just a big teddy bear,” but Charlie actually physically resembles a medium-size teddy bear—thick chest, short arms, not that tall—a teddy bear who not only knows a few dozen ways to choke/break/generally harm you, but can teach other teddy bears to do the same. Charlie is also a nice person, as I’ve been told teddy bears are.
Over the next twelve days, Chad, like most athletes before a major competition, will be tapering off, no more heavy sparring or running up mountains—or, rather, he would be tapering off if his training hadn’t been set back by a rough case of cauliflower ear, which is basically self-explanatory: If your ear gets batted around long enough, it’ll start to look like cauliflower, and it’ll feel tender and fragile like an over-boiled vegetable, way too tender to receive a punch during practice.
But Chad now has a pus-draining valve installed in his ear, and the cauliflower-related staph infection has subsided, so he wants to get in a few more days of all-out training before he starts tapering for the title fight. Notebook in hand, I’m accompanying Chad to the gym to see how exactly someone prepares himself for an all-out fight.
A sign on the gym door says, “Please leave your ego at the door. If not, someone might take it from you.” I’m walking in with a diary-size notebook and a chewed up pen so that I can scribble things in said notebook—things, it’ll turn out, like “snow smurf” and “6 pushups + 3 pushups = 11 pushups”—so obviously any ego I had was left in the car with my library copy of Swann’s Way.
In the gym’s small reception office, I pick up a membership-price sheet titled Charlies Combat Club (sic). It crosses my mind to ask Charlie if there’s more than one Charlie involved with the combat club, or if he just forgot an apostrophe, ha ha, but I can’t imagine any enjoyable conversation that starts like this. And also I’m betting no one around here really dwells on things like apostrophes, apostrophes neither bringing in more business nor helping you to tighten up your key-lock hold.
The gym proper is about the size of half a basketball court. About half of it has blue gymnastics mats fixed to the floor and walls, and the other half is split among free weights, punching bags, and electronic cardio machines that make the same beeping noise that all electronic cardio machines make. Sally, one of the female fighters who trains at Charlie’s, is on an elliptical machine.
Above the cardio machines is a loft reached by a small stairway. The entire loft, except for a small coaching strip on the side, is occupied by the cage. The cage is about a fighter and a half tall&madash;almost all the amateur fighters I know are between 5’9" and 5’11"—and about fifteen feet square. The pricing sheet in my hand notes that the cage is available for rentals. I’ll leave it to your imagination what one would rent the cage for.
Charlie and Billy, one of Chad’s training partners, are on the mats, and someone is filming them with a camcorder. Charlie is on his back, describing what he’s doing. I gather that they’re filming a tutorial for something that Charlie calls side-control escape.
The gist of side-control-escape, as I understand it, is that when you’re on your back, if the person on top can arrange things so that his body is perpendicular to your body—his hips not on your hips—trouble is imminent. But if you, the person on bottom, can arrange things so that the person on top’s body is parallel to your own body—chest-to-chest, hips-to-hips—you’re not so immediately screwed and your defensive (and even offensive) options increase geometrically.
When the camera turns off Charlie explains that this move is also known as “the cheerleader,” accompanying this explanation with a demonstration, which I don’t completely understand but assume is indecent.
It’s worth pointing out here that although the terms “mixed martial arts” and “ultimate fighting” are often used interchangeably, mixed martial arts is the name of the sport, and Ultimate Fighting Championship is the name of a league (the most lucrative league) of that sport—MMA is to UFC what football is to the NFL.
My point in this distinction: Mixed martial arts is probably a more helpful name than Ultimate Fighting. The sport comprises a handful of different sports: collegiate wrestling, submission wrestling, boxing, Muy Thai, back-alley Newsies-style rumbles, kickboxing, Jiu-Jitsu, and so on. So MMA naturally includes moves from these sports, and when you mix the moves it creates new moves and new things to be afraid of.
What this means is that if your average tough guy (or girl) throws his or her hat into the MMA cage against someone who may not be as ripped or tattooed but who knows his MMA stuff, the tough guy will likely end up bent into some painful kama-sutraic position.
For a real life example, let’s say that you fancy yourself an above-average athlete who, say, wrestled in high school and did pretty well at it—let’s say, I don’t know, you placed sixth in the Washington State 4A high school wrestling tournament at 145 pounds in 2003, your senior year—and then let’s say you decide to roll around with your eighty-seven-pound eleven-year-old brother (let’s call him Jake Douglas) who has gone to a few kiddy-type MMA classes. And then you soon find yourself unable to breathe because Jake has octopussed himself around your neck and you, unable to pry him off, start losing your peripheral vision. The point of this personal anecdote: in MMA, skill beats general toughness.
Back to the gym: In the corner of the mat, about eight feet from the bench I’m sitting on, a child, probably around ten-years-old, is languidly wrestling with a dummy. The dummy is blue, about thirty-six inches long, and is shaped like a snowman, three spheres, decreasing in size. On the side of the dummy is written “seventy-five pounds.”
The child is slightly chubby and has a dreadlock-ish ponytail that, mid-neck, splits into two ponytails, as though it got caught midway through mitosis. I can’t tell whether the child is a boy or a girl.
At a normal practice like the one I’m at, the elite fighters like Chad aren’t learning new moves, or even intentionally drilling moves. Instead they warm up, and then they fight, perhaps with some weight training or cardio mixed in. “They” excludes Ponytail. I don’t know what Ponytail is doing. He/she appears to be unaccompanied. Maybe someone is using the fight club as childcare. All adults in the room—myself excluded—are otherwise intertwined. If anyone’s the babysitter, it’s the blue snowman.
Watching people train is actually really boring. Chad and Eddie (one of the coaches at Charlie’s) and Billy and Charlie are wrestling on the mats. I’m understanding why, in most Disney-style sport movies, training is represented by a quick montage scene. Practice has none of the potential for spectacle or injuries or come-from-behind upsets. It’s slightly more exciting than watching other people jog.
The pricing sheet in my hand says prices range from $40 a month for the bronze level—which means you can use Charlie’s facilities but don’t receive any training—to $125 for the gold level, which includes classes and fighter training. All levels require a one-year commitment. You can be billed each month or pay for the entire year up front, with a small price break for up-front payment. Except for the silver level. The silver level is $99 a month or $1200 for a year up-front. You can do the math on this one, and then you can tell Charlie how he might better structure his pricing system.
The blue-snowman dummy is now on top of Ponytail. Ponytail is struggling, trying to escape from under the dummy, who is lying perpendicular across Ponytail’s chest. Maybe I should intervene. This might be a training exercise. After a few minutes of struggle—it might be feigned struggle, though—Ponytail escapes from under the dummy, using what I believe is the aforementioned “Cheerleader.”
The sheet in my hand says that Komodo Kids Submission Wrestling starts in about five minutes. Those are exciting words, all four of them. Maybe Ponytail is warming up before class starts. He—I’m now pretty sure it’s a boy—stands for a moment, then lifts the dummy to a standing position. No one is watching. Ponytail, holding the dummy by the head, knees it in the middle snowball. He lets it fall to the ground and then sits on the bench to rest.
Sweat has turned Chad’s shirt from light grey to dark grey. Charlie is cleaning some Billy blood from his shirt. After a quick water/walk-around/talk-about-double-roast-beef-sandwiches break, Chad, Billy, and Charlie head toward the cage. Sally is still on the elliptical machine. Later they’ll be joined by Jonny and Buck. Incidentally, these are real names, not pseudonyms cribbed from a T-ball roster.
Now that the gym is quieter I notice that a radio has been playing in the background. As Billy and Chad walk up the stairs to the loft to spar for a few hours, by way of a montage training song, “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus comes on the radio. Chad and Billy step into the cage, and almost immediately someone gets slammed into the fence, Charlie yelling some coaching tip at them, some way to better slam each other into fences.