I am in a gymnasium watching a balding referee explain the rules of amateur mixed martial arts. Or, rather, he’s explaining the house rules for tonight’s event, AX Fighting 29. Apparently MMA rules vary slightly depending on the venue, as though it’s Gin Rummy or Marco Polo.
There will be no biting, the ref says, and no eye gouging. There will be no fish hooking, no throat strikes, no head stomping. God I wish there was fish hooking. There will be no throwing your opponent out of the ring. The ref says that at the last fight he officiated someone was thrown out of the ring onto the gymnasium floor four feet below, so he thought he should clarify this no-throwing-people-out-of-the-ring rule.
There will be no striking in the spine or the back of the head. A fighter asks what is meant by “back of the head.” It is defined as the area on the back of the head between the ears and above the neck.
There will be no spiking anywhere on the head. There will be “no kicking in the nards.” Some of these are technical MMA terms. No foot stomps. You can punch the foot but the referee doesn’t foresee any circumstances where you would want to do so.
I’m here tonight because my brother Chad is helping coach two fighters, which means that if I arrive early and walk in with him I can avoid purchasing a thirty-dollar ticket and can pretend I have a backstage press pass.
When the ref is done with the rules, the fighters are dismissed to begin preparing themselves for their fights. Half of the fighters are sent to one prep room, and their respective opponents are sent to a separate prep room.
I’m disappointed to find out that the prep room is just an aerobics room with yoga posters on the wall and a half-dozen stationary exercise bikes chained together with a bike lock, as though they were going somewhere. I don’t see how anyone prepares for a fight in this atmosphere. The other prep room is a combination men’s locker room and restroom.
There are some athletic rituals common to almost all sports in all cultures, rituals passed down through the generations, and one of those is the moment before intense competition where the athletes gather to discuss the acting career of Jim Carrey. The particular group of athletes that I’m watching determines that the apex of Carrey’s career was Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.
They then debate whether Mike’s Hard Lemonade is an acceptable breakfast beverage. No definitive conclusion is reached. A coach tells one of his fighters to “go potty.”
“I don’t have to go,” the fighter says.
“Go make yourself go,” the coach says.
The fighter leaves to go potty.
I note that the night’s program uses the word “becomming.” The program also has the logos of AX Fighting’s sponsors: Emerald City Smoothie, Zip Fizz, Tropical Tan, and what looks like the letter F.
A coach somewhere in the room gives his fighter pre-fight wisdom in a surprisingly spot-on Yoda voice. It’s now 6:15 pm; we have an hour and forty-five minutes until the fights. I find someone to stamp my hand so I can re-enter for free, and I leave to go get dinner. One of the fighters commissions me to buy him some post-fight rum.
Shortly before the fights start I return and sit in the back row of bleachers. Since I’m by myself and have a few minutes, I start doing some amateur MMA philosophizing in my notebook: Whenever I ask MMA fighters what exactly attracts them to fighting, their answers usually involve the words “rush,” “dude,” “sick,” and “adrenaline.”
This is fine and almost descriptive, but it doesn’t really explain what fighters get from MMA that they couldn’t get from skateboarding or a rowdy afternoon at the community swimming pool. When asked how MMA is different from other sports, fighters usually say something along the lines of “it’s not like anything else I’ve ever done.”
Before I get into this, let me note that playing grab-ass wrestling in the stands is apparently the MMA version of bringing your glove to a baseball game—a way for spectators to pretend like they’re part of the action.
So the issue here is that MMA fighters—the only people who could explain what it’s like to voluntarily fight in an almost no-rules fight—are generally not eloquent in their explanations of what attracts them to MMA. Which leaves someone like me with no way of knowing what it’s like to lie on my back in front of a thousand people and have fists rain on my cheekbones—and, more importantly, I have no way of knowing why someone would volunteer for this.
The fights start, and my philosophizing ends for the moment. A few rows in front of me there’s a suspicious exchange involving a small black pouch and a bag of Sour Patch Kids.
This fight features a guy I’m going to call Purple Mohawk fighting a guy I’m going to call Brian. Purple Mohawk throws Brian to his back and then bends Brian so that Brian’s feet are behind Brian’s ears. Purple Mohawk tires of this and lifts Brian up only to slam him back to the ground.
MMA announcers and fans use the phrase “raining punches” often enough that it’s prone to lose its meaning. I believe the image it was originally meant to evoke was that of a poor little man stuck outside in a rain shower, a rain shower where each raindrop is a little fist pounding on this unprotected little man, and each time a fist goes by the man’s ear it hovers for a moment to whisper “fuck you.”
Purple Mohawk rains punches on Brian until he’s no longer able to defend himself. Brian loses, but Purple Mohawk still has a purple mohawk.
In round two someone gets kicked in the testicles. It’s explained over the intercom that when an accidental groin strike occurs the groin-strikee can take a recovery break of up to five minutes.
The groin-strikee’s pain is visible—it appears that his testicles have retreated to somewhere near his lungs and he’s trying to will them back to their proper place—but at the same time the guy is grinning like it’s Christmas morning. He later ends up losing.
At one point during this fight one guy is on his hands and knees, struggling to stand up, and the other guy, standing next to him, winds up and kicks him in the rib-cage area, taking a step into it as though it’s a field goal. This is now what comes to my mind when I hear the phrase “kick him while he’s down.” I believe this is against the rules, but nothing is done about it. Someone in the crowd yells, “Don’t be a girl. Don’t be shy.”
I’m sitting in the back row of the stands by myself, scribbling all this in my notebook. I’m beginning to get odd looks. I’m afraid people are thinking I’m the sort of person who comes to amateur mixed martial arts events to update his feelings journal. I walk down and watch the fights from the standing-room section on the gym floor.
These fighters weighed in at 215 pounds, which is a lot of man flesh. One of the fighters comes out to a song featuring the lyrics “rat-a-tat-tat-tat.” His opponent’s song features a ukulele. I think we all know who we’re rooting for.
Rat-a-Tat immediately starts throwing wild punches, and each time he connects someone in the audience yells, “boom!” Rat-a-Tat throws Ukulele to the ground, sits on top of him, and punches him in the skull. He does this nine more times in the first round. It’s brutal.
Between rounds a man walks by wearing a wife beater tank top. Under this wife beater, just above his nipple area, he has tucked a flask. I don’t know if he’s trying to hide it or if this was just the most convenient flask-storage area.
Ukulele’s face is more blood than skin, and he can’t honestly believe he has any chance of winning this fight. Fighters have a literal towel they’re allowed to throw in to forfeit a match. This is a respectable option—it usually happens about once a night, and right now seems like a good time for it.
And yet Ukulele, with no real chance of winning and a high chance of a severe beating, goes on to fight another round. It’s a special moment, for me at least, and I’m hoping that Ukulele, like me, is reaching back to his sophomore English class to recall the words of Atticus Finch: Courage is “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”
Ukulele then spends two rounds having his face smothered by 215 pounds of man flesh, and then loses.
I have no way to prove this, but I suspect that one of the things that attracts fighters to MMA is that at any moment during a fight they could suddenly experience the worst pain a person can experience. I imagine that this is indeed a thrill, and I also imagine that it leaves little room for self-consciousness. I suspect that the moment a fighter pauses to think “I’m in a gymnasium in Tap Out shorts participating in an amateur mixed martial arts event and looking quite cool”—that’s probably the moment he gets his kneecap stomped. I later run these thoughts by a fighter, who responds, “yeah, totally.”
In the next fight a guy gets his skull battered against the ground. He ends up lying on his back while the other guy, from a standing position, rains punches on his face. This can’t be pleasant. The back of his head is against the ground. Normally when someone gets punched, his head can whiplash into the air. Now there’s nowhere for his head to go. It’s sort of like curb stomping, upside down, with a fist. This goes on for an entire round.
The Title Fight
The final fight is a kickboxing match. In the fifth round one of the fighters lands a roundhouse kick on the other guy’s face, but instead of connecting foot to face he connects shin to face. If I remember my high school health class correctly, the shin is the closest thing the human body has to a baseball bat. After this, the towel is thrown.