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Anatomy of a fight

by Amy Kingsley

Human bodies are allthe same. Each is endowed with a standard inventory of bones, musclesand major organs. These intersect in slicks of synovial fluid andligament. The mechanics are simple and familiar to anyonewho’s ever operated a door: Hinge joints like elbows and knees bend inone direction only. Use them correctly, and they are your best weapons- sharp, hard and almost indestructible. But they can be turnedagainst you. A hinge forced against itself breaks, but not before itsligaments and bursa burst in painful succession. Most people don’t makeit to the snapping point. Once you understand the basics ofjoint anatomy, you’ve mastered the logic of submission wrestling. It’simportant to understand the body – your own and your opponent’s – andkeep your hinges moving in the right direction at the same time you’repushing someone else’s off their natural course. That’s the only key towinning in mixed martial arts. Because the sport isn’t like baseball or soccer. A fighter can’t rely on muscle memory or ownership of a single skill. Allfights are different. All fighters make mistakes. You can train, butyou can’t really prepare. It all comes down to bones, joints, musclesand opportunity. Nothing else matters. Rodney Wallace scootsacross a practice mat at the American Martial Arts Academy on hisknees, loosening his hips before practice. His fighting weight, 205pounds, is contained in a frame so dense it’s almost square. He’s gotskin the color of coffee and a small scar over his right cheekbone. Inless than two weeks, he’ll be traveling to Spain to compete in hisfirst international fight, the M-1 Gran Canaria challenge. He wasrecruited at a pro fight in Florida just a couple weeks ago where hewon the judges’ decision after three rounds against an undefeatedfighter. He’s also a professional boxer. "It’s a lot more abouttechnique in boxing," Wallace says. "Because you can only use yourhands and footwork, a guy who’s been training as a boxer for five yearswill beat the guy who’s only been training one year. There’s moreathletics in mixed martial arts. A guy who’s only been training oneyear can beat a guy who’s been training longer if he’s a betterathlete." One of his coaches, Ken Ring, thinks Wallace has themakings of a great fighter. Maybe the first great one from NorthCarolina. Boxing and fighting have never been big in this state,despite their popularity on military bases. In fact, up untillast year, professional mixed martial arts fights were illegal in NorthCarolina. In August 2007, the NC General Assembly reversed a decisionmade more than 10 years ago to ban the fights described by Arizona Sen.John McCain as "human cockfighting." The NC Boxing Authority, adivision of Alcohol Law Enforcement, finished its final draft of therules in February, opening the door to the state’s first sanctionedmixed martial arts fights since 1995. Even during the sport’sdark ages – the years between its introduction to American audiences in1993 and its recent resurgence – Ring and his business partner KevinPyles devoted themselves to the sport. "I never believed itwould be legal here," Ring said. "There’s not a single hit, nothingthat’s more violent than professional football. I blame the UFC for thebad reputation because originally it was marketed as this kind ofgladiatorial blood sport. They almost marketed themselves out ofbusiness." The academy opened in early 1998 in a vacantconvenience store rented on the cheap. Several years later it moved toits current site on Healy Drive in Winston-Salem, where it has expandedinto several back rooms formerly leased to tenants. Ring andPyles just reclaimed a storage unit from the photographer next door,who was using it for prop storage. They cleaned it out and ordered acage through the mail. Once assembled, the thing measured 24-feetacross and 28 long, with 6-foot chain-link walls bracketed to metalposts. A network of two-by-twelve planks support the half-inch foamsurface. When Ring and Pyles, both refugees from a local TaeKwon Do academy, first opened their school, mixed martial arts belongedto grapplers. The sport didn’t have rounds or referees, and theoriginal question – which fighting style is the best? – had beendefinitively answered by the Gracie family from Brazil. TheGracies sucked their opponents down to the mat like some kind ofsupernatural ooze, submitting them with joint locks and pressure on thecardiod arteries. It was art, but it looked ugly. "A lot of little stuff goes on while you’re working for position on the ground," Ring says. Theman on top might try to score points by striking, but the real actionis in the legs. You can use them to fend off or control your opponent,or execute a quick flip over his head to cinch his arm in a bar. "There’sa perception that when you’re hitting someone on the ground," Ringsays, "that it’s more violent than hitting someone standing up. But I’mnot necessarily trying to beat him unconscious, I’m trying to get himto do something desperate." A lot of mixed martial arts fightsend in submission. That’s when a fighter taps out because his jointsare being pushed to the breaking point or because he’s about to blackout. "It’s a very humbling thing to make a man give up," Ring says. "In a way, it’s worse than getting punched. It’s humiliating." Onthe floor, the men in the class go live – their term for sparring. Theypair up for three-minute rounds of grappling. In a real fight, theywould start standing up, but here they start on their knees to preventinjuries. A veteran, Durward Gomez, rolls around with a newcomer. Ring looks on. "Whathe needs to do is face him, turn into him," Ring says. "Your navel islike your third eye. If you keep it on the other person, you’ll befine." The men here spar in the four-ounce gloves mandated by the boxing authority for all pro fights. "They give the illusion of safety," Ring says. "They actually make it more difficult to grapple and cause cuts." Today’smixed martial arts fights aren’t the epic gladiatorial battles theyused to be. Now there are weight classes – Wallace is alight-heavyweight – rounds and referees. The refs will stand you up ifthey feel a ground fight isn’t going anywhere. The sport boxingtraditionalists love to hate looks more and more like the sweet scienceit was supposed to replace. The Gracies promoted this idea thatmixed martial arts descended from vale tudo, Brazilian no-holds-barredfighting. Japanese fighters follow the lineage back to Shooto. Andothers, mostly lumpy white guys fond of kilts, link it to Anglo catchwrestling. In truth, mixed martial arts was born the day thefirst flaring tempers led to physical confrontation. It doesn’t justhappen in gyms and cages, it’s practiced every night in barrooms,alleyways and schoolyards. And tonight, 25 (one fighter didn’t show) men are doing it in floodlit cage in Winston-Salem’s Coliseum Annex. "G ET ‘EM. GET ‘EM. HIT ‘EM IN THE LIVER!" It’sthree rounds in, and the crowd roars. The fighter in the blue gloves,Micah Lail, has opened some capillaries in his opponent’s nose. Bloodshowers the judges’ tables and my photographer, Kenny. The otherfighter, Michael Peurifoy, bleeds from an inch-long cut near hishairline. The blow that caused it might’ve clouded his brain enough tocause him to miss a clear shot to his opponent’s head as Lail lungesfor his legs. The two men, spattered with each other’s blood,come crashing to the mat. Lail lands on top, lays some punches into hisopponent and slides into an arm bar. It’s over by submission in asingle blood-soaked round. A ringside physician checks for looseteeth and cranio-facial fractures after the match, and, finding none,sends the competitors into the locker room to wash up. Promoter JamesHines sends a small army of young, paper-towel wielding men to cleanthe cage. A few fights later, it’s two diminutive hairdos facingoff. In the red corner stands a 135-pound fighter with cropped hair,half-bleached and half-black. In the blue corner lurks a 136-poundfighter with tresses the color of a second-place ribbon. Theredhead is doing a number on his skunk-hued opponent, pile-driving himinto the mat with enough force to leave tread marks on the kid’s face.A kick to the inside of the thigh lands painfully close to the skunk’sgonads, eliciting a stern warning from the ref. "Make him pay for that!" hollers his cutman. Buthe’s not. At least not at first, when the redhead effortless pounds hisears and takes him to the ground with an easy leg sweep. Red mugs atthe crowd and comes in for the finish. The skunk spies anopening when red looks up, grabs a loose arm and twists it between hislegs. Red taps out, stunned and humbled. You can’t really prepare for a fight, but you can be ready for an opening. Mayhemin the Cage is the first professional mixed martial arts match in theTriad since 1995, when Renzo Gracie submitted James Warring in lessthan three minutes to cinch the tournament-style World CombatChampionship at Joel Coliseum. A crowd of approximately 1,100turned out for that performance – the last of its kind in NorthCarolina before edicts from the General Assembly and Winston-Salem CityCouncil shuttered the sport in the Camel City. Ken Ring worriesabout what legalization will do to the sport. He worries thatunscrupulous promoters will fill cards to make money, with littleregard to what happens after the fact. He and Pyles are workingon putting together a pro squad, Team One, with Wallace and sevenothers who have pledged to train at their gym. For a couple years,they’ve been taking promising fighters across state lines totournaments in Virginia. "It turned out that the market in NorthCarolina was much bigger than the one in Virginia because of thepopulation densities around Charlotte, Raleigh and Fayetteville," Ringsays. "We decided once it was legalized, we would start a team." Rightnow he and Pyles are putting together a show of their own, but Ringsays organizing such an event takes time. Until then, they’ll nurturetheir team by sending promising fighters off to places like Spain andFlorida. Ring has his doubts about events like Mayhem in theCage. He’s worried that boxing and toughman promoters are eager to makea buck off a new sport. "All you have to do now is get someblood work and have a physical," Ring says. "You can have zeroexperience and get put in an amateur fight." Mixed martial arts’popularity in North Carolina is undeniable. When the boxing authoritystarted sanctioning bouts earlier this year, the office was floodedwith applications. Already the number of mixed martial arts fights inthe state far outpaces boxing and toughman contests. Alcohol LawEnforcement is training regional offices the handle the bouts, whichare metastasizing across the state. Until he feels better aboutthe state of mixed martial arts fighting in North Carolina, he’ll keepsending his fighters across state and international lines. LikeWallace, who won his Spanish bout and took home a decent souvenir fromhis first trip to Europe.

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Chris Clodfelter isn’t like a lot ofmixed martial artists. First of all, he’s Christian, a proud father andunashamed to admit that he got into martial arts because of the TeenageMutant Ninja Turtles. He studied American karate for 10 years,until his introduction, at age 16, to Muay Thai – Thai kickboxing. He’sa Kru, fifth degree black belt, in the art. As a pro, Clodfelterhas an 11-7 record. In his first fight, he lost a decision after threelong rounds, even after he closed the other guy’s eye with punches. "When I’m in the ring," he says. "I’m really thinking very technically. What will this combination open up? Things like that." Youcan find some of Clodfelter’s fights on YouTube. Two of his recentvictories – one against grappler Dustin Rhodes and another againstjudoka Michael Jaquez – are included in his personal highlight reel. Clodfelteris a striker, but like all mixed martial artists, he’s studiedBrazilian jujitsu. Most of his wins have been by submission, not byknockout. After dislocating Rhodes’ knee in their first match up,Clodfelter hooked his heel in the second, forcing him to tap out. Asfor Jaquez – well, Clodfelter never even had a chance to use the kickshe works on in class. His opponent took him down after a single kick. "I was getting my butt kicked," he says. "I’m not going to try to embellish it. But I won." LikeJosh Curtis – the skunk – he waited for an opening. Jaquez overextendedhimself punching Clodfelter’s face, and he got caught in an arm bar. Heworks out at a gym in downtown Statesville, Champion Muay Thai, with aboxing ring at the back and a five-sided fighting cage. Tuesdaywill be his final full workout before his headlining fight at Mayhem inthe Cage. He goes six rounds with Coach Marcelo Rodriguez behind theThai pads. Students at Champion Muay Thai pair off in sparringteams during classes, which are a lot like real fights, except withpads and a little less force. Last year Clodfelter suffered a dislocated shoulder during some intense ground sparring. "It still tweaks sometimes," he says, "but I’m seeing a doctor for it." AfterMayhem in the Cage, Clodfelter will appear in Charlotte’s Godz of Waron Pay-Per-View. When he’s not fighting, he’s a trainer at the GatewayYWCA in Winston-Salem, and his own conditioning is heavy on cardio andvisualization. "It’s not about emotion," he says. "Fighters gothrough a lot, but every time you just have to go out there and throwleather. No matter how you’re feeling, no matter what your body says,you should be a machine." Clodfelter doesn’t go out of his wayto learn about his opponents before a fight. His opponent for Mayhem,Dell Sapp, has fought him before and lost. Now he wants a rematch. "Youhave to stay on your game," he says. "Mine’s Muay Thai. There’s acertain beauty to the moves. It’s like a dance, really, a brutal dance." Clodfelteralso has concerns about mixed martial arts’ NC debut. He’s worried thatinexperienced youngsters will get thrown into fights before they’reready, and that boring matches will sour fans new to the sport. Butmostly he worries about regulation by a body that was formed to handleboxing matches, and created, it should be added, right after mixedmartial arts was banished from the state. When the NC GeneralAssembly legalized mixed martial arts, they also hiked charges onpromoters, fighters and fans. Clodfelter thinks the state might haveseen the sport, which has been gaining popularity on Pay-Per-View andcable, as a potential cash cow. "It’s hard," he says, "having abunch of boxers regulate a non-boxing sport. Right now, it’s a greatthing that we have mixed martial arts. But the boxing authority needsto study up on the sport." After hard fights, Clodfelter’s shinsthrob with pain. Sometimes it’s so bad he can hardly walk in the daysafter a match. Last month, after a fight with a Muay Thai champion, hehobbled around for a week. "When you’re in a fight," he says, "you don’t feel yourself getting hit. But afterwards, my shins always hurt." Onthe day of the fight, Clodfelter sleeps late, has a big breakfast andfollows it with a big lunch. By the time he reaches the arena, he’ssipping orange juice out of a water bottle. Before he got herehe lined out his gear. There isn’t much in a mixed martial arts fight.The competitors go in wearing only protective cup, mouthpiece andshorts. Before he fights, he relaxes in the locker room, maybe listensto some music. Clears his mind. He pulls out a jump rope during thelast couple of fights before his own. His coach Rodriguez takes out the Thai pads and puts him through his standing paces before working out lightly on the ground. Boxerstape their hands before fights to bind the fragile bones together andmake the hands heavier. Mixed martial artists also tape their hands,but they wind the straps looser so their fingers still move well enoughto grapple. Before they come out, they don their gloves. A cutman waits outside the gate with the Vaseline he’ll swab ontoClodfelter’s face. The extra lubrication makes slipping the puncheseasier. Clodfelter gets into the ring several minutes before Sappwearing traditional Muay Thai arm bands and headgear. He performs aquick dance, the Wai Khru Rham Muay, a tradition honoring his teacher. Some boxers lope around the ring. Others shadowbox. Most move to keep warm. You can’t really prepare for a fight like this. The referee grabs the gloves, runs his fingers across the knuckles, and does a quick cup check. Then the fight begins. Clodfeltercomes out with a series of low kicks. A Muay Thai fighter knows theshin is harder than the foot, so that’s what he’s using to softenSapp’s vastis lateralis. After a minute or so, the two go to the ground. Sapp, a jujitsu expert, should have the advantage. ButClodfelter is on top, working a left ear that, from the looks of it,has seen some combat. Sapp raises his glove to shield it. Besidethe ring sits Sean "The Muscle Shark" Sherk, a UFC fighter with atextbook cauliflower ear. That happens when blood clots form in thetiny vessels that feed oxygen to the ear’s outermost cartilage. Thetissue, deprived of oxygen, shrivels, turning in on itself and doublingover into cruciferae. The fighters get back up on their feet,and Clodfelter puts his fist into Sapp’s other ear. Then he goes in forthe takedown and the two tussle on the floor until the bell signalingthe last 10 seconds sounds. Clodfelter collects a final wind,fixes his hands on Sapp’s lower leg and catches him in an Achilles’lock. Sapp can’t take the pressure on the long tendon attaching hisheel to his calf. He taps out and the match is over. Clodfelter’sshins don’t seem to be giving him too much grief. He’s skipping aroundthe octagon when a brawny audience member takes the announcer’s mic andissues a challenge. "I’m just a mixed martial arts fighter," he says, "but I want to challenge you on September twentieth." Clodfelter accepts. The man in the blue cummerbund retrieves his microphone and bellows into the hall. "Did you hear that folks? They’ll be back for another round!" To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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