Anatomy of a fight
Human bodies are all the same. Each is endowed with a standard inventory of bones, muscles and major organs. These intersect in slicks of synovial fluid and ligament.
The mechanics are simple and familiar to anyone who’s ever operated a door: Hinge joints like elbows and knees bend in one direction only. Use them correctly, and they are your best weapons – sharp, hard and almost indestructible.
But they can be turned against you. A hinge forced against itself breaks, but not before its ligaments and bursa burst in painful succession. Most people don’t make it to the snapping point.
Once you understand the basics of joint anatomy, you’ve mastered the logic of submission wrestling. It’s important to understand the body – your own and your opponent’s – and keep your hinges moving in the right direction at the same time you’re pushing someone else’s off their natural course. That’s the only key to winning 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.
All fights are different. All fighters make mistakes. You can train, but you can’t really prepare. It all comes down to bones, joints, muscles and opportunity. Nothing else matters.
R odney Wallace scoots across a practice mat at the American Martial Arts Academy on his knees, loosening his hips before practice. His fighting weight, 205 pounds, is contained in a frame so dense it’s almost square. He’s got skin the color of coffee and a small scar over his right cheekbone.
In less than two weeks, he’ll be traveling to Spain to compete in his first international fight, the M-1 Gran Canaria challenge. He was recruited at a pro fight in Florida just a couple weeks ago where he won the judges’ decision after three rounds against an undefeated fighter. He’s also a professional boxer.
“It’s a lot more about technique in boxing,” Wallace says. “Because you can only use your hands and footwork, a guy who’s been training as a boxer for five years will beat the guy who’s only been training one year. There’s more athletics in mixed martial arts. A guy who’s only been training one year can beat a guy who’s been training longer if he’s a better athlete.”
One of his coaches, Ken Ring, thinks Wallace has the makings of a great fighter. Maybe the first great one from North Carolina. Boxing and fighting have never been big in this state, despite their popularity on military bases.
In fact, up until last year, professional mixed martial arts fights were illegal in North Carolina. In August 2007, the NC General Assembly reversed a decision made more than 10 years ago to ban the fights described by Arizona Sen. John McCain as “human cockfighting.” The NC Boxing Authority, a division of Alcohol Law Enforcement, finished its final draft of the rules in February, opening the door to the state’s first sanctioned mixed martial arts fights since 1995.
Even during the sport’s dark ages – the years between its introduction to American audiences in 1993 and its recent resurgence – Ring and his business partner Kevin Pyles devoted themselves to the sport.
“I never believed it would be legal here,” Ring said. “There’s not a single hit, nothing that’s more violent than professional football. I blame the UFC for the bad reputation because originally it was marketed as this kind of gladiatorial blood sport. They almost marketed themselves out of business.”
The academy opened in early 1998 in a vacant convenience store rented on the cheap. Several years later it moved to its current site on Healy Drive in Winston-Salem, where it has expanded into several back rooms formerly leased to tenants.
Ring and Pyles just reclaimed a storage unit from the photographer next door, who was using it for prop storage. They cleaned it out and ordered a cage through the mail. Once assembled, the thing measured 24-feet across and 28 long, with 6-foot chain-link walls bracketed to metal posts. A network of two-by-twelve planks support the half-inch foam surface.
When Ring and Pyles, both refugees from a local Tae Kwon Do academy, first opened their school, mixed martial arts belonged to grapplers. The sport didn’t have rounds or referees, and the original question – which fighting style is the best? – had been definitively answered by the Gracie family from Brazil.
The Gracies sucked their opponents down to the mat like some kind of supernatural ooze, submitting them with joint locks and pressure on the cardiod 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.
The man on top might try to score points by striking, but the real action is 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’s a perception that when you’re hitting someone on the ground,” Ring says, “that it’s more violent than hitting someone standing up. But I’m not necessarily trying to beat him unconscious, I’m trying to get him to do something desperate.”
A lot of mixed martial arts fights end in submission. That’s when a fighter taps out because his joints are being pushed to the breaking point or because he’s about to black out.
“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.”
On the floor, the men in the class go live – their term for sparring. They pair up for three-minute rounds of grappling. In a real fight, they would start standing up, but here they start on their knees to prevent injuries.
A veteran, Durward Gomez, rolls around with a newcomer. Ring looks on.
“What he needs to do is face him, turn into him,” Ring says. “Your navel is like your third eye. If you keep it on the other person, you’ll be fine.”
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’s mixed martial arts fights aren’t the epic gladiatorial battles they used to be. Now there are weight classes – Wallace is a light-heavyweight – rounds and referees. The refs will stand you up if they feel a ground fight isn’t going anywhere. The sport boxing traditionalists love to hate looks more and more like the sweet science it was supposed to replace.
The Gracies promoted this idea that mixed martial arts descended from vale tudo, Brazilian no-holds-barred fighting. Japanese fighters follow the lineage back to Shooto. And others, mostly lumpy white guys fond of kilts, link it to Anglo catch wrestling.
In truth, mixed martial arts was born the day the first flaring tempers led to physical confrontation. It doesn’t just happen 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’s three rounds in, and the crowd roars. The fighter in the blue gloves, Micah Lail, has opened some capillaries in his opponent’s nose. Blood showers the judges’ tables and my photographer, Kenny.
The other fighter, Michael Peurifoy, bleeds from an inch-long cut near his hairline. The blow that caused it might’ve clouded his brain enough to cause him to miss a clear shot to his opponent’s head as Lail lunges for his legs.
The two men, spattered with each other’s blood, come crashing to the mat. Lail lands on top, lays some punches into his opponent and slides into an arm bar. It’s over by submission in a single blood-soaked round.
A ringside physician checks for loose teeth and cranio-facial fractures after the match, and, finding none, sends the competitors into the locker room to wash up. Promoter James Hines sends a small army of young, paper-towel wielding men to clean the cage.
A few fights later, it’s two diminutive hairdos facing off. In the red corner stands a 135-pound fighter with cropped hair, half-bleached and half-black. In the blue corner lurks a 136-pound fighter with tresses the color of a second-place ribbon.
The redhead is doing a number on his skunk-hued opponent, pile-driving him into 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’s gonads, eliciting a stern warning from the ref.
“Make him pay for that!” hollers his cutman.
But he’s not. At least not at first, when the redhead effortless pounds his ears and takes him to the ground with an easy leg sweep. Red mugs at the crowd and comes in for the finish.
The skunk spies an opening when red looks up, grabs a loose arm and twists it between his legs. Red taps out, stunned and humbled.
You can’t really prepare for a fight, but you can be ready for an opening.
Mayhem in the Cage is the first professional mixed martial arts match in the Triad since 1995, when Renzo Gracie submitted James Warring in less than three minutes to cinch the tournament-style World Combat Championship at Joel Coliseum.
A crowd of approximately 1,100 turned out for that performance – the last of its kind in North Carolina before edicts from the General Assembly and Winston-Salem City Council shuttered the sport in the Camel City.
Ken Ring worries about what legalization will do to the sport. He worries that unscrupulous promoters will fill cards to make money, with little regard to what happens after the fact.
He and Pyles are working on putting together a pro squad, Team One, with Wallace and seven others who have pledged to train at their gym. For a couple years, they’ve been taking promising fighters across state lines to tournaments in Virginia.
“It turned out that the market in North Carolina was much bigger than the one in Virginia because of the population densities around Charlotte, Raleigh and Fayetteville,” Ring says. “We decided once it was legalized, we would start a team.”
Right now he and Pyles are putting together a show of their own, but Ring says organizing such an event takes time. Until then, they’ll nurture their team by sending promising fighters off to places like Spain and Florida.
Ring has his doubts about events like Mayhem in the Cage. He’s worried that boxing and toughman promoters are eager to make a buck off a new sport.
“All you have to do now is get some blood work and have a physical,” Ring says. “You can have zero experience and get put in an amateur fight.”
Mixed martial arts’ popularity in North Carolina is undeniable. When the boxing authority started sanctioning bouts earlier this year, the office was flooded with applications. Already the number of mixed martial arts fights in the state far outpaces boxing and toughman contests. Alcohol Law Enforcement is training regional offices the handle the bouts, which are metastasizing across the state.
Until he feels better about the state of mixed martial arts fighting in North Carolina, he’ll keep sending his fighters across state and international lines. Like Wallace, who won his Spanish bout and took home a decent souvenir from his first trip to Europe.
Chris Clodfelter isn’t like a lot of mixed martial artists. First of all, he’s Christian, a proud father and unashamed to admit that he got into martial arts because of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
He studied American karate for 10 years, until his introduction, at age 16, to Muay Thai – Thai kickboxing. He’s a Kru, fifth degree black belt, in the art.
As a pro, Clodfelter has an 11-7 record. In his first fight, he lost a decision after three long 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.”
You can find some of Clodfelter’s fights on YouTube. Two of his recent victories – one against grappler Dustin Rhodes and another against judoka Michael Jaquez – are included in his personal highlight reel.
Clodfelter is a striker, but like all mixed martial artists, he’s studied Brazilian jujitsu. Most of his wins have been by submission, not by knockout. After dislocating Rhodes’ knee in their first match up, Clodfelter hooked his heel in the second, forcing him to tap out.
As for Jaquez – well, Clodfelter never even had a chance to use the kicks he 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.”
Like Josh Curtis – the skunk – he waited for an opening. Jaquez overextended himself punching Clodfelter’s face, and he got caught in an arm bar.
He works out at a gym in downtown Statesville, Champion Muay Thai, with a boxing ring at the back and a five-sided fighting cage.
Tuesday will be his final full workout before his headlining fight at Mayhem in the Cage. He goes six rounds with Coach Marcelo Rodriguez behind the Thai pads.
Students at Champion Muay Thai pair off in sparring teams during classes, which are a lot like real fights, except with pads 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.”
After Mayhem in the Cage, Clodfelter will appear in Charlotte’s Godz of War on Pay-Per-View. When he’s not fighting, he’s a trainer at the Gateway YWCA in Winston-Salem, and his own conditioning is heavy on cardio and visualization.
“It’s not about emotion,” he says. “Fighters go through a lot, but every time you just have to go out there and throw leather. No matter how you’re feeling, no matter what your body says, you should be a machine.”
Clodfelter doesn’t go out of his way to learn about his opponents before a fight. His opponent for Mayhem, Dell Sapp, has fought him before and lost. Now he wants a rematch.
“You have to stay on your game,” he says. “Mine’s Muay Thai. There’s a certain beauty to the moves. It’s like a dance, really, a brutal dance.”
Clodfelter also has concerns about mixed martial arts’ NC debut. He’s worried that inexperienced youngsters will get thrown into fights before they’re ready, and that boring matches will sour fans new to the sport. But mostly he worries about regulation by a body that was formed to handle boxing matches, and created, it should be added, right after mixed martial arts was banished from the state.
When the NC General Assembly legalized mixed martial arts, they also hiked charges on promoters, fighters and fans. Clodfelter thinks the state might have seen the sport, which has been gaining popularity on Pay-Per-View and cable, as a potential cash cow.
“It’s hard,” he says, “having a bunch of boxers regulate a non-boxing sport. Right now, it’s a great thing that we have mixed martial arts. But the boxing authority needs to study up on the sport.”
After hard fights, Clodfelter’s shins throb with pain. Sometimes it’s so bad he can hardly walk in the days after a match. Last month, after a fight with a Muay Thai champion, he hobbled 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.”
On the day of the fight, Clodfelter sleeps late, has a big breakfast and follows it with a big lunch. By the time he reaches the arena, he’s sipping orange juice out of a water bottle.
Before he got here he lined out his gear. There isn’t much in a mixed martial arts fight. The competitors go in wearing only protective cup, mouthpiece and shorts. Before he fights, he relaxes in the locker room, maybe listens to some music. Clears his mind. He pulls out a jump rope during the last 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.
Boxers tape their hands before fights to bind the fragile bones together and make the hands heavier. Mixed martial artists also tape their hands, but they wind the straps looser so their fingers still move well enough to grapple. Before they come out, they don their gloves.
A cut man waits outside the gate with the Vaseline he’ll swab onto Clodfelter’s face. The extra lubrication makes slipping the punches easier. Clodfelter gets into the ring several minutes before Sapp wearing traditional Muay Thai arm bands and headgear. He performs a quick 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.
Clodfelter comes out with a series of low kicks. A Muay Thai fighter knows the shin is harder than the foot, so that’s what he’s using to soften Sapp’s vastis lateralis.
After a minute or so, the two go to the ground. Sapp, a jujitsu expert, should have the advantage.
But Clodfelter is on top, working a left ear that, from the looks of it, has seen some combat. Sapp raises his glove to shield it.
Beside the ring sits Sean “The Muscle Shark” Sherk, a UFC fighter with a textbook cauliflower ear. That happens when blood clots form in the tiny vessels that feed oxygen to the ear’s outermost cartilage. The tissue, deprived of oxygen, shrivels, turning in on itself and doubling over into cruciferae.
The fighters get back up on their feet, and Clodfelter puts his fist into Sapp’s other ear. Then he goes in for the takedown and the two tussle on the floor until the bell signaling the 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 his heel to his calf. He taps out and the match is over.
Clodfelter’s shins don’t seem to be giving him too much grief. He’s skipping around the octagon when a brawny audience member takes the announcer’s mic and issues 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.