Caged fury: Inside the rough and ready world of MMA
Story by Chris Graham
Amid a backdrop of men of various sizes and numbers of tattoos alternatively kicking and punching the air and occasionally a trainer wielding oversized protective gloves, the almost preternatural calm of Tyler Moyer stood out to me.
At least what I was reading was calm. I soon found out that he was a bundle of nerves inside – and for good reason.
I mean, you know, he was on his way to nine minutes of getting punched in the face and kicked in the thigh and choked and scratched and whatever else can happen in an MMA fight.
“I’m going to try to keep myself as calm as possible, but have my heart beat fast enough to stay up with him. But once you go all out, you might lose your own thoughts. And then you’re going to …”
Moyer let his words trail into the air.
A James Madison University senior and Virginia National Guard member, Moyer will go active-duty in the United States Army in May upon graduation. In the meantime, just for kicks, he decided to give mixed martial arts a try – training several nights a week at Valley Chute Box, an MMA training school in Harrisonburg that sent a number of its students to a live MMA event at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds in November.
As we talked about how he had gotten into the sport – Moyer told me that he thought MMA was a good complement to the combat training that he was getting in the National Guard and the Army ROTC – he let loose on me a nugget that cinched for me why he thought to himself, anyway, that he was on pins and needles.
“This is my first fight,” he said, trying to be casual, but his voice betrayed him on that.
He had been given a scouting report on his opponent, Bryan Lewis, who trains at Boyce Martial Arts in Winchester, that said that Lewis had been, like Moyer, a high-school wrestler, meaning “he’s going to want to go to the ground.”
“I’m banking that my jiu jitsu is better than his,” said Moyer, noting his training in that martial art and also in tae kwon do dating back to his adolescent years.
“My main worry is just the first 30 seconds. Because I know the first 30 seconds is the most energy. Everybody just goes all out. And then when that first 30 seconds is done, then skill sets in. Because those first 30 seconds can be luck either way – whoever throws a punch faster or harder,” Moyer said.
MMA is the combat sport of the 21st century – with apologies to boxing and professional wrestling, if we can still even think of pro wrestling as a sport, given what the Vince McMahons and Dixie Carters of the world are now packaging to us as sports entertainment.
The violence that the stars of WWE and TNA feign and that the biggies in the world of professional boxing largely try to avoid is on full display in the short but intense matches that make up mixed martial arts. Moyer and the other amateurs at Mixed Martial Arts in the Valley IV at the Fairgrounds were scheduled to go three three-minute rounds, while pros Beau Baker and Kyle Baker, the godfathers of Valley Chute Box, were scheduled for three five-minute rounds – and the relative brevity of the duration of the matches seems to fuel the desires of the combatants to get to doing what they need to either score a knockout or submission or do enough to win on the judges’ scorecards.
Kind of puts a 12-round hugfest or a 60-minute time-limit predetermined draw in perspective. Eh?
“I don’t know how long it will last – but so far, hey, it keeps blowing my mind, because it keeps growing. Every time we do an event, more people come out the next time we come back,” said Chris Smith, the president of the Charleston, W.Va.,-based ACR Promotions, which promotes MMA events in Virginia, including a successful Ruckus in the Cage card at Augusta Expoland in Fishersville in October.
“It’s such a buzz. So many people come out and watch it. The youth is watching it – the youth is supporting it. And in that 18-to-34 male demo, it just keeps growing, keeps taking over,” Smith said.
And it’s not just the promoters who are seeing this trend. I talked with California State University-Dominguez Hills professor Nancy Cheever about research that she has conducted on the popularity of MMA – and Cheever admitted that she entered into the research with a bit of a negative attitude regarding the sports’ propensity to violence.
“I do a lot of research on television – and it was very intriguing to me that there was something this violent on television, and it was on prime time. I thought it would be interesting to find out why people would be interested in watching this sport. You know – what motivates people to view this kind of sport? Why would they be fans? And what is it about the sport that is so interesting and intriguing to them?” Cheever said.
“I expected that watching this type of sport would either make people violent and aggressive, or that the people who watched it already had those traits. And neither of those things were true,” said Cheever, who surveyed more than 3,500 MMA fans, and learned that the overwhelming majority are drawn to the sport by the clash of combat disciplines that MMA brings to the cage.
Another kernel of interest from the study – “More than half of the people that I surveyed engage in some sort of mixed martial art themselves,” Cheever said.
“I think the reason they like it so much is the skill and the technique that’s used – rather than the sensational qualities, like the violence and the blood and the brutality. Which is what maybe a casual fan might be interested in. These fans were just not interested in it. In fact, only 15 percent of my sample reported that they liked the violence and the blood and the brutality and that type of thing. Most of them are interested in the technique, the fact that there are different styles that come together, the skill that’s involved, the amount of training that’s involved,” Cheever said.
In Cheever’s professional academic opinion, MMA is “absolutely becoming more mainstream. And I see it only becoming more popular – and possibly becoming an Olympic sport in its own right down the road.”
The opening match got me thinking about another angle to the story of MMA that I needed to examine in more detail.
Former Broadway High School wrestling standout Dustin Honeycutt was just seconds into his third amateur MMA match when he connected on a punch to the side of Lewis Cassner’s head that broke Honeycutt’s right thumb.
A game Honeycutt held on – not literally, because he couldn’t squeeze his right hand with the broken thumb, limiting his grappling abilities, nor could he throw or land punches with the right, basically rendering him a one-armed fighter – before being submitted to a rear naked choke in the second round.
A broken thumb is not at the top of the list of possible bad things that can happen in an MMA fight or any other combat-sport contest. An in-ring death would be number one on that list – and we just got word in December of the first recorded in-ring MMA death when Sam Vasquez, a 35-year-old featherweight, died from injuries sustained in an Oct.20 fight in Houston.
All told, though, the rate of injuries suffered by MMA fighters is substantially lower than those suffered by boxers, according to a study conducted by Johns Hopkins University researcher Gregory Bledsoe, who reviewed data from boxing and MMA matches in Nevada from 2001 to 2004.
“I think it boils down to a number of things – probably not one thing in particular, but a lot of things in combination. One is the fact that you have the tapout – so that if someone feels that they’re in trouble, they can honorably stop the match, whereas in boxing, if someone quits between rounds, they just never live that down. That’s just seen as cowardice or weakness,” Bledsoe said.
“Two, you have no standing eight count – in boxing, someone gets concussed, and they’re able to regain their composure, and then they go back and fight five, six, seven more rounds,” Bledsoe said.
“And you have more target areas in MMA. Instead of just two guys who are highly trained at throwing punches squaring off and hitting each other in the chest or abdomen or head, you’ve got people who might not even come from a striking background and might not know that much about throwing a really hard punch, but are excellent grapplers, for instance, and their objective is to take you to the ground and do more wrestling and armlocks and leglocks and chokes as opposed to striking. So it’s just a different game,” Bledsoe said.
Promoter Chris Smith conceded that he had had similar misgivings about MMA regarding the safety of the competitors when he first was introduced to the sport.
“I wasn’t a true believer at first. I was still skeptical. I was going to wait and see how this plays out. So I sat back and monitored the events for a couple of years and really watched them and made sure nobody was getting really hurt in them – because I didn’t want to be involved in anything that was unsafe for the guys participating in it. And to my surprise, it’s very safe – and I never really saw all the things that you would think would happen to these guys,” Smith said.
“Nobody’s been seriously hurt since we’ve been doing this. Sure, a guy will get a cut above his eye, but that’s the extent of it. I haven’t seen anybody with broken arms, broken joints – or get really hurt where they can’t work the next day,” Smith said.
Tyler Moyer survived those first 30 seconds – barely.
Bryan Lewis charged across the ring at the opening bell and unleashed a fury on Moyer that included a wild haymaker that connected and dazed and stunned Moyer.
“I couldn’t even blink. I think instinctively I just shot for his legs to get to cover,” Moyer said.
Apparently out on his feet at the outset, Moyer had recovered by the end of the first round to score a reversal and some momentum. He asserted control of the fight midway through the second and scored a submission on a rear naked choke a minute into Round Three.
It’s five months and counting to Graduation Day, but Moyer said he will be back at Valley Chute training for at least one more amateur fight before he heads off to the Army.
“I definitely want to stick with this,” Moyer said. “I mean, when you’re young, you can recover from these kinds of things. Plus it’s a cool story to be able to tell down the road.”
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The SportsDominion and The New Dominion.