cover_story (2007-15)

It's not an easy thing to take a grown man in hand and crush out the last vestiges of his physical resistance, to impose your will on him solely by virtue of main strength, until he grovels like some horsewhipped supplicant on the ground before you and cries uncle through lips that can scarcely draw his next breath. Anyone who's ever been in a fight that lasted beyond those first few blood-mad swings knows this. Or anyone who's ever watched a pair of burly doormen make long and messy work of moving even an average-sized troublemaker back across the threshold of a bar. No, the task of physically dominating another human being requires a special skill set, one that is not a birthright even to the exceptionally large and strong.

Josh Cates has acquired those skills and on a stupidly cold Saturday afternoon in April, he's keeping warm by rolling a couple of his mixed martial arts (MMA) students, by turns, all over the mat inside Premier Martial Arts Studio off Downtown West Boulevard. Sometimes he bullies them; sometimes he beats them to the punch; sometimes he pulls off a maneuver so baffling and slick that his opponents are left dazed and wondering how it's even possible things could have gone wrong so fast given the parameters of Newtonian physics. During one fall, when his opponent drops into a defensive posture and thrusts out his legs, Cates executes a nimble cartwheel and tackles him from the other side.

And every time, fall after fall, the end result is the same. The student reaches out with a hand or a foot or whatever appendage is free enough from the carnage to do so and gives the mat a couple of good hard slaps, and Cates relents. The slaps, or tapouts, are the equivalent of waving the white flag, the mixed martial artist's more taciturn and dignified way of saying uncle

As they sit on the mat, tired and heaving after a rugged two-and-a-half-hour workout, one of the students asks Cates for some trainer's advice. "Say, Josh, tell me something I can do for sore joints," he says.

Without missing a beat, Cates grins wide and answers, "Try vaginal cream." They both laugh, the student knowing he's stepped into yet one more easy takedown.

Yes, it is a manly sport, this newly resurgent beast now popularly known as mixed martial arts, formerly recognized by the considerably more off-putting nomenclature of no-holds-barred fighting. But not so manly as to dissuade millions from soaking up the mayhem on MMA's Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), now televised regularly on cable television's Spike network, or for thousands more to flock to fledgling programs all over the country to learn to fight themselves. Local practitioners claim MMA is the largest growing sport among males aged 18 to 34 in the United States. And at some MMA classes across the nation, women have begun to take a place on the mat.

The students who train with Cates--a loose collection of maybe 17, meeting with him at Premier as many as four nights per week--are about as diverse, and as diversely motivated as a room full of under-40 white guys can be. There's Cates, a 29-year-old martial arts instructor and part-time bartender who's set his focus on seeing the sport flourish in Knoxville as a mentor and trainer; there's 23-year-old Jason Kilgore, a college graduate and National Guard reservist who has taken to MMA as an especially passionate hobby and as an adjunct to his military training; and there's Mike Delozier, a 38-year-old help desk supervisor and expectant father who sees MMA as "an outlet to relieve stress" and as a way of maintaining the same well-honed physique he's kept since he was an AAU swimmer at age 18.

But MMA very nearly went the way of the ill-fated XFL football promotion when, in the 1990s, Arizona Sen. John McCain--an avowed boxing fan--cranked up a venomous maelstrom of protest in response to the sport's allegedly transgressive brutaility. No-holds-barred was "barbaric" and tantamount to "human cockfighting," he said, calling for bans in all 50 states. Many states followed suit, including Tennessee. The sport has come back around, though, through a series of concerted efforts by MMA promoters to clean up MMA with more rules--early no-holds-barred contests had very few prohibitions--and a presentation more appealing to a public weaned on spectacle-heavy WWE pro wrestling events.

And it may be coming around again in Tennessee, with Knoxville-area Representative Stacey Campfield having sponsored bills, due for action this legislative session, that would make MMA contests legal in the state. Until then, aspiring local MMA competitors are biding their time, taking amateur fights when and where they can, on weekends in states like Kentucky and Indiana where mixed martial arts contests are legally sanctioned.

Cates is banking that the proposed bills will make headway, as is Premier Martial Arts owner Barry Vanover, who is remodeling one of his inner rooms at Premier to include a competition-style fighter's cage, and opening a beginner's mixed martial arts class in late April. "I think it's inevitable that you'll have sanctioned MMA contests here in Tennessee again," Cates says. "My prediction? MMA will eventually be bigger than boxing."

But it emerged in something close to its present form in 1993, when members of Brazil's Gracie family--who had been perfecting their own lethal brand of the Japanese grappling art jiu-jitsu for nearly 200 years--brokered a deal with some well-connected television promoters to put together the "Ultimate Fighting Championship", a pay-per-view spectacular that pitted a handful of diverse martial arts practitioners against one another, tournament-style, to establish a grand champion.

One sportswriter called it "a locker-room fantasy"--a means of putting to rest once and for all that inherently silly yet endlessly fascinating question of who would walk out if Bruce Lee, Mike Tyson, Hulk Hogan and Spiderman were all locked in a cell for a week with only one hamburger between them.

The answer, to the surprise of almost everyone in three of the first four UFC tournaments, was decidedly meek-appearing Gracie family representative Royce Gracie, a sub-180 pound jiu-jitsu practitioner who always seemed on the verge of being swallowed up in the tent-like folds of his own out-sized ghi. A legend, perhaps apocryphal, among combat sport aficionados has it that the Gracies chose Royce, an unimpressive specimen and far from the clan's best grappler, because his unlikely victories served as a sort of double underline to the superiority of their methods. As if to say, "See; we can even beat you with the family wimp."

Gracie's crowning moment of glory came in 1994 in UFC 4, when he won the championship by forcing ursine 275-lb. Greco-Roman wrestler Dan Severn to tap out with a surprise chokehold after Severn had seemingly dominated him, playing the human rolling pin for nearly 20 minutes of their marathon match.

Ben Harrison, a jiu-jitsu instructor at Knoxville's Modern Martial Arts studio, who notched three victories during his own brief foray into MMA competition around the turn of the millenium, explains that Gracie's early dominance was key in that it forced no-holds-barred practitioners to realize the folly of their stylistic rigidity. "It was like swimmers and distance runners; all of a sudden the marathon runners realized, 'Hey, I can't even swim for 10 minutes.'"

In the wake of Gracie's victories, boxers and karate fanatics began adopting grappling techniques into their fighting repertoire, and grapplers learned punching and kicking skills to keep up with the versatile new generation of strikers. Martial arts cross-training--and cross-pollination--increasingly became the rule rather than the exception.

The fledgling sport seemingly had a headful of steam with its lucrative pay-per-view promotions when McCain's campaign blunted its momentum. In '97, McCain also became chairman of the commerce committee overseeing the cable TV industry, and several major cable operators began refusing to air UFC events for fear of losing political clout.

The setback forced MMA organizers--most visibly the UFC, which was and still is the most powerful sanctioning body in professional mixed martial arts--to make some overdue reforms, toning down the promotional emphasis on the sport's potential for mayhem and implementing a raft of new rules. In addition to the original prohibitions against biting and eye-gouging, the UFC adopted rules against throat strikes and clawing and rabbit punches and groin strikes and various other savageries of which the Marquis of Queensbury would not have approved. And the epic, run-on fights of the early UFC were broken into five-minute rounds, three to five per contest.

All of that paved way for a resurgence when Station Casinos executives Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta along with boxing promoter Dana White purchased the UFC in 2001. Under the Fertitta's savvy direction, the UFC returned to pay-per-view television and gained new corporate sponsorship. In 2005, the UFC landed a TV deal with Spike, and in 2006, the UFC broke pay-per-view's all-time records for a single year of business, and expanded its regular cable programming into more than 35 countries.

Josh Cates' entry into the sport came at roughly the same time it was being shamed back underground. Having variously participated in kickboxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and wrestling since he was 11 years old, and having taken a keen interest in the first handful of UFC events, Cates at age 20 decided he was overdue to try his hand at combat sports' closest approximation of a real fight. With no outlets in Tennessee, he found a promoter in Indiana through an Internet search and lined up an amateur MMA fight in a promotion staged in a grim little Indiana elementary school gym.

"I had been training for nine years at that point, and I knew I was ready," Cates remembers. "And as soon as that bell rang, I forgot everything I'd ever learned. I took a couple of leg kicks, and finally it hit me, 'Hey, I gotta do something now.'"

After a handful of back-and-forth exchanges, seven minutes into the contest, Cates remembers, "We were both so gassed, I thought we had just run a marathon. And let me tell you, there's no feeling in the world that's worse than when you're dog-tired and you've got someone coming at you looking for a fight."

When his opponent dove for his leg and a possible takedown, Cates countered with a standard wrestling drop-and-scoop maneuver, and landed on top. With his last strength, Cates threw a series of frenzied punches that ended when the referee decided that the other fighter, wobbly and dazed, could no longer continue the match.

The experience was at once totally exhausting and thoroughly exhilarating, and it made Cates an ambassador-for-life of the sport of MMA. He went on to compile a 7-4-2 record before taking a hiatus in 2001 due to nagging injuries and the increasing difficulty of arranging fights. But he continued as a grappling and mixed martial arts instructor, keeping his skills current by attending master's classes given by the likes of Brazilian Gracie disciple Helio Moreira. He says the UFC resurgence of the last couple of years has opened the possibility that he may fight again himself.

"I'm uncertain, because we're looking to build a team, a solid core of guys here in Knoxville, so it may be more viable for me to train full time than to continue my own fight career," Cates says. "We've got a lot of guys with lots of potential here."

He points out Kilgore, a quick-learning 155-pounder, who is surprisingly skillful considering that his first real experience with combat sports was a University of Tennessee fraternity boxing tournament only three years ago. Or up-and-coming local fighter Jeremiah Huskins, a 220-lb. human wrecking ball with a 4-1 amateur record and an almost intimidating level of physical potential.

"There's something about seeing the light bulbs come on in a guy's eyes," Cates adds. "I've told two guys recently, 'Hey, you'll be ready for a fight in six months.' I love watching what that does for them."

"Time!" Cates calls out at last, adding that, "What you just did was equivalent to one round of MMA fighting."

To those in the group who've yet to see their first real MMA action, the announcement is as deflating as a heel to the solar plexus, or at least another five minutes of this maddening drill. Cates says that conditioning is arguably the single most important element of MMA training, perhaps even superceding technique.

Standing roughly 5'6" and 170 lbs. with a powerful but streamlined simian build, Cates carried 15 more pounds on his compact frame when he first started MMA, the result of years of traditional weight room training. He says he was ill-served by the extra weight in a sport that calls extensively on muscle groups scarcely addressed by bodybuilding standards like bench presses and bicep curls, and where fatigue is the great equalizer that can leave even the sturdiest competitors enfeebled and wheezing at the end of a particularly vicious five-minute round. "I consider a lot of standard weight training to be outdated," Cates says. "There's no need for a lot of what goes on in the gym."

His conditioning workouts now are the stuff of prison labor moreso than a bodybuilding manual--explosive-motion exercises, heaving medicine balls and swinging sledgehammers and pulling weighted sleds. Weird plyometrics have taken a place alongside familiar stand-bys such as push-ups and chin-ups to craft a workout better suited for a body in constant, multi-synchronous motion. The result is telling, as Cates has transitioned from a heavy-footed grappler to a spring-loaded dynamo, as adept at bounding and darting around his opponent's frustrated grasp as he is at boring in like an angry rottweiler.

Yet nearly everything MMA fighters do includes an element of conditioning, from endless repetitions of kicks and punches, to the one-on-one combat drills that range from situational grappling exercises to full-contact MMA sparring. Watching Cates' sessions at Premier is liking watching MMA bouts deconstructed, parsed and restaged in endless permutations to build the combination of muscle memory and fluid spontaneity that is the hallmark of accomplished MMA brawlers.

But one of the downsides to MMA's growing popularity is that many of the sport's new recruits have little or no previous experience in combat sports. There's no established muscle memory to build on; they're learning to dance outright, rather than just picking up new steps.

Says Harrison: "Most people who want to try MMA at least have some kind of skill set. Maybe they were a kickboxer or a wrestler, somebody who was this close to earning a scholarship or making the state finals. Those guys are ideal for MMA."

When Harrison's own grappling students have chosen to venture into MMA, he's frank in assessing their readiness for full-contact fights. "I'll never back anyone for a fight they're not ready for."

At Premier, two of the four weekly classes Cates teaches are devoted solely to jiu-jitsu training, the martial art that has become a linchpin in MMA training ever since Royce Gracie flummoxed brawnier strikers and wrestlers in the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championships. That works well for students like Delozier, the former swimmer who, while participating in full-contact MMA classes, has relegated his competitive efforts to amateur grappling tournaments. "I'm not in there looking to train for the UFC," he says. "I'm staying in shape and learning how to handle myself."

But Harrison says other neophytes go in for MMA fights long before they've built an adequate skill set. Cates remembers one student who, after three months in his class, began presenting himself around town as a full-fledged mixed martial arts instructor.

"I'm glad the sport is growing and getting popular, but some of that stuff irritates me," Harrison says. "There are a lot of guys getting into MMA now because it's the cool thing to do. They want to do it for bragging rights, so they can tell their friends and have their own videos. That kind of stuff detracts from the true athletes in the sport, the guys who've been doing it a while and deserve the credit."

"It was like all these things came together, all the training," he enthuses. "And to be honest, there's something about imposing your will on someone. It's a good feeling."

That might seem like a harsh sentiment, the notion that there's a measure of satisfaction, even exhilaration to be had from physically dominating another human being. But if we examine the nature of sports--combat sports like boxing and wrestling and karate in particular--we're forced to admit the idea has always had purchase with a certain segment of the population. Even football is arguably more about cracking heads than athletic derring-do; there's a reason our professional gridiron heroes aren't wearing flags when they take their places at the line of scrimmage on autumn Sunday afternoons.

It's as natural as the yearning to see who can jump highest or run fastest, this instinct for trial by combat. Maybe we're fortunate, as human beings, that we can turn our quest for pecking order into a game, rather than a sine qua non for survival.

To date, MMA fighters have taken considerable heat from crusaders like John McCain, who argue MMA is more savagery than sport, an atavistic spectacle that appeals to our animal bloodlust rather than our nobler instincts. And maybe they have a point. According to Kentucky sports promoter Larry Bisig, whose state sanctions MMA contests, "It's beyond comprehension that a cock rooster has more protection in Kentucky than does a human."

But mixed martial artists make the case that those instincts are already given full vent in other sporting arenas like boxing, where ring-related deaths make the news every year, or pro football, where retired athletes have often fallen victim to an agonizing litany of physical debilitations as a result of seasons of pounding and abuse.

By contrast, they say, modern mixed martial arts contests are relatively controlled affairs, where combatants are usually tapped out by submission or saved by the referee long before they absorb the kind of punishment that leaves other high-risk athletes punch-drunk or crippled after years in their game of choice.

And for the most part, both statistics and anecdotal evidence seem to bear them out. To date, there have been no deaths recorded in UFC-sanctioned MMA events. And most MMA fighters, professional and amateur alike, walk away from their matches with clearer heads and far fewer welts than their counterparts in AAU boxing.

"You'll get tweaked up from time to time, no doubt," says Cates. "But I've been to I don't know how many fights, and I've yet to see a really big injury."

Whether these arguments will hold sway with the entire Tennessee state legislative delegation will be determined in the coming months, when a pair of MMA-related bills will seek to clear the way for sanctioned events in Tennessee. For aspiring MMA competitors, it's just what they've been waiting for: a fighting chance.