MMA: The World of Mixed Martial Arts Fighting

May 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Ten minutes until face off and the brown wooden benches of the Kezar Pavilion are quickly filling up. Outfitted with black Beats headphones, the DJ bobs his head up and down to mostly hip hop and some hard rock. Hoards of people enter, some juggle nachos, hot dogs, and energy drinks – most in clusters, and most clad in t-shirts supporting their gym or favorite fighter. Some groups are happy, cheerily chatting with one another, while others strut back and forth from one side of the arena to the other, game face on.

The star of this production, the cage, sits in the center, surrounded by cushioned blacks seats that constitute the “VIP area.” For the moment, the cage is empty. Its gray floor is clean and its padded corners shiny. For the spectators in the arena, the cage is unassuming, even though in just a matter of minutes, it will transform into a place of chaos. For the fighters waiting to enter, the cage is intimidating, threatening. For within the confines of this hexagonal structure, their fate will be decided. There is always one winner and one loser.

Zhong Luo, the owner of Dragon House, quickly appears for a few seconds and just as quickly disappears, talking urgently through his blue-tooth ear piece. Zhong Luo, or “Sifu” as he is called by his fighters, began learning martial arts at age three from his father and Grandmaster Luo Rong Qiang. By the age of five, Zhong Luo was already winning awards in hand-form competitions. When Luo was fourteen, he was well practiced in San Shou (Chinese kick-boxing), Mongolian-style wrestling, and weight-lifting.

Dragon House security begins to circle the pavilion on the lookout for any trouble makers ready to start a fight. Police officers and paramedics are present . The crowd is getting restless. Some head over to the biergarten while others stay glued to their seats knowing the event will begin soon. At 6:05, the lights dim, except those that illuminate the cage. The announcer enters.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Welcome to Dragon House 9!”

This is Dragon House 9, the only cage fighting event in San Francisco. The event is hosted by the Dragon House school in the city’s Mission district. Thirty fighters – eighteen amateur, twelve professional –  from twenty-one different gyms will engage in fifteen grueling matches today.

Toby Fuentes, the first one to fight for Dragon House, waits in the locker room. He is eighteen years old and today is his first fight. He feels excited and eager to show off his skills in the cage.

Days before the fight, Fuentes trains at the Dragon House gym. The gym is easy to spot from the outside with a large, colorful mural captivating those who pass by. Once inside, the cage is the center. Though it’s smaller than a normal cage, it dominates the room. Punching bags line two walls opposite a large mirror. On the ground lays a bright blue and red mat – no shoes allowed. Chinese script lines the walls. Fuentes trains almost every day, including afternoons, nights, and weekends – whenever his busy schedule at the City College of San Francisco allows. For Fuentes, it’s basically “school, train, sleep, and repeat.”

“I started training in MMA in Reno, Nevada,” explains Fuentes. “I was in a boys home and one of the counselors, Larry Hall, asked me to try it out. I was about fourteen, fifteen years old.”

Fuentes has been training for about three to four years and he hopes to one day become a professional fighter in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. He revels in the challenge of MMA, and it is one of the many reasons he loves the sport. The lessons Fuentes take away from MMA will stay with him for the rest of his life.

“Discipline,” he says. “It has showed me that the guy who is the smartest and the most disciplined fighter will win eight times out of ten.”

Back inside the Kezar Pavilion, Fuentes gets ready to face off against opponent Rizaldy Celi Jr. from Cung Le’s AKA. The contenders enter the arena area and make their way through the crowd – their entourage bobbing up and down around them, and quickly apply Vaseline and furiously pump their fighters with words of encouragement. Seconds before the bell rings to sound the start of the fight, Fuentes bounces effortlessly around the cage, fists casually punching the air in front of him. He looks incredibly comfortable in the ring for a first timer.

The bell sounds and the fight begins. Round one: Fuentes gets kicked in an illegal move near his crotch – the referee allows him a few seconds to shake it off. Fuentes comes back quickly, knocking Celi on the ground, trapping him to the edge of the cage. Celi swiftly counter attacks and pins Fuentes against cage. Horns sound the end of the round. The fighters’ entourage enter with stools for Celi and Fuentes to sit on. The entourage supplies their fighters with water and reapply Vaseline on their face. A blond woman clad in a black bathing suit circles the ring and lifts a sign high in the air signaling the start of the next round. Hoots, hollers, and cat calls sound from the crowd.

Ding, Ding. Round two. Right away, Fuentes gets two punches in and pins Celi. Then, Celi wraps his legs around Fuentes and pins him. Round three: Celi pins Fuentes hard on the floor, but Fuentes quickly locks his legs around Celi’s neck. Horn sounds. The announcer enters the cage, declares a tie and lifts both fighters’ hands up.

“I was just happy that it was over with,” says Fuentes. “On TV, they don’t show you how fighters are after the fight. It’s mentally draining, but it was the best thing I have ever done.”

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a full combat sport that includes techniques from boxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jtsi, muay Thai, kickboxing, taekwondo, karate, judo, and numerous other styles. The roots of MMA can be traced back to the ancient Greek sport of Pankration, a blend of boxing and wrestling.

Pankration was introduced to the Olympic Games in 648 B.C. and was used in both sporting events and as a form of total combat for Greek soldiers. According to the mythology, Heracles (or Hercules) used Pankration to defeat the Nemean lion and Theseus used it to conquer the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. The practice of Pankration was incredibly violent and had no rules. If a competition resulted in death, it was considered a win. During the 1800s – 1900s, mixed style fighting was a happening all over the world – especially throughout Asia and Europe. The concept of mixing various types of martial arts was made popular in the West by Bruce Lee in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“Actually, the father of mixed martial arts, if you will, was Bruce Lee,” explains Dana White, UFC president. “If you look at the way Bruce Lee trained, the way he fought, and many of the things he wrote, he said the perfect style was no style. You take a little something from everything. You take the good things from every different discipline, use what works, and you throw the rest away.”

In 1985, an MMA organization, Shooto, was established in Japan. But it was the Brazilian combat sport of Vale Tudo, developed in the 1920s by the Gracie family, that brought the sport to the United States. In 1993, Vale Tudo’s popularity led to the creation of the UFC, the world’s largest MMA promotion company today.

MMA is a difficult sport and takes an enormous amount of dedication. Take it from Christopher “CJ” Hagerty, a professional fighter at Dragon House. Hagerty has been fighting twenty hours a week for eight years, but it was no easy task becoming a pro. Hagerty began training in New Hampshire when he was about ten years old, stduying various types of martial arts. In 2004, he moved to Georgia and joined a gym called Knuckle Up where he met some Brazilian fighters.

“Dragon House was in my path, part of my destiny,” says Hagerty. “I’m very spiritual, and I found myself there after a lot of praying. Before I found a place to live, Sifu let me stay at the school for a couple of weeks. MMA is a big part of my life. I love my team.”

Fighting throughout his youth, MMA is something that comes naturally to Hagerty. He was very competitive in sports and dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. Hagerty plans to climb the ranks professionally and hopes to eventually be one of the top 5 in the world.

“I love the competition, and the fighting chance that we have to let it all hang out and prove ourselves worthy of our next fight,” explains Hagerty. “Always be the aggressor.  Push the pace in training, and stay ahead in the fight.  Think about survival, because it’s not a game in there.”

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PLUR

January 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Peace, love, unity and respect, PLUR for short. There is still much debate over how the phrase was coined; what is known is that the phrase has become a motto for raves and their attendees. For many it has become more than simply a motto, but a lifestyle. Raves have always gotten a bad rap for its association with drugs and alcohol, and recently were in danger of being outlawed. I set out to find out just how ravers in San Francisco feel about their favorite pastime and their opinions on the debated legislation.

Drugs and Alcohol

I spoke to San Rafael resident Lois Lane* to find out what her first experience at a rave was like.

“Freshman year on Halloween I went to my first rave. My friend convinced me to go with her. I had the worst time ever—I was never a fan of electronic music. My friend could tell I wasn’t having a good time and offered me pills—ecstasy. I was nervous; I had never done drugs before. My friends assured me it would make me feel good. I chewed it. The dry powder tasted like poison and plastic. All of sudden, it hit me. It’s like your sense of touch is heightened times 100. The feeling was amazing. All I wanted to do was dance. I fell in love with electronic music that night and, from then on, I was a raver. My favorite rave was seeing Tiesto. I’m trying to remember, but I think I popped around four pills that night.  Tiesto was a beautiful experience. The music transcends you and puts you in a better, happier place. This isn’t the drugs talking, it’s just beautiful. I love raves partly because of the music and partly because of the feeling. There are people that overdo it, but that happens everywhere, at rock concerts too. People just need to stop looking at the flaws.”

At Lois’* first rave she not only had her first experience with electronic music, but also had her first experience taking drugs. She is still alive and healthy today, but others are not so lucky.

Anthony Mata, 23, from Santa Clara died in May 2010 after ingesting tainted drugs at the Cow Palace’s annual “etd. POP” rave in San Francisco. Mata and about a dozen others ended up in hospitals that night due to tainted drugs. Police also arrested 68 adults and five minors for possessing or selling drugs which included 800 Ecstasy tablets, LSD, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana. In June 2010 at the Electric Daisy Carnival, a rave also known as EDC at the Los Angeles Coliseum, 15-year-old Sasha Rodriguez drank water laced with ecstasy. She overdosed and died. More than 100 people were rushed to the hospital for overdoses and drug-related incidents.

Ecstasy is associated with electronic music because of its ability to heighten the user’s experience. Drugs combined with alcohol, which is the norm at massive events, can be deadly. Raves tend to generate a lot of controversy because their attendees include minors where both drugs and alcohol are present (even if not allowed). According to the Partnership for a Drug Free America, ecstasy use among teenagers has increased to 71 percent since 1999.  However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the profile of the typical ecstasy user has changed to a broader range of ethnic groups including urban gay males, no longer just Caucasian young adults at raves or nightclubs.

Legislation

Due to the number of deaths and hospitalizations that occurred in ravers last year, San Francisco assemblywoman, Fiona Ma felt that she needed to take action. Ma proposed an initiative that would ban electronic dance music (EDM) events or raves from public buildings in California. However, due to much protest from organizations like Save the Rave and PLUR Alliance, Ma instead proposed legislation that would set safety regulations at raves and other large-scale events, called the Rave Safety Act. The name was changed again to the Concert and Music Festival Safety Act.

Save the Rave felt that “the previous title reinforced the trend in media and government to single out electronic music events for discriminatory treatment, since sporting, concerts and many other types of events can also have health and safety issues.”

Save the Rave and PLUR Alliance are organizations that strive to promote EDM safety. Rather than banning music events, they feel that safety through education is more constructive. Besides changing the name, the organizations were also able to increase the number of attendees from 1,000 to 10,000 for events on state property.

“They are just trying to keep people safe but it is a shame that talk of actually stopping raves has actually become a thought,” says Santa Cruz native Myoko Shallenberger. “The regulations have gotten more strict as far as dress-code and security checks. One plus is the increase in help inside the venue. The security and paramedic team have greatly increased for the better.”

“I feel bad about parents that have lost their children but you can’t force other people to stop going to raves,” says Lane*. “Not everyone at raves participate in drugs and alcohol; it’s unfair to them.”

Economic Revenue

What many people don’t think about when talking about raves is their ability to bring tremendous amounts of revenue. Beacon Economics, a research and analysis company in Los Angeles, found that, besides filling 34,000 hotel rooms, the Electric Daisy Carnival increased economic output by more than $42 million in Los Angeles County. The carnival, now moved to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, is expected to bring in an even bigger crowd than the usual 120,000 NASCAR fans that come to events in the spring. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority recorded that NASCAR, alone, brought in more than $115 million in nongaming revenue in 2010. It will be interesting to see what EDC pulls in when it debuts in Las Vegas June 24 through 26.

“With 100,000 people, that’s a lot of room nights, a lot of dollars being spent in our town. It’s a great thing for our economy,” said Clark County Commissioner Tom Collins in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Rave Culture

Not many people really know what the atmosphere and culture is like at raves (unless you attend them). I decided to hit the streets of San Francisco, asking ravers just what it’s all about. I talked to frequent raver and San Francisco resident, Annabel Anderson, for the details.

“You gotta bring some candies, “ she said, “No raver would be without their candies.”

“Candies,” plastic, multi-colored bracelets, are seen at every rave. Tradition goes that you make the bracelets yourself and then trade the bracelets with other people you meet throughout the night.

“You will always remember a person through trading candy,” said Lane*. “It’s a connection. That’s my favorite part about raves. You say [with accompanied hand motions] ‘peace, love, unity, and respect.’ Then trade the candy.”

Candies and the PLUR motto are key to understanding rave culture. It’s a way that the community connects with one another free of judgement, reminiscent of the Peace and Love movement of the 60s.

“Trading candies reminds us that we’re in this together,” says Lane*. “It’s a philosophy. If you have peace with others and the strangers you meet, peace will be a part of your life.”

Lovers and Haters

“Raves are important to me because I love house music,” says Bay Area native Amanda Fode. “It’s euphoric. It builds up. Raves give DJs the opportunity to perform their music in the same way any artist would perform at a concert. It’s just an amazing experience.”

“A lot of people at raves are ignorant to what’s really going on,” says Bryan Chu, a San Francisco resident. “In terms of music, they don’t realize that they are listening to probably the best in electronic music. Unfortunately, I feel that the majority of people at raves are there to take drugs and get wasted. I prefer going to clubs to see my favorite DJs play because there are no people wearing crazy outfits and I’m surrounded by a more responsible crowd.”

“I go to raves because of the music, but the atmosphere is a huge part as well,” says Santa Cruz native Myoko Shallenberger. “It does not matter who you are, where you are from or what you look like; everyone loves you. It’s probably the only place I have ever been that I can say I have truly felt accepted by everyone without question. My favorite part of all has to be looking out at the mass of people and seeing thousands of bodies moving to the beat. Definitely infinite bliss.”

I wrote this peace to learn more about the popularity of raves, and, as with most trends, there are always upsides and downsides—lovers and haters. While there is stigma surrounding drug and alcohol abuse at rave events, is it any more different than rock concerts and other music events? I have found that with any large-scale event, there are bound to be those that break rules and abuse the privilege. Should others be punished for their mistakes? What kind of community would we have if people were not able see and listen to their favorite music artists?

 

* name has been changed to conceal identity