David Alan Beck Elite Cage Fighter Steve Thompson has the upper hand. Two young men stare at each other from opposite sides of the hexagon. As the announcer begins the introduction, one fighter, wearing long camouflage trunks, moves from one foot to the other. Tattoos stream down from his right shoulder to his yellow and black, fingerless gloves. Across the ring, a young, African-American man wearing burgundy trunks stands patiently, legs slightly spread as if preparing for a charging bull. The announcer exits. The gate clanks shut. The referee points to one fighter then to the other. "Ready?" He claps his hands together. "Let's start!" Both fighters extend one arm and touch gloves. Then, the man in the camouflage rushes his opponent, who swings wildly, loses his balance, and gets pinned against the fence. Both men try to slam their knees into each other's thighs. They fasten together and fall forward, the man in burgundy on top. Tattooed arms wrap around his neck, then the legs. Somehow, the black man stands, his opponent locked around him, and slams his back into the mat with a loud thud. The crowd yells and vicariously moans at the same time. He raises the man behind him again and slams him down. Then a third time. The tattooed arms and legs unlock. The man in burgundy throws a punch at his opponent's face. Lying on his back, the opponent taps the mat. The referee pulls off the victor. Minutes later both fighters embrace in center ring. Exchange some words, laugh and slap each other on the shoulder. The Apocalypse is just beginning. Outside 8 Seconds Saloon, a line forms from the door to the end of the building. Inside, last minute preparations are being made for an event called the Apocalypse. Fighters grapple in the ring - a caged hexagon, with the LFC logo pasted in the center - warming up for their matches. LFC stands for Legends of Fighting Championships. Along with Elite Cage Fighting (see elsewhere in this story), LFC boasts of sell-out shows. Co-promoter Scott Sims says that at a recent Apocalypse, they turned away over 200 people. "Full contact fighting is growing and growing," Sims, 33, notes. "We receive sometimes 10 to 15 applicants a week from our web site. They come from all over, as far as Canada." As the doors to 8 Seconds Saloon open, a steady stream of people, ages ranging from early 20s to retirees, find their way to their seats. Wearing muscle shirts, young white men with tattoos huddle together, laughing and drinking beer. A number of women mix in the crowd as well. Two large screens hang on each side of the stage like curtains, providing close-ups for those in back or those whose view is obscured by over-zealous fans standing on chairs. Waitresses rush from the bar to the tables; smoke starts to fill the room, while the soft rock of the Eagles gives way to Eminem's loud, reverberating rap: Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity To seize everything you ever wanted One moment Would you capture it or just let it slip? The air is charged with anticipation as the aisles fill. People shoulder themselves through the crowd, some with cell phones against their ears, trying to hear and shout above the noise. Backstage, Chris Price and Jake O'Brien wait patiently for their matches to begin. Both men have short, close-cropped hair. Both have dreams of making the big time - the UFC, where a star fighter can make $250,000 a fight. A doctor takes the blood pressure of one of the participants. Other fighters, adorned in sweats, throw punches in the air and dodge invisible shots. Some sit against the wall, wearing earphones, nodding to music only they can hear. Sitting at a shadowed table on the side of the club, Price and O'Brien seem calm but focused. The loud music is softer here, giving the fighters a chance to prepare, mentally and physically. From war zone to the Apocalypse Chris "the Exorcist" Price, 23, fights for Damage Incorporated, the official team of the LFC. A U.S. Marine, the 6' 2" 185 pound Price served nine months in Afghanistan and two years in Iraq. "Nothing compares to that one-on-one excitement, the excitement of being locked in a cage with another man - no help from anyone - just the two of us, one-on-one," says Price. Entering the hexagon, the polite, soft-spoken Price is transformed: "Stepping in there is always a mix of excitement and the feeling of 'What am I doing here?' But then the adrenaline hits you... ." While "Welcome to the Jungle" blasts from the speakers, Price, wearing tight-fitting white shorts, stands on one side of the ring. The face of Jesus is tattooed on his right shoulder. His opponent, Mike Merriman, sporting shaggy hair and a scruffy beard, wears black and yellow-trimmed trunks. Chris begins quickly, aiming for his opponent's legs. Soon both men grapple on the mat, twisting and turning, each trying to gain the top position. Price slams his right fist into Merriman's ribs. Moments later, Price straddles his opponent, who is pinned sideways on the mat. Price throws several punches to the liver area. Merriman flinches, then manages to stand and pin Price against the cage. Price raises his knee to Merriman's midsection and the fighter crumples to the mat. Price pounces on his back, throwing lefts and rights at his head. The referee quickly dives in and pulls Price away, as his arms continue swinging. The crowd erupts. Finding quiet in the hexagon In the backroom, as fighters prepare for their bouts, Jake O'Brien, 21, reflects on his chosen sport: "It's the ultimate test, the ultimate challenge. It's like a quest." The 6' 3", 205 pound O'Brien also fights for Damage Incorporated. He wrestled for Franklin Central, claiming three state titles (2001-03). He finished high school with a 152-9 record and went on to wrestle at Purdue University. Like Price, he speaks softly and has a quiet confidence that comes from being placed in tough situations. "I don't go around acting tough. I don't feel that I have anything to prove." But tonight, at the Apocalypse, he does. "Tonight I'm facing my most experienced opponent, Jonathan Ivey." Ivey, a veteran of 46 fights, has been fighting professionally since 1998. O'Brien, on the other hand, has had only four amateur fights, winning all by knock out or submission. He turned pro this year. This is his second fight on the night; he won his first by a first round technical knockout. "Once that bell rings," O'Brien reflects, "it's weird. Everything gets quiet. You don't hear anything, see anything - the people, the lights - none of that. It's just you and him." O'Brien's opponent, Jon Ivey, looks like a wide, white tank. His shaved head glistens under the lights. In cage fighting, tattoos seem as obligatory as fists, and Ivey is no exception: a red Superman insignia on his right shoulder. A little excess flab rolls over the top of his black and yellow trunks, which feature a large smiley face on the front. As the fight begins, Ivey comes out of his corner and starts a kick. O'Brien grabs his leg and takes him down on his back. He piles on top of him, throwing several punches to Ivey's head, most of which are blocked. With surprising agility, Ivey flips to his stomach, with O'Brien still riding his back. Punches slam into Ivey's head and the side of his face. He yells at the referee, complaining of getting hit in the back of the head. Soon, however, Ivey lays on his stomach, his gloves held closely to the side of his head as O'Brien reigns several hard punches and forearms to the side of the head. Most hit the gloves, but Ivey can do nothing. The referee pulls him away, signaling the end of the fight. O'Brien rises to his feet and lets out a lion's roar. Moments later, right before the result is announced, he puts on a pair of sunglasses and confidently strolls around the ring. The same quiet guy who earlier spoke about his dreams of being a champion, of the silence in the ring, becomes something - someone - else. For O'Brien, the hexagon is like Dr. Jekyll's secret formula. Mr. Hyde in sunglasses raises his arms in victory. The party ends As the evening winds down, the tension and anticipation in the makeshift locker room subsides. Fighters drink bottled water, laugh and talk with one another, telling stories of former battles or the one that got away. The Apocalypse has passed, and all have survived. With the exception of a few bruises or red, swollen cheeks, no one could tell that these men had been punched, kicked and slammed to the mat. And that's a good thing. Wearing a suit and tie, Keith Palmer, co-owner of Legends, stands quietly among the participants. "Safety is our number one priority. You can look at these guys and see that everyone's okay." He adds that all shows have a doctor at ringside and an ambulance waiting in the parking lot, just in case. After the final fights end, a loud, mostly drunk, but orderly crowd files out of 8 Seconds Saloon. Drained from the excitement, the yelling, the drinking, the fans seem spent, as if they too had battled. The fighters walk alone or with a few others, carrying their bags, their bruises and their pride, thinking of the next time they will step into the hexagon.
Huge heart: a night at Elite Cage Fighting
Across the city on a cold February Saturday night, Elite Cage Fighting is about to begin. Staged at the Our Land Pavilion at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, Elite Cage Fighting (ECF) provides another venue and outlet, for full-contact fighting. A black octagon sits in the middle of the floor. Bleachers sit at three ends of the building. Rap music blares. A purple mohawk, a face adorned with multiple tattoos, people with piercings, stroll around the makeshift arena. Despite the cold temperatures, young girls wearing tight shorts and halter-tops mingle with the fighters and their friends. A police siren screams from the P.A. The ring announcer's voice is loud and muffled, almost unintelligible at times. But no one cares. It's almost 8:00; the fans are ready for action. The face of ECF Gary Hoyd and Phil Walsh gave birth to Elite Cage Fighting over a year ago. Since then, they have promoted five shows. Hoyd, 34, trains and plays matchmaker for the fighters, while Walsh focuses on promotion and merchandising. Hoyd says, "We pride ourselves in allowing a safe environment, for both the fighters and fans. We even require blood work for each fighter. After all, I don't want any of my fighters or anyone else hurt at our shows. "The fighters come from various backgrounds," Hoyd continues. "Some are educated; some are not. We've had a guy who owned a mortgage company, another who worked in biogenetics. One of our fighters is a police officer in Milan, Indiana." Walsh and Hoyd are committed to promoting five fights a year. And the interest keeps increasing. Hoyd remarks, "We have fans who are buying season tickets for all five shows. Since we already have a contract with the State Fairgrounds, we are hoping to promote a big show at the Pepsi Coliseum." Like the LFC, ECF has its own fighters. They train in a recently purchased gym at 46th and Shadeland Ave. Hoyd says, "We have 2,300 square feet and the caged octagon for the fighters to train in. This, we think, will be a big advantage to our guys. If you've seen the cage, you know how intimidating it can be. Now our fighters can get used to stepping in there on a daily basis." What the LFC and ECF have in common, besides promoting the same sport, is a concern for safety, of both the fighters and the fans. Too much bad press has circulated, calling the sport, "human cockfighting" and "barbaric." In fact, most people with no exposure to the sport will probably be surprised at how much of each fight takes place on the mat, with the combatants using wrestling and martial arts moves in an attempt to put the other one in a submission hold. The use of a cage is also misleading. For those unfamiliar with the sport, the cage protects the fighter from serious injury that could occur if one falls or gets thrown out of the ring. Ropes can be even more dangerous. According to David Plotz, of Slate, the online magazine, "[R]opes are a major cause of death and injury in boxing: Fighters hyperextend their necks when they are punched against the ropes, because nothing stops their heads from snapping back. The chain-link fence prevents hyperextension." Unlike professional boxing, full-contact fighting boasts of never having a death in a legitimately promoted event. The dead man Jeremy "Mad Man" Chambers is one of ECF's up-and-coming fighters. Chambers, 20, earned his moniker for a reason. When psyching himself up for competition, he paces. "I make myself mad. When I step in there, I think to myself, 'I'm great. I'm the best.' I grind my teeth, the whole bit. The crowd loves it, but it's not a show. That's just how I am." But his "Mad Man" label contradicts his personality outside of the ring. He shares a quality that many fighters seem to have: a quiet, almost humble attitude. Unlike many other fighters who started in organized wrestling or martial arts, Chambers has a raw quality about him. He went to Cloverdale High School but never completed his education. He worked as a laborer and did some carpenter work. As a hobby, however, he and his friends used to fight on a concrete slab in his backyard. The purpose was to choreograph martial arts fighting, as seen in the movies, and videotape them. The results weren't Hollywood scripted. "I broke one guy's arm," Chambers recalls. "And then later we wrestled again, and he got into a weird position and I broke his leg." Yes, they are still friends. In fact, his friend encouraged him to start cage fighting and is at ringside to cheer him on. Gary Hoyd trains Chambers. Even though he lost his first and only bout, according to Hoyd, Chambers has potential: "This guy is one of the most motivated fighters I know. He has a huge heart and trains all of the time. He can also hit and kick like a horse." Short and compact, the muscular Chambers paces in the octagon, awaiting his opponent, Mike Sampson. Chambers wears long yellow trunks with black trim; a thin, narrow black beard outlines his jaw. As he paces, the crowd cheers. Several friends and family stand. Sampson enters the ring; a small roll of fat hangs over his black and orange-flame trunks. He is several inches shorter than Chambers. When the horn sounds, both men approach. Chambers lands a kick to Sampson's soft midsection. Seconds later, both men are on the mat, Chambers on top. A flurry of fists follows. Chambers knees his opponent's ribs and seems to be in complete control. But in full-contact fighting, lose focus for a split-second, make one false move, and everything changes. Chambers allows Sampson to reverse their position. With only 10 seconds left in the first round, Sampson manages to get his forearm under Chamber's chin. He presses. Chambers makes a slight motion, a slight tap on the mat, and the match is over, with only five seconds before the horn would have sounded. Afterwards, Chambers says, "There's not much you can do when you get choked like that. It cuts off your air and the blood to your head. You start to go. I could hardly move my fingers to tap out." But if he is disappointed, it doesn't show. "I'm a little depressed, but you have to take it like a man. You lose; you pick yourself up again and start over." Interestingly, Chambers doesn't have a mark on him, while his opponent stands a few feet away holding an ice pack to the side of his swollen cheek. "The only pain I feel is my foot from having kicked him on the side of the face," he says, pointing to Sampson. "I'll be back," he states. "I knew this would be my last fight at 140. I can't make that weight anymore." He nods his head, as if in anticipation. "Look for me next time, on April 29. I'll be back."