Saturday, November 14, 2009

Controlled Chaos

Denver Mayangitan woke up on his back. His tongue and jaw tingled, but he was still fighting. He could feel himself kicking and striking even though he wasn’t entirely aware of where he was.
“Then I tackled the referee to the ground,” he said.
The mixed martial arts fight was over, but his mind was still in the game. The punches and kicks he was “throwing” were body twitches, an aftereffect of being choked out. That was how Mayangitan’s first cage fight ended.
“It was a heart-break-and-a-half. I didn’t sleep for two days,” he said.
But something had changed.
On the third day, Mayangitan could walk into any establishment knowing he could take any person in the room.
“It’s an amazing feeling. But you’ve got to keep it inside and say, ‘I can’t do that.’”
That was after a loss. Imagine how he felt once he started winning.

The caged circle
Mixed martial arts fighting is more commonly known as “ultimate fighting.” Combatants square off in the middle of a pro wrestling-style ring surrounded by a cage. The best fighters combine aspects of kickboxing, boxing, Brazilian jiu jitsu, grappling, trapping, slams, throws and choke holds.
“It’s like molding somebody from a street fighter into a weapon,” said Mayangitan.
The athletes who choose to pursue careers in the sport typically have a background in some aspect of competitive sparring, but require training in the other methods.
Mayangitan calls himself a “striker by trade,” which means he relies most heavily on throwing kicks and punches, but after his first defeat at the hands of a grapple-focused opponent, he realized he needed to know more.
“He got me on the mat and I lost my space to strike at him,” he said. Soon thereafter he lost consciousness in a choke hold.
When Mayangitan recovered from the loss, he was determined to never let himself get into the same situation again.
“It became a pet peeve. I thought, He’ll never do that again, and then I studied that position over and over,” Mayangitan said.
He began training with his cousin, a student of Brazilian jiu jitsu, and learned that fighting has as much to do with control and foresight as strength and speed.
Brazilian jiu jitsu hones a fighter’s skill on the ground and puts the emphasis on gaining the dominant position over an opponent.
“You learn about balance and knowing where your opponent’s weight is at,” said Mayangitan. “It’s a chess game and you have to be three or five moves ahead of your opponent. You have to know what he’s going to do before he does it and be able to counter it.”
Training with family was nothing new for Mayangitan; it was something he had done for years.
Mayangitan, 32, was born in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and was expected to study martial arts from a young age.
“It’s like our P.E. class, but what you study depends on what your school offers,” he said.
He took judo because it was what his uncle’s school offered. Like American martial arts schools, martial arts schools in the Philippines operate on belt systems with black being the highest one attainable and then progression by degrees. There is, however, one key difference, said Mayangitan.
“In the U.S., you’re praised if you have a black belt. Over there, it’s the very bottom of the totem pole,” he said.
Mayangitan started studying judo when he was about 6 years old. He began with forms and progressed to sparring by age 11. He picked up pieces of other martial arts by practicing with cousins and friends.
“There were times when the neighborhood would get together, make up a ring in the middle of the street, put some gloves on and it’s ‘let’s see what you got,’” he said.
As a child, Mayangitan’s training focused on instilling discipline, but there were also other types of fights in the streets; fights intended to cause injury. Bearing witness to those fights changed the way Mayangitan trained.
“It was reality combat. Kill or be killed,” he said.
Fortunately, Mayangitan and his family were able to leave the island nation before he himself was roped into the violence.
His grandfather, who had served in the U.S. Army during World War II and was granted American citizenship for his efforts, moved his family stateside when Mayangitan turned 13.
He tried to maintain a low profile in his new home, but Mayangitan continued to pursue his martial arts training, no easy task for someone with more exacting standards than the average American martial artist.
“It was a matter of finding the best trainers in the area. I did a lot of traveling,” he said.
He was introduced to competitive sparring as a tae kwon do student, but discovered that light contact wasn’t enough to get his adrenalin pumping.
“Once I felt contact, it was on,” he said.
Finding full-contact fighting in Oregon presented its own hurdles. When Mayangitan started competing, the sport was banned in this state. He had to travel to Washington for a decent fight. When it was legalized in Oregon, he turned it into a career.
He took the ring-name “Chaos” because he felt it reflected both the state of his life and the feeling of being in the ring.
After the initial loss, Mayangitan fell to two other opponents, but each one was a learning experience.
“Once you’ve been in a fight, you know more about how people move. You can tell when they’ve got you in a dangerous position or when they’re loading up a right hand,” he said. “I was in my prime. I had fast hands, fast legs, a devastating kick. I was getting to the point where I could fight a 240-pound guy and neutralize him.”
Mayangitan said the first match, the one he lost by a choke-out, was his most memorable.
“Even though I’d lost, I’d given it everything I had. It wasn’t a battle, it was a war. I think any fighter would rather fight a war than a 15-second match they win by knockout.”
He had a record of 13-3 when he was drafted into a bigger battle, but it would be fought outside the ring.
Ultimate fight
In 1999, Mayangitan was 24 years old and hanging out with his girlfriend when he started having stomach pains. He went to the hospital in Albany and was told it was probably appendicitis. He went home and waited for the pain to shift to the right side of his body, a signal that it was nothing more than appendicitis.
The pain never shifted.
“The next day I couldn’t even get up. I was weak and my nose started bleeding,” he said.
He was sent to Salem Hospital.
“They took a blood sample, tested it and came back. The doctor said there was good news and bad news,” said Mayangitan.
The good news: It wasn’t appendicitis. The bad news: It was leukemia.
“I figured I was dead,” he said.
He was given a choice between long-term or aggressive treatment, but he was in perfect physical condition and an ideal candidate for the latter.
About three weeks into the heaviest of his chemotherapy treatments, Mayangitan climbed out of his bed and looked back over his shoulder to see some of his hair still lying on the pillow. When he got in the shower much of his remaining hair spiraled down the drain.
“Those were the hardest moments,” said Mayangitan. “You’re on your knees mentally and you just figure you’re dead.”
During one of those moments he made The Pledge.
“I promised myself that if I beat cancer, I would never go back in the ring,” he said.
After one month of intense treatment and five months of a reduced regimen the cancer was gone. The former cage fighter was declared cancer-free after a year.
Mayangitan prided himself on his physical fitness and had more reason than ever to regain his previous level of conditioning. He wanted to be prepared if the leukemia returned.
When a friend urged him to try competitive bodybuilding, he figured, why not?
His rhetorical question soon had a very real answer.
“It’s the worst feeling in the world to be 3 percent body fat and dehydrated. It’s like being on chemotherapy,” Mayangitan said.
He saw some success, but always felt he was a better fighter than a physique competitor. The urge to return to the ring kept tugging at the back of his mind.
Sidetracked comeback
Mayangitan’s love of cage fighting couldn’t be kept at bay. Once he decided he was through with the competitive bodybuilding world, he started training for a cage fighting comeback.
As he started to train, others in the gym started to take notice. They asked if they could work out with him.
“They told me I could beat the crap out of them and train myself at the same time. They were these two huge guys, but I beat the living tar out of them and they kept asking questions and learned it themselves,” Mayangitan said.
Two fighters became 10, 10 became 20, Mayangitan lost count after 50.
As the ranks grew, Mayangitan began enlisting the help of friends whose skills would benefit the trainees in the ring. They trained like pros to do amateur shows. When it came time for his first students to fight, he dubbed the group Team Chaos.
The team trains four nights a week in Keizer’s Gold’s Gym, but the training schedule isn’t for the meek. After warm-ups that would put athletes hauling in millions in endorsement deals to shame, the real training begins and the team gathers around the mat to shout advice as fighters take turns taking it to each other.
Lots of people give it a shot; fewer make it past the first time they lose their lunch.
“This isn’t Pilates,” said Mayangitan. “This is cage fighting.”
The team’s ranks swelled so much that Mayangitan had to start making hard decisions about who could stay and who would go.
“It just got to be too much and we had to streamline it,” he said.
The team now boasts a core fighting group of about a dozen fighters, four with championship belts.
Mayangitan never envisioned himself as a coach, but he’s found it comes with rewards all its own.
“Looking at it from the outside, I can see the whole picture. I can find the flaws and what needs to be worked on,” he said.
But it’s the fighters themselves who keep him going.
“My guys, these guys, go through hell and back every day for a little piece of metal that says ‘winner.’ They fight for Team Chaos, they fight for me and their success reflects back on me,” he said.
Pretenders to the throne
The number of Team Chaos wannabes has risen steadily with the success of the team.
Mayangitan walked into a downtown Salem bar a few months ago and spotted another patron sporting a Team Chaos T-shirt. He went over to inquire about it.
“Hey, where’d you get that shirt,” asked Mayangitan.
“I’m a cage fighter and this is my team,” replied the man.
“Oh yeah, where do you work out?”
“Over in Keizer at Gold’s Gym.”
“That’s funny dude, I’ve never seen you there.”
“Do you work out over there,” the man asked.
“Who’s your coach,” asked Mayangitan.
No answer.
“The reason, I ask is because I own the team,” said Mayangitan. “Chaos was my ring name.”
The man confessed he’d gotten the shirt from his cousin.
For all the battles he’s fought, Mayangitan has a few more on the card. A fight training facility bearing the Team Chaos name is near the top of his list for the future.
“I want our fighters to have more recognition. I want them to be fighting for something other than that piece of metal,” he said.
He isn’t quite ready to throw in the towel on his in-ring career either. He’s issued a challenge to a former friend who thought Mayangitan could be forced out of control of the team.
If the challenge is accepted, Mayangitan has his strategy all laid out, “I’m going to put him through in the cage what I’ve been through in life.”
He’ll make only one guarantee: It won’t be a battle, it will be a war.

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