Saturday, November 14, 2009

What it takes to be a MMA fighter

I'd would like to think that the fun I have doing my job shows through the writing, this and the piece below are two cases where I think it did.

Published June 9, 2006

Jake McKnight was in the 16th match on the event card his first time in the caged circle as mixed martial arts fighter.

"All night long I had been watching these guys come back from the ring who had just had the crap beat out of them," said McKnight, 28.

It was tough knowing that with each minute, he drew closer to his own date with another fighter just as eager for a first win.

McKnight was something of a prodigy from first time he walked into the Keizer Gold's Gym to train with Team Chaos four months ago.

"He was ready for a real fight within two months," said Denver Mayangitan, Team Chaos head coach.

McKnight had wrestled and boxed from the time he was 5 years old, but knowing he was good didn't untie the knots in his stomach.

"I didn't know what to expect going into that first fight. Up to that point, I had only fought with guys on the team," McKnight said.

It seems like a lot of worry for a match that took just a minute and 20 seconds before his opponent tapped out, but dealing with the unexpected is what mixed martial arts fighting is all about.

"You learn all these different things from judo, jujitsu, wrestling and kickboxing. Then you have to put it all together in the ring and be prepared for what the other guy comes up with," said Peter Aspinwall, 24.

He's 6-0 in sanctioned fights.

Aspinwall has a single word to describe those moments before a fight: Scared.

"But then your theme music starts playing, and you just get pumped," he said.

Aspinwall has been fighting for a year and a half. He started shortly after taking up a kickboxing class with his girlfriend, Jessica Bishop.

Bishop fully supports Aspinwall in his career as a fighter, although she sometimes feels bad for his opponents.

Aspinwall becomes intensely quiet the days he's fighting, she said.

"It's not like he's mad, you can just tell he's thinking about it and he won't say much," she said.

The only drawback to Aspinwall's winning streak, as Bishop sees it, is that his matches keep getting pushed back later on the event cards.

"It just means we have to wait that much longer," she said.

At 20 years old, Kyle Prather is one of Team Chaos' youngest fighters, but he more often goes by "Big Country," a name bestowed upon him by coach Chris Toquero.

"He came in the first night looking like a 235-pound country yokel or Opie Cunningham with that red hair of his," said Toquero.

Weight problems were one of the reasons he deciding to give mixed martial arts fights a shot.

"I wrestled for six years year-round and I took a year and a half off and I felt like a slob," he said.

He's shed 65 pounds in nine months as a fighter.

Prather said he expected total war when he first stepped into the ring yet it was still different than anything he could have imagined.

He won, but had to show up for work at Roth's in the meat department with a black eye. When he told co-workers and customers how he got it no one would believe him.

"People would talk to me and I realized pretty quickly they weren't looking at me, just my eye," Prather said.

Prather's experience in getting other people to believe what he's doing is not uncommon.

Since that first first, Prather has won two more.

Aspinwall, an ironworker, had to take coworkers to his fights before they completely believed him.

The backgrounds of Team Chaos' fighters are as varied as their fighting styles and personalities.

McKnight is a firefighter and foreman for the Grande Ronde Tribes. He's also a father to 7-year-old Lucas, who hasn't yet seen him fight.

"He knows about it and he knows what I do, but he's not old enough to see it yet. One day I'll let him watch the tapes," McKnight said.

McKnight's teammate David Webb is a father of two: Abby, 4, and Mason, 2.

"Without them and their support, I wouldn't be able to do any of this," said Webb, a former McNary High School wrestler.

He's currently 2-0 in sanctioned fights.

He said the biggest challenge is finding the time to train between working graveyard shifts at the Winco distribution center in Woodburn and taking care of Abby and Mason.

Odd thing is, few of the fighters view their nightly workouts as training. More than anything, it's the opportunity to get together.

"It's like having a whole other set of best friends," said Aspinwall, even as sweat streams out of every pore.

Mayangitan said it's that type of discipline which has allowed each of them to excel.

"In order to do this type of fighting, discipline is the most important thing. Each of them live, breathe, eat and sleep their training," he said.

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