February 18, 2013
The day before the fights Weekly photographer Nic Coury warned me: Wear a shirt you don't care about. There might be blood.
Salinas' Sherwood Hall, an auditorium that's held events like Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker," was transformed Saturday night into a bar and brawl site for "13 Brutal Beatdowns in the Cage!"
"The Warriors," name of the night's amateur mixed martial arts competition was, as advertised, a brutal show. Coury, who shoots sports on the side, invited me along. I’d never been to a cage fight.
When we arrived a DJ was playing Kid Rock as guests bought beers and took seats in the crowded auditorium. We weaved through the throngs of enthusiastic patrons, mostly burly men with black t-shirts and buzz cuts, toward the looming hexagonal pen in the center of the room. Hugging the cage were plastic tables and chairs set up for the media. These were the best seats in the house: the perfect place to capture the action. Also a splash zone for bodily fluids.
Behind the velvety blue theater curtains on the far side of the theater the fighters were getting prepared. They were in various stages of readiness: some getting their hands wrapped in tape, others bouncing around and sparring with teammates. All wore looks of deep concentration, steeled for what was coming.
Thirty-one-year-old Michelle Gama was sitting on the floor eating a bowl of gluten-free pasta with tuna, veggies, and organic alfredo sauce. Energy for later. Most of the fighters were men, but there was one women's match tonight.
Gama, a Salinas native, was representing the local Team Kugtar MMA, which had a number of combatants in the show. The mother of three said she started jiu-jitsu training a few years ago to get back into shape. From there, things just kind of "led from one to the other," she said. Saturday night's match was her second official fight, following a previous win.
Gama wasn't the chatty type. When I asked her how she prepares for a fight, she said she likes to be alone. A hint. She answered my questions tersly and politely shooed me away, digging into her Victoria's Secret bag for a cell phone charger and then curling in a blanket on the wood floor to relax. Her fight wasn’t until the very end. I took my cue and wandered back to the main floor.
I can't say with much accuracy what happened after the fighting began. I've heard boxing commentators talk about right hooks, left jabs. Aside from those very basic terms, I have little vocabulary to describe the action. Mixed martial arts is more than just throwing punches: it’s a combination of jiu-jitsu, freestyle, wrestling, and other techniques.
The bouts were fast and fierce. Up against the chain link, I heard fist pounding skin, the sound of raw meat slapped onto a cutting board. The fighters started with grace, but that dissipated when the upright sparring turned to grappling. Then, the man with the advantage would find a position and clamp on like a crab, releasing his grip only occasionally to fit in a well positioned jab to the gut. The two would be locked in battle, sometimes flailing violently into the cage until there was a tap out, a knockout, or time was called. When the bigger guys—the 200-something-pound tanks—fought, it was like steamboats colliding, a slow but disastrous event. In the matches that lasted more than a round, the fighters' strength drained quickly. The bodybuilders endure hours at the gym, but in the hexagon their energy would deplete in less than two minutes. In the crucial moments of survival at the end of a round it was mere seconds that counted, but even to us on the outside those seconds seemed to drag.
At the end of the second fight one contestant returned to his corner, his face streaming blood.
“What a start to tonight!” proclaimed the announcer. “What a bloody mess!”
From the corners, coaches and teammates screamed advice: "Push him off you! Undercut with your left hand!" Whenever someone took a particularly heavy hit, the audience roared: "Ohhhhh..." A group of elementary-aged kids lost interest halfway through the show and started playing Fruit Ninja on somebody’s phone.
In one heavyweight fight, a man was taken down with a volley of punches to the head prompting a quick KO. He later left in a stretcher, for reasons I couldn't make out.
In some cases, after a man was bested he embraced his opponent. A tender moment after a fierce competition. It was a sign of sportsmanship, but also a testament to the intimacy the two had briefly shared in the ring.
Gama's match was the last of the night. She faced off against Molly Wren-Holmes, a San Luis Obispo fighter making her MMA debut. Gama was the first one in the cage. She waited in the blue corner, silently shifting her weight between her legs, her feet bare, her toenails pink. Her opponent burst in, making an aggressive lap of the hexagon before settling into the red corner.
The fight began. Gama went for a quick kick, but didn’t land it. Then Wren-Holmes took a swing, which Gama easily dodged. But Gama couldn't deflect the next punch, which threw her off balance and sent her stumbling backward into the floor. Wren-Holmes didn't hesitate, pouncing with the fury of a mountain lion, laying on a barrage of head shots that didn’t stop until the ref shoved her off. In less than ten seconds, the fight was over.
Afterwards, ringside, Gama's supporters commented that, by the fresh look of her face, they couldn’t even tell that she's been hit. Teammates and friends offered consolation. There’s always next time.
This match, at least, there was no blood. As far as I could tell, anyway.