Words

Small-Town MMA in the Age of Technology

Fightland Blog

By Alea Adigweme

"Its cuz korys scared," says Megan Marie, via mobile. "#teamsteinbach." "Kory ain't scared," Kendra Leigh responds an hour later, "trust me gets ur facts straight there." "That excites me," Kory Moegenburg says. It is 28 January and "that" is Nick Steinbach's pre-fight posturing on True Revolution MMA’s Throwdown 15 Facebook event page.

"kory im not backing like a 'punk' so you say.i called you out in case you forgot.that would be pretty stupid for me todo."

Megan Marie and Kendra Leigh, Ottumwa, Iowa, natives like Moegenburg and Steinbach, are the thread's first and most inflamed participants. "Take it to the cage!," Megan Marie says, "Prove yourself cuz nick isn't backing down! So stop saying that! K hun." "Told you no one likes nick," Kendra Leigh says, after another Moegenburg fan supports her claim that Megan Marie's the only Steinbach fan present. Enter Bob Jolley, the True Revolution promoter.

"Both guys have 1 loss in the cage but have performed well outside of that," Jolley writes, "Neither have ever backed out of a challenge ever. There is no reason for the disrespect. They both work harder in the gym than most people commenting here. Lets hope for a clean, exciting, injury-free fight." "Come on Bob," Kendra Leigh's father chimes in, "trash talking is part of the game!!! Let em go!!!" "I agree daddy," Kendra Leigh says, but Jolley holds his ground. "I'm all good with nick n kory talkin shit to each other," he says, "That is motivation. But outside of that, not hard to figure out that korys gf likes kory better or NICK'S mom likes him better. Who people like better has nothing to do with how the fight will play out." Three minutes later, he adds, "It should be fun though!!!"

For Bob Jolley, everything about Throwdown 15 is earnest and aspirational. The Bridge View Center's expo room in Ottumwa is set up like an arena, general admission risers on three sides, a VIP section in the middle with tables radiating from the ring like the rays on a kid's line drawing of the sun. Each beam is made of two long, beige, plastic folding tables, end-to-end, and surrounded by beige metal folding chairs. I choose a seat 13 rows up in the main risers because I want a panoptical perch, but not any higher because I still want to see fine details.

Whether it's the ring's fencing or a strapping family of tall, corn-fed people, every view in the room is obstructed by something, though. I can no more see all than I can remain an observer above the fray. It's a tradeoff. In order to experience the ritual in its most thrilling and goosebump-inducingly communal way, I must give up the crisp, multi-angle HD footage, the replays on the big screen where I can watch a guy's arm get broken three times in a row, focusing my eyes at the moment of snapping first on his arm, then on his face, and then on the face of the snapper. I must forget, or set aside as entirely artificial, the borrowed, superhuman enhancement of vision that comes with watching televised athletics.

Throwdown 15 has all the trappings of televised, big-money MMA presented, to scale, in small-budget, pro-am miniature. The stocky announcer lacks a Buffer Brothers-style coif, but he wears the requisite dark suit that, along with his pale, ball, thumbprint-shaped head, makes him look like an upside-down exclamation point that someone has painted white. He chops up and stretches out the words that tell the audience just how fucking killer each fighter is. Without irony, he'll serve up a deep, booming "un-deeeeeeeeefeeeeeaaat-ed" and then announce that the fighter is 1-0. There is something charmingly boastful about it, like this large man with his shaven head is not neutral, but a proud papa, and every man walking into the ring his son.

"Please stand for the national anthem," he thunders, and everyone does, so when in Rome. Someone takes the event's poster out of full screen on a computer and we all watch the cursor move across the projector screen to open a file from the PC's desktop that presents us with a jpeg of an American flag. The young woman's invocation is a cappella and seemingly cribbed from Beyoncé's oddly phrased inaugural rendition. There's "a very special performance" from a local rapper whose rhymes I can't make out over the backing track, which is as excessively loud and poorly equalized as the Top 40 hip-pop blared pre-show. Until the dutiful and sparse applause, we all lay back and think of the queen.

All of the players—the announcer, the fighters, Bob Jolley, and the two ring girls who end up shoeless by the sixth round—take their roles incredibly seriously. The barely pubescent boy who cleans the ring between fights does his job gravely, eyes darting around the ring looking for spots and smears of blood and sweat. He has a sturdy, rectangular Pugsley Addams-type body and a shaggy bowl haircut, and he lacks the glee I imagine that character would feel at getting so close to so much blood.

Only six of the 20 men fighting aren't from Iowa, but five of those six either train here or live just on the other side of the nearby borders in Missouri and Illinois. There are nearly 1,000 spectators packed into the room, and the longer I'm around them, the more I understand that they're showing love, without being explicitly asked, because they're the partners, parents, colleagues, kids, cousins, nieces and nephews, childhood friends, and neighbors of the men slugging it out in the ring. Like six of the other men fighting tonight, Mike Garcia is from Ottumwa, where he wrestled for the high school. The mixture of “Mikes” and “Mikeys” make it feel like the folks around me have known Garcia since before he even had adult teeth. It's sweet and, for a moment, the multi-purpose event room and its contents—the ring and the concession stand; the VIP tables and the bags of Fritos lounging on their sides, split like vivisected animals, white plastic forks like forgotten scalpels sticking straight up into the air; the burgundy risers and the beige convention center panels that cordon off the back third of the room and create a sacred space for the fighters and their entourages—all those little details disappear, and, instead, we're in a tiny town's schoolyard watching two boys scrap in a patch of dirt.

Sides are chosen, but the shouts of allegiance rarely get as personally snide as they did between Megan Marie and Kendra Leigh online. Kory Moegenburg will win, by the way, though his will be the only fight to go to a decision. The point is, every man's got someone, it feels like, to show him some love. Except for maybe Demetrious Smallwood, who fights second, and is the only man who has no ties to Iowa or any town just across one of its borders.

Smallwood, from Augusta, Georgia, is a tall man with shoulder-length dreads. Jake Parsons, his opponent, is from some place in Missouri my ear doesn't catch. When the fight begins, Parsons' fist connects with Smallwood, but it seems light, like a lovetap instead of a punch meant to disarm. Smallwood answers with a series of punches that are so fast and so hard and so plentiful that my body bellows dark and gleeful, from its guts, like I haven't heard in years. I laugh and laugh, thrilled on a subatomic level, but the audience around me is much less thrilled. They are telling Parsons that he can do it. Yeah, right, I think, because I am sure as hell that Parsons is finished, though no one's yelling encouragement for Smallwood, who lands punch after punch after punch to an opponent who's neither fighting back nor defending himself very well. Parsons is finally on the ground, dazed, and Smallwood, he and I both feeling like victory is his, cocks back his arm and brings his fist down hard where Parsons is, the entirety of his body's weight behind it, but Parsons isn't there because he's rolled away. The audience roars, people yanked to their feet, and Smallwood stumbles. His weight falling to the vacant space where Parsons was, my breath catches in my throat and my brain is screaming Get up! Get the fuck up! though I know that it's already over. Smallwood gets up, but too slowly, stunned, perhaps, by his own miscalculation, and he belongs to Parsons, who knocks him out in seconds. The reversal is so unexpected and quick, the audience so over the moon at Smallwood's defeat, that I am slightly embarrassed by my own hubris.

Is it regional, the love for Parsons? Georgia is far from here and perhaps, with the state line only 45 minutes away, Parsons' posse came up from wherever in Missouri he's from. Or was the very idea that Smallwood could win so decisively and quickly repugnant to the bulk of the audience present? I still cannot wrap my mind around the unanimity of the audience's allegiance, the lack of support when Smallwood was up and the wave of schadenfreude as soon as he was down. Even though I spend the rest of the evening attempting to suss them out, the nuances of the relationship between fighter and spectator stay lost to me.

Next into the cage is Mark Sainci. Sainci hails from Florida but fights out of Mason City, a 28,000-person town three hours north of Ottumwa, near the Minnesota border known best for being the hometown of composer and playwright Meredith Wilson, who used the sleepy hamlet as the inspiration for The Music Man. Rolland Wimberley, his opponent, is Brooklyn hipster-cute with slightly longish dark hair and stubble. He's been defeated once in seven fights and he's from Alaska, which is, obviously, much, much farther than Mason City, Georgia, and some random city in Missouri combined. They fight for the first True Revelation Mixed Martial Arts 125-pound amateur championship belt.

Very early on the day of the fight, Wimberley's mother had taken to Facebook: "I'm sure glad Rolland doesn't have all those tattoos like most of the other fighters," she wrote, "He doesn't need ink to show he's tough!!!" The photograph above her comment is of her son and Sainci, fists up and facing off in the usual post-weigh-in/press conference pose, only their smirks giving away that the picture on Bob Jolley's Facebook page is just for show. With tattoos no longer being just for sailors and whores, it wasn't very long before a Facebook bystander disagreed (“Sorry no disrespect but that's the dumbest thing I have ever heard”). The first to respond, though, was Sainci himself, and I wondered, reading it, why he was up at 4:30 on the morning of his fight.

“I can do all things in him who strengthens me I don't need tattoos to look tough I have them cuz I love the way they look, good luck too all the fighters Tommr we all put in a lot of work to show ppl are skills, and Rolland you are a Kool person it was nice talking to you for 5mins it was funny that we could look mad at each other on this ppl, much respect to buddy. God bless.”

It was 10am when Wimberley stepped in to check his mother—"Really know how to make friends don't you mom? I think waht she means, and we can agree on, is that you don't need ink to be tough. It has changes nothing and is a personal choice. It was good to meet you to mark. You seem cool too. Let's put on a good show tonight and start the card off right." The last response to the thread was from Ms. Wimberley: "I apologize for the comment. Some tattos are very artistic, but I just personally do not care for them. Sorry if I offended anyone."

Her son will lose by submission in the third round and, the whole time, I wonder where Sainci's hootin' and hollerin' folks are, why there aren't more people cheering on the winner. When Sainci wins, he gets the evening's equivalent of a golf clap. He's eloquent, reflective, and humble in the post-fight interview, but that doesn't stop scores of people from getting up and heading to the loo, the beer line, or the smoking patio before he's even done. An intermission is coming. Sainci thanks his opponent, he thanks his coaches, he thanks the crowd for coming out, he heaps bounteous thanks upon his God.

"Who people like better has nothing to do with how the fight will play out, " Bob Jolley said, and he was right, though a single moment in the evening provides the entire audience with a common foe.

Chad Zugg is visibly older than the other fighters have been so far, and his body is sinewy in a way that calls to mind hard living, a past with more than a little bad behavior, and reform. His opponent is Derek "End of Days" Hayes, almost prepubescently girlish in the hips with legs, simultaneously muscular and so damn slender, that induce in me a bit of bitchy envy. Hayes is pacing, focused, but Zugg's cagey to the point of somehow seeming off. I note it, but I don't blame him. Hayes, from Fort Madison, Iowa, 90 minutes away, is undefeated, 2-0, but Zugg is making his MMA debut in front of his hometown crowd.

The men meet to touch gloves and Zugg sucker punches Hayes, knocking him to the ground and climbing aboard. The audience finds it unseemly, as do I, but the ill-gotten gain is short-lived because what Hayes lacks in ill-mannered crazy, he makes up for in training. He's on top of Zugg in short order and it's just a fucking ground-and-pound massacre up in the BVC. It's gorgeous. Hayes is raining punches and elbows down on Zugg's head and the people around me are just screaming, and I swear, at some point, it's like Hayes has isolated the space-time continuum just around his fist and Zugg's head because it's like the connection between the two starts happening in slow motion, the force of the blows sending Zugg's head into the mat so hard that it bounces up to meet Hayes' fist halfway, but, instead of a bounce, the head moves upward with a graceful float. It looks like Zugg checks out for a second or two then he is back to struggling. But the ref calls it; the whole thing taking a minute and fifty seconds, and Hayes doesn't even sound winded in his interview. The next day online Zugg will deny he was ever out and claim the ref stopped the fight too early

"Stopped it too early?" Dan McGlasson will type back. "Come on bro lets be real." McGlasson, Iowan, professional fighter (9-9-0), and winner of the previous evening's main event, will be a post-fight Bob Jolley, all voice of experience and reason: "bro ref let you take a hell of a beating before he stopped it.. That ref was legit. They can't let you get KOed if they can prevent it. Gotta be intellagently defending yourself if ya dont want the ref to stop it man. Im just saying that was a gd ref who did his job correctly...good fight tho guy learn and improve from it." Even if McGlasson hadn't set Zugg straight about the legitimacy of his loss, historical revisionism is moot as long as Derek Hayes' girlfriend's video of the fight is up on YouTube.

Check out these related stories: 

MMA and Racial Dynamics in Small-Town Iowa

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