Backflips & Beatdowns: MMA and Freestyle – Billings, MT
I was terrified.
Perhaps it was the drive into downtown Billings, Montana that featured a road book-ended by the Women’s Prison and the Correctional Facility. Or maybe it was the guy walking down the street in Insane Clown Posse make up. But probably it was the fact that I was going to attend an event that is banned in several states (New York, Connecticut, and Vermont) and is billed to include “beatdowns.”
I’ve dabbled in WWE (when it was WWF) and watched boxing as a teen. However, I perceived Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) to somehow be more rabid, wild, and crazy than Tyson chewing Holyfield’s ear or Mick Foley falling through a steel cage. I ignorantly credited the pro-wrestlers and boxers for understanding their risks more than the MMA fighters, several of whom looked to be the same age as my high school aged brother. My unlearned self went into this event thinking all of these kids were stereotypical violent delinquents who just wanted to fight.
And the fans didn’t help my perceptions. We arrived the event parking lot about thirty minutes before the fights started. Tattooed, chain-smoking fans were blasting the musical stylings of Rage Against the Machine and Three Days Grace, drinking Mountain Dew and Bud Diesel, performing sub-par roundhouse kicks against invisible opponents, swearing loudly, and spitting. I passed judgment, condemning the fans for being meatheads who glorify an uncivilized sport.
We entered the Metra Park stadium and saw the 28-foot hexagon shaped ring, illuminated in purple lights, straddled by ramps that the two motorcycles and four-wheeler on display would no doubt be jumping from and landing upon. All fighters were called to the ring, the Star Spangled Banner played, and in a move you don’t see often at sporting events, a prayer to Jesus was recited asking for safety of all competitors and spectators. Then, perhaps in the most confusing move to an outsider, there was a plug against bullying.
Rooting louder for the hometown Billings fighters, the crowd cheered as they sauntered out of the entrance tunnel, flanked by their entourages — coaches and peers from their training facility. These supporters would yell tips during the fights like “Punch him in the head!” or “Put him on the cage!” which when taken out of context, is incredibly disturbing.
Maybe the lens of the camera gave me a protective shield to watch the fighting through, because the kicks, body slams, and headlocks really didn’t bother me. There wasn’t as much gratuitous violence as I expected. Competitors were evenly matched in both body type and skill level and clearly both parties were trained; neither person was helpless in the ring. There were some sensational punches resulting in instant swollen eyes and blood, but more of the finishing moves were nuanced- a rib jab or a head punch in close quarters on the ground. All fights began with a sportsman-like hand tap and ended with a genuine hug between opponents and the fist of the champion raised by the ref. There wasn’t hate between opponents, but respect for the sport and each other.
As we came to find out, MMA isn’t about beating the shit out of each other. OK, it is a little bit, but like any sport, there’s strategy and skills that are required to participate and sportsmanship is valued. It’s not just street fighting. All of the athletes are trained in a variety of martial arts disciplines including judo, wrestling, boxing, karate and jujitsu (MMAFacts.com) and use their strengths. Some guys wanted to get into the wrestling immediately, while others wanted to showcase their judo skills. This wide scope of fighting skills is probably why over the last 4 years MMA has seen a growth rate of almost 390% in terms of hours of monthly television programming (MMAFacts.com).
One of the fights I found myself interested in was the fight between Mike “The Caveman” Kirkland and Hunter “Sioux Warrior” Walking Eagle. Caveman was a likeable person, wearing only his numerous body tats and Batman underwear to his weigh-in the night before. I was intrigued by Sioux Warrior because he was quiet and didn’t seem to have much of a following, and I’m always pulling for the underdog. To add a bit more suspense, it was a rubber match- the two had faced off two times before, each pulling out a win, and a sense of finality lingered.
As Caveman and Sioux Warrior entered the ring I couldn’t help but notice Caveman’s zealous energy. He was wild-eyed, breathing heavily and pacing back and forth, unable to remain still. I turned to a man in his corner and commented about how amped he looked to which I got the reply, “Yeah…he doesn’t like to lose.” With a 15-2 record, Sioux Warrior was one of his few losses and he wanted to prove his ability.
Caveman’s energy helped give him the upper hand in this fight, using incredible speed and strength, putting Fighting Sioux on the defense. Here’s the last two minutes of the fight:
For the non-MMA expert: The referee determined that Caveman was dominant to the point that Sioux Warrior could no longer defend himself, stopping the match and declaring Caveman the winner.
One of the most anticipated events of the night was the match between Cody Davis and “Defiant” Bryant Acheson, who agreed to allow a team of professional Freestyle riders soar above their heads performing stunts. Reagan Seig, Jeff Fehr (who has flipped a train), and John Guetter mounted motorcycles and a four-wheeler to jump, spin, and flip them. The Mountain Dew commercials came to life in front of my eyes:
The final fight and main event featured two professional fighters, Jason “Undead” Ehresmann and Leo “Bushido” Bercier. It was a quick win for Bushido, who kept the upper hand most of the fight, eventually forcing Ehresmann, who accepted the fight the day before the event, to tap out.
In the ring, Leo “Bushido” Bercier was fierce, but at the after party I caught up with him and talked to a docile, kind, and respectful version of the competitor I had just watched dominate a fight. This is when I made sense of the bullying announcement from earlier that night…Bercier got into MMA because he admits, “I was a punky kid always getting into fights at school.” He started boxing before getting into Mixed Martial Arts, both taught him to channel his skills in a positive manner.
He explained the respect between participants by showing me his tattoo, a quote from Henry V: “For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” He noted that getting involved in organized fighting humbled him, “because when you get knocked down by someone, you realize you’re not better than anyone else.”
So in the end, I get it. Mixed Martial Arts is like any other sport, there are rules, difficult skills and strategies to master, and there’s the desire to show what you’re capable of. These fighters aren’t a bunch of losers; they’re talented and incredibly humble. And I shouldn’t have passed judgment on the fans, either. I might have seen what I was unconsciously looking for, as I wanted to prove my own perception of the sport to be true. But did I not belt out “Poker Face” on my way into a Lady Gaga concert wearing hair glitter, sunglasses and a blue plastic jacket in anticipation of the show? I’m not better than anyone else. And MMA, of all things, has reminded me of that.