The Hurt Business: A Big Night On Small Scene

Ben Fowlkes, MMA Fighting

"The Hurt Business" is a multi-part series that goes inside a professional MMA fight gym to examine the hidden lives of pro fighters and watch as fortunes rise and fall over the course of one calendar year. In part three, the Grudge team's lesser-known members fight for recognition and meager paychecks on a local fight card in Denver.

A few minutes before the first bout a woman walks up the steps to the cage and through its open doors, shedding her clothes effortlessly as she goes. She is in no particular hurry. She removes her top in one clean motion and hardly seems to break stride as she ditches her pants. By the time she’s in the cage she is completely naked. The sparse crowd whistles nervously, like they feel it’s expected of them, and the woman puts her arms up like a gymnast who has just stuck the landing. Look at me. I’m naked.

No one -- including her -- seems to know what to do next.

It is not quite 7 p.m. on a Saturday night in Denver, Colo. The spring rain has been falling in buckets all day long. Outside there are people still lined up in front of the National Western Complex box office, huddling forward to try and get under some sort of cover as they decide whether it’s worth it to pony up the extra 20 bucks and upgrade from general admission to the $50 seats up front. The fighters are crowded into one backstage area, trying to untie the knots in their stomachs and resisting the urge to look around the flimsy partition for a glimpse of their opponents. The ring girls on loan from the local Hooters jab at their cell phones with perfectly manicured fingernails.

No one has even had the chance to get properly drunk on seven-dollar beers yet, but somehow there is already a naked woman in the cage.

It’s a situation that the local security team seems unprepared for. What are you supposed to do about a female streaker, anyway? You’re not going to tackle her to the ground. That could easily be taken the wrong way. Besides, nobody seems particularly upset about her presence here at all. The naked woman pauses awkwardly inside the cage, as if she hasn’t thought even a second past this very moment. She leaves through the opposite door, walks a few feet to an open space in the floor and stops, as if waiting to be scooped up by smirking security guards. But no, still nothing. Might as well put her clothes back on and head out. The night is still young.

No one is in any danger of confusing Denver’s Fight to Win organization with the big time. It’s one of two regional fight promotions in the area, but thanks to the prevalence of MMA gyms throughout Colorado -- where the Grudge Training Center is still the juggernaut that other gyms despise and envy and emulate -- there’s now more than enough talent to go around. Tonight’s "Outlaws" fight card will feature 12 total fights, including at least one former UFC fighter and a female main event featuring a former Strikeforce women’s title challenger.

It will also feature a Johnny Cash tribute band that plays during intermission, and a horrible sound system that blares garbled club mixes the rest of the time. It’s the kind of event where, backstage, you’ll see one fighter warming up with a little shadow-boxing just a few feet away from another who’s getting his head stitched up after things didn’t go his way. It’s the kind of event where it’s not at all uncommon to see a fighter go straight from the locker room to the concession stand for a beer after his fight, then down it shirtless and with handwraps still on, grinning through the bruises and just waiting for some girl to happen by and say, ‘Hey, aren’t you one of those fighter guys?’ as if he could make it any more obvious. It’s the kind of event where tomorrow’s hangovers and concussion-related headaches take shape before your eyes. Where every winning fighter seems to have an after-party at a downtown bar that he can’t wait to tell the crowd about, despite a P.A. system that cuts in and out during his big victory speech.

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(A Johnny Cash tribute band does its best to hold the crowd's attention. Photo by Ben Fowlkes)

In the MMA food chain, Fight to Win is somewhere in the lower-middle portion. Inside the stark and dreary National Western Complex, which from the outside looks more like a prison than an events center, you feel light years away from the UFC. Still, it’s not out of the question for a fighter to go from here to the Octagon with a couple impressive performances. It happens, even if it doesn’t happen all that often. It’s also not out of the question for a fighter recently released from one of the big promotions to return home to the local scene and make a couple grand off a name that, however briefly, still sparks a flicker of recognition when the hardcore fight fans see it on a poster in some bar two weeks before the event.

But for a fighter trying to make a career out of this, the middle is a tough place to be. The money simply isn’t there. The winner of tonight’s main event will make $2,000 to show and another $2,000 to win -- an uncommonly good payday for any fighter on the small circuit. The rest will consider themselves extremely lucky if they can break into the low four figures, and that’s before paying a trainer or manager (if they have one) his meager cut of the proceeds.

Most of tonight’s fighters -- while technically professionals -- will be doing this as a side gig, their incomes supplemented by one or more other jobs. Many of them will have taken these fights on two or three weeks notice. Most will have no real hope of making it to the UFC, and some will be honest enough with themselves to realize it. While a few might be trying to make the long climb from the local circuit to the big show, some will just be in it for the thrill and the girls.

Ricky Vasquez, who trains at Grudge and manages many of the small-time (or, if you're feeling generous, ‘up-and-coming’) fighters in the region, has seen people get in the cage for all sorts of reasons.

"I remember one kid, I think he was a paramedic or something, and he had a record of like 14-16," Vasquez says, standing just outside the oven that is the backstage prep area for his fighters. "He wasn’t that great, but even though he worked full-time he would take literally any fight, so they just kept giving him fights."

What a lot of people don’t understand is why a guy would put his body through the ringer like that, over and over again, and all for a few hundred bucks a pop. Vasquez isn’t sure he always understands it either, but he’s also not sure anyone besides the person who’s doing it really needs to.

"Maybe he just wanted to be able to say he’d fought some of these guys before they got big," he says. "I don’t know. Maybe he just really, really loved it."

You probably have to, if you’re going to fight here, in front of a half-drunk crowd that won’t even bother to learn your name as they shout for the guy in the red shorts to kick your teeth in. You also have to have a kind of unreasonable faith in yourself to believe that you’ll be one of the few to fight your way out of the National Western Complex and into a pay-per-view bout at the MGM Grand some day -- hopefully some day soon, before your youth has been spent on no-name ambulance drivers and girls who just want to date one of those fighter guys, without being too picky about which one.

In the meantime, these people have paid good money to come out on a rainy Saturday night and see you jokers beat each other up. They’ll drink the overpriced beers and catcall the over-tanned ring girls, but what they really want is to see some action. They want blood, and they don’t particularly care whose it is. They want knockouts they can tell their friends about. They want their 50 bucks worth and they want it now. Now get out there and give them a show.

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(Many fighters. One wide-open locker room. Photo by Ben Fowlkes)

*****

A day before the local fights a man comes into the Grudge Training Center. Tall guy, thick Dutch accent. He’s got his wife with him. They’re on holiday in the U.S, he explains, and they’ve recently come to Denver from Los Angeles, which they enjoyed very much. They’re headed back to the Netherlands soon, he says, but he’s a huge MMA fan and so he just had to stop in and see the Grudge gym where UFC fighters like Nate Marquardt and Shane Carwin train. His wife, she humors him. She doesn’t say much. The tall guy does most of the talking.

The front desk at Grudge is the province of Jen "Lil' Ice" Berg, a fighter herself who also runs the gym’s front end with an obsessive precision that the Grudge staff won’t even realize they depended on so heavily until she’s gone. At 5’2" and weighing just barely over 100 pounds, she can almost never find anyone her size to train with at Grudge, so she does her best to mix it up with the guys between answering phones and sweet-talking drop-ins who may or may not become members. It’s a job she can do in her sports bra and yoga pants most days, which seems just fine by the male members of the gym, who by now have learned that while Jen is bubbly and friendly to just about everyone, she is not in the habit of taking crap from anyone.

Jen tries to make the tall guy happy, but she’s not sure what he’s expecting, really. It’s early Friday afternoon, the day before a local event, so there’s not much in the way of actual training going on. He can look around the front of the gym if he wants, browse through the pro shop where the t-shirts and gloves and handwraps are all for sale, but other than that...

What about Trevor Wittman, the tall man wants to know. He has seen Trevor Wittman on the UFC shows, and he would very much like to meet Trevor Wittman.

That’s a simple enough request, so Jen rousts Trevor out of his office and the two take a picture together. They talk shop for a minute -- MMA, K-1, how the kickboxing scene is doing over in the Netherlands -- Trevor is happy to chat. The tall man would like to buy a pair of Grudge MMA shorts, and just to make sure they fit he’s going to take off his pants and try them on right here in the middle of the pro shop. Jen quickly turns away and makes the ‘okay, then’ face to herself. We’ll chalk this one up to cultural differences.

The tall man likes the shorts. The tall man will purchase them. He and his wife wave goodbye, thank Jen and Trevor for their hospitality, and with that they are out the door and headed back to the Netherlands, where we will likely never see or hear from them ever again.

Only no, not really. We see the tall man the very next night. We see him when Grudge heavyweight "Skinny" Vinny Pallone (at six feet and around 250 pounds, his is one of those ironic nicknames) steps into the cage at the Fight to Win event in the National Western Complex and there he is standing across the cage.

"That f---er!" says Jen Berg. And hold on, is he -- could he be? -- yes, the Dutch bastard is even wearing the shorts that he bought at Grudge yesterday. Is he even Dutch? Was that even his wife?

"Oh, I hope Trevor’s not mad at me," says Berg.

But how could she have known? And what could the guy have been hoping to get out of that little reconnaissance mission, anyway? It wasn’t like his opponent was going to be sitting there on Friday afternoon, loudly discussing his game plan for Saturday night’s fight. He didn’t see any training, didn’t even see the main room where the training is done. He met Wittman, but Wittman doesn’t even corner Grudge fighters at these local shows. He’s cageside at a VIP table with his wife and assistant coaches, enjoying a few cold ones. Really, all the tall man -- who we now know is really George Ashauer, a 6’5" heavyweight making his pro debut for Aurora, Colo.’s Denver Judo club -- got out of the deal was the shorts, which he is now wearing as he prepares to do battle with Grudge’s Pallone.

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("Skinny" Vinny waits his turn. Photo by Ben Fowlkes)

Funny story about Pallone: a couple weeks ago Wittman watched as he took a direct, though not particularly brutal-looking shot to the nose in sparring. Pallone made a noise like a wounded animal and went running for the bathroom. When Wittman went to check on him, Pallone was in a frantic state, holding his bloody nose with both hands, standing on a bloody tile floor.

"What’s wrong?" Wittman asked. Pallone gestured to his nose. What if it was broken? They wouldn’t let him fight with a broken nose, would they?

"Sure, why not?" Wittman said. A slightly broken nose was one of the few broken bones you could totally fight with, since it wasn’t like you needed it to be in tip-top working order. Either you were going to get hit in the nose during the fight or you weren’t, and either way you were going to have to deal with it. A doctor could set it, but most wouldn’t even bother to do much with a fighter’s nose since, as they saw it, he was probably just going to break it again very soon. So Pallone was fine. He could still fight, Wittman told him.

"Really?!" he said. His spirits instantly improved. He cleaned up the blood on the floor, stuffed some tissue up his nose, and went right back onto the mats.

But tonight isn’t "Skinny" Vinny’s night. He and Ashauer waste no time wading into each other with power strikes, and sure enough his nose gets clipped. The blood flows freely, but Pallone gamely battles back against an opponent who’s nearly half a foot taller. Pallone is certainly made of denser stuff, and he proves that he can take a punch as well as he can give one. Eventually, however, the height difference comes into play. Ashauer grabs Pallone in a Thai clinch up against the fence, and his knee has only a short trip to make before it finds Pallone’s chin. Pallone goes down and Ashauer drums a few more punches to the side of his head before the ref finally decides to call it off. The whole thing takes just a shade under five minutes.

After the fight, Ashauer gets on the mic and thanks the usual cast of teammates and trainers, but he also thanks Wittman for the shorts. Wittman has no idea what the guy is talking about, nor can he even really be sure that the guy is talking to him over this terrible sound system, where all but the most emphatic statements are lost in the crackling feedback. Later, when he finally finds out that this is the same man who he was grinning in pictures with just yesterday, he’ll be far more amused than upset. The whole thing is actually pretty hilarious, when he thinks about it. Pallone, meanwhile, is too busy bleeding to appreciate the humor in it.

For Grudge’s in-house fighter manager Vasquez, the focus tonight is on another Grudge heavyweight, Jeremiah Constant. "Hacksaw," his friends call him. And it’s true, he does bear an uncanny resemblance to pro wrestler "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan, but with a mischievous gleam in his eye that suggests he might be up for whatever brand of all-night trouble you have in mind.

Everyone at Grudge agrees that Constant is a hell of a fighter. At least, he could be. If he got serious about his training, if he didn’t like to drink and party quite so much, maybe he could really do something. His wrestling is top notch, and for the first couple minutes of every fight he’s an absolute terror. He was taking it to former UFC heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez when they fought in a Bodog Fight event back in 2006, his friends will tell you. That is, until he gassed out.

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("Hacksaw" and his manager, Vasquez, head for the locker room. Photo by Ben Fowlkes)

Constant’s the kind of fighter who can tell you a lot about the difference between good and great. Talent? He’s got it. Raw ability, the kind you just can’t teach? Sure. But he’s missing something else, and everyone around him can see it, even if no one can help him fix it. Maybe it’s not a lack of work ethic so much as it is an overabundance of energy, pointed in all the wrong directions. Grudge wrestling coach Leister Bowling can tell you all about when Constant was staying at his place, how he’d get drunk and out of hand some nights, how Bowling would have to lock him in the backyard just to keep his ranting and raving out of the house. But Bowling lives in a nice neighborhood with nice neighbors, so he couldn’t have that around for long. Eventually he sent Constant out to Oregon to train with Matt Lindland and the Team Quest guys -- a favor that Lindland sarcastically thanked Bowling for when he saw him at the UFC event in Newark.

But now Constant is slipping into his late 30s, carrying a pro record of 9-7, and it’s now-or-never time. It’s time to get serious, according to Vasquez. It’s time to try and string a few wins together and maybe get noticed by Bellator, Strikeforce -- who knows? He should get off to a good start tonight against Xavier Saccomanno, who is 1-2 and not expected to be much of a challenge for Constant, who, rumor has it, is actually in shape for this fight.

As it turns out, this is one fight where it wouldn’t have mattered what kind of shape Constant was in. He clinches Saccomanno against the cage right away, gets him down, and is just starting to get to work with punches from the top when Saccomanno taps out. It’s over in less than a minute, and even Constant, who the announcer has been incorrectly referring to as "Josiah," seems confused by how quickly his opponent gave up. Afterwards, he invites the crowd to his after-party at the Jet Hotel nightclub down the street and announces his intention to get absolutely hammered. It’s a promise that no one who knows him doubts he will make good on.

The last bout of interest for the Grudge team on tonight’s card features lightweight Luke Caudillo -- an eight-year veteran of the sport who’s clinging to a career that might be headed into dangerous territory. Wittman is conflicted as he watches from cageside tonight. He’s asked Caudillo to retire twice already, he says. He took a bad knockout in his last fight for Denver’s other regional promotion -- Ring of Fire -- and he’s already had his shot at the big time. Caudillo fought twice in the UFC and once in Strikeforce, and he lost all three during a six-fight losing streak that stretched on for more than two years.

For his own health and safety, Wittman would like to see Caudillo hang up the gloves, but he can’t make him. He tried that with boxers in his old life, and it never worked. They just went and found someone else to train them. Maybe if this one doesn’t go his way, the 30-year-old Caudillo will see the light. Not that Wittman wants him to lose. Not exactly. But he also doesn’t exactly want to see him win if winning means that he’ll decide to keep taking the beatings.

Caudillo’s opponent is a tough wrestler named Steve Granieri, and right away it’s clear that he came here tonight ready to get messy. Caudillo is the better striker early on, tagging him with straight punches and opening up a small cut around Granieri’s eye. Granieri signals for more and the crowd eats it up. At cageside, Wittman’s wife, Christina, who’s a big fan of Caudillo’s, gets to her feet and cheers him on passionately. Wittman himself watches quietly from his seat. He’s not sure what he wants to see happen here, but it doesn’t seem like any ending can be an entirely happy one.

In the second round the wrestler has gained confidence. He stings Caudillo with his jab several times, and he starts to get cocky. He’s talking to Caudillo between punches, almost mocking him. He shoots for a takedown and Caudillo sprawls. As they’re both scrambling back to their feet he tags the wrestler with a good knee and down he goes. He looks to be already out, but Caudillo adds a few more punches just to be sure. The guy isn’t mocking anyone now.

Maybe the year-long layoff between that last loss and this fight actually did Caudillo some good, Wittman says afterward. "But I still don’t want to see him fight again."

Sure enough, when Caudillo gets on the mic after his big win he declares himself "reborn in the fight game." Does that sound like a man who’s planning on hanging it up soon?

The main event ends with local favorite Cat Zingano slamming her way to a knockout win over Takayo Hashi, and with that the crowd is given one last adrenaline rush before being sent back out into the rain after more than four hours inside the National Western Complex. Zingano’s $4,000 payday will be the biggest on the night, with fighters like Constant just glad to make $750 to show and $750 to win.

Hacksaw? He’ll go to the bar tonight. Others, like Pallone, might be better off going to the hospital. Wittman and his wife will go home to relieve the babysitter.

Nobody’s life is dramatically changed by tonight, and yet nobody is exactly the same as when they walked in. Outside of Colorado, few fight fans will even know or care about what happened here between the time the one woman took her clothes off and the other woman got knocked out. The money wasn’t great and the sound system was positively awful. Crowds have been better but they’ve also been worse.

The ER nurses who examine their broken hands and the after-party girls who listen patiently to their war stories might not understand how it could possibly be worth it, all this sacrifice and suffering for less money than you could make with a decent paper route, but it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day either you got in the cage and you fought or else you didn’t. And they did. Long after the money’s been spent, they’ll still have the faint scars and the creaking joints and the not-quite-straight noses to prove it. Who’s to say that’s not enough? And what did you expect, anyway?

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