SB Nation

Shaun Al-Shatti | June 5, 2014

Ghosts of the Desert

At one time, Rage in the Cage founder Roland Sarria was the ringleader to the southwest's wildest party. But nearly two decades later, the game has changed.

Roland Sarria is telling me we've met before. He's lying. This is the first time. He says he was a Templar knight in a past life, and that I was Saladin, the 12th century sultan who reigned over Egypt and Syria for almost 20 years. He says he traveled as a peace envoy on the order of the Catholic Church, hoping to barter a treaty between our two armies. We broke bread over a warm hearth and decided, he and I, that we weren't too different from one another after all. War was avoided that day.

Sarria stirs a half-carton of cream into his coffee. Most of his mornings are spent here alone at Sunny's Diner, a dimly lit breakfast nook with bargain fare a few miles away from his office in downtown Tempe, Arizona. Something about this place suits him. He's been coming here since 1996, back when he was still a male stripper, and by his own admission he doesn't do much but read and flirt with the waitresses half his age.

It's an inauspicious routine for a man who styles himself a godfather of mixed martial arts in the southwest, but it's his routine all the same.

He certainly doesn't look 51 years old. "Oh, thanks," he says with a chuckle. "I fuck a lot."
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Sarria recalls the time he unwittingly lasted almost 10 minutes on the jiu-jitsu mats against a Mundials Absolute champion, hung over as all get out. During the story he casually mentions that he's 51 years old. He certainly doesn't look 51 years old. "Oh, thanks," he says with a chuckle. "I fuck a lot."

Before we continue, know that Sarria isn't one for tact. As far as potty-mouthed fight promoters go, he's Dana White on steroids.

Still, Sarria fancies himself a big history buff. He explains much of his business acumen through allusions to great figures or events of the past. When he does, the UFC, those almighty conquerors, are always the Romans, while he's the small village force endlessly fleeing into the forests to regroup and readjust.

He tells me about a nippy Arizona night in April 1999, when John McCain pushed past the doors of Rockin' Rodeo and into a local No Holds Barred show. In many ways, it was a funny sight - the senator, clad in his stiffest formal attire, catching sideways glances as he shuffled amongst the throng of unsavory desert skids that packed into the country dive bar, his agenda evident from his scowl.

McCain was three years into a campaign that, by all accounts, he was winning. Arizona's chief political fixer ignited a national furor in 1996 by attaching NHB with that fateful label: "human cockfighting." He mailed letters countrywide that implored state governors to end the fledgling movement before it started, and his scare tactics worked. States banned the practice. The UFC's pay-per-view well dried up. Cagefighting effectively fled overseas as American television providers grew reluctant to support the sport.

McCain's desert home court was no different; the slog through all that legislative red tape was just taking longer than expected. So at least on that wild cowboy night, without a law to specifically criminalize NHB, the legality of the evening's festivities clung within a grey area.

It's how a lifelong stripper turned promoter was able to stage his fourth show of the spring within a slipshod square chain-link cage, and it's why the Republican representative of Arizona barreled into the greasy part of town hoping to witness firsthand the nonsense that had pervaded onto his doorstep.

Two things happened that night, aside from Drew Fickett mercy killing some 0-0 scrub in a raucous finale. One, McCain had to buy his own ticket with his own money. Sarria made sure of that. Two, right away the senator was made to know: he wasn't amongst his own here.

"I looked right at him, and I flipped his ass off," Sarria remembers with a flicker in his eye. "Kiss my ass, bitch.

"I knew he was against me. I'm not impressed. We all die. We all die. What does he have over me? Money, that's it. He has money and opportunities. OK, I get more pussy than him. I'm fucking richer than he is."

There's that tact. Sarria has been like this for four decades, for better or worse, though it probably hasn't helped him much in the long run.

But where he lacks in grace, he more than makes up with one distinguishing trait. The very one most needed of someone in his profession: an uncanny ability to survive. Survive on dollar bills when the getting's good. Survive on quarters when the novelty dies down. And survive on pennies when the radical slips into routine.

His infamous crimson canvas has overseen more than 1,800 documented matches, among the most ever in the sport's history.

Sarria's baby, Rage in the Cage, is still alive today, scratching by in a world where mixed martial arts ventures crash and burn every other week. By the end of the winter he'll reach 175 events in 17 years, a ridiculous number by any stretch of the word, and one made much larger if you include the myriad of exhibitions and bootlegs the record-books didn't care to jot down. His infamous crimson canvas has overseen more than 1,800 documented matches, among the most ever in the sport's history, and sent more fighters to the big leagues than he can count on all his fingers and toes.

But this year, he tells me, is his last.

It's the end of an era in the desert.

"You should come to our show today," Sarria says, glancing down to read a text on his phone. "I got a smoker show today down in Scottsdale. It's free for everybody. Four o'clock at Go AZ Motorcycles, off Frank Lloyd Wright and the 101. If you want to come, it's free.

"Oh," he adds on the way out. "About that whole Saladin thing, I was joking."

***

Roland Sarria is about to get scolded.

"You guys ready to have a good time tonight?"

A few yeahs and woos trickle out from the crowd, but not enough. He stalks around the outdoor ring in the lot of the Harley Davidson dealership and, for a moment, forgets his audience.

"Holy shit ..."

There's that scolding, right on time. Remember your manners. This isn't a cagefight.

"Oh, we got little kids. Alright, no swearing. ... Here we go. HOW MANY PEOPLE WANT TO SEE SOME FIGHTS TONIGHT?"

There's the big roar he wanted.

It's all amateur fights tonight. Headgear and 10-second stand-ups. A few boxing matches, a few kickboxing matches, a handful of MMA matches, and even a bikini MMA match where the jiggling is plentiful though it's pretty obvious both parties pre-agreed to not punch each other in the face. Wouldn't want to mess up those pretty noses.

Satisfied, Sarria passes the mic away and strolls toward the dealership's vast awning, a woozy fellow in a red Mohawk and cut-offs trailing behind him. The rules meeting is quick and the Steppenwolf blasting out of the speakers is damn loud, but Sarria's timbre cuts through it all. At the end he hands out free Rage in the Cage 171 tickets to anyone who wants them, but only if they promise to go. That attendance number won't make itself.

"If you guys see me there, make sure you buy me a fucking beer!" he barks to the swarm. "I'll buy you a shot!" someone shouts back.

"Jack Daniels."

When Sarria started Rage in the Cage on a whim in 1998, the UFC, those Romans, were just a blip. Everybody was.

Smokers like this remind Sarria of his early days. Largely unskilled participants swinging away until they're huffing and puffing and clinching and just waiting for the bell to set them free. Plus the Arizona state athletic commission breathing down his neck. But that part is nothing new.

When Sarria started Rage in the Cage on a whim in 1998, the UFC, those Romans, were just a blip. Everybody was. The southwestern United States may as well have been Mars, that red wasteland of cacti and nothingness. Back then if a prospective fighter wanted to get his reps in, he had to trek across state borders or risk his wits in some gym garage, fighting in a contest that had a one-in-10 shot of someday reaching Fight Finder.

There was a hole in the market, and Sarria intended to fill it.

It was surprisingly easy at first. Amid all the bad press, the region's hunger for outlaw spectacle was ravenous. He self-regulated his own shows those days, and word of mouth was key. He'd scour local dojos and cowboy bars looking for tough guys to prove their mettle, then drive up the desert streets with his 1989 Dodge Cargo van decorated top to bottom with garish Rage in the Cage logos, drawing hoots at every other stoplight from random ruffians and rabble-rousers.

Oh, those early days, they were always so fun.

"If I could find a buyer, I'd probably sell," Sarria says. "I try to be a man of principles, where, it's like when people say they love you. I always tell them: ‘Don't tell me you love me.' I don't like that word.

"Rage in the Cage, it's something that I created. And I can honestly say I loved it. Sweat, blood, 17 years; and I'd rather take it to the grave with me than sell it. Call me a dumbshit. Unless, someone gave me quite a bit of money. If they gave me quite a bit of money, I'd say OK. But if the guy goes, ‘50 grand,' I'm taking it to the grave with me."

***

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Ric Reyes is sweating. His real name is Stephen, but he prefers Ric. He's been dressed to the nines all day long in the sweltering Phoenix sun, so please excuse the sweat. The stout announcer has been a fixture at Rage in the Cage events for 17 years, and he's telling me about the beginning, the era when few fighters were particularly skilled, but the party made for a damn fun night.

"We went to somewhere and these two big girls, Mexican girls, had gotten into a fight at some bar a week before. So we put ‘em in the cage," Reyes says. "Just boxing, one-minute rounds, head gear, 16-ounce gloves. And these girls go at each other like a windmill in a tornado. Well, the one girl tired herself out so much, she puked in the cage. Just threw up everywhere. She didn't win."

No matter who you talk to, there's always more of these stories. Everyone has them. It was the Wild West, after all.

"One of the first cage fights I'd ever done, way back, while we were still at Rodeo Nights, I'm on the outside of the cage doing my thing, and there's these two fighters. I don't remember who they were, but this guy either gets hit or gets kicked so hard ... doink. He shits. A piece of dookie drops out of his shorts right onto the mat.

"Roland grabs my mic and runs in - ‘HOLD ON! HOLD ON!' - and looks at the guy. ‘HE GOT THE SHIT BEAT OUTTA HIM ... LITERALLY! OH MY GOD!' It was the funniest thing ever. It was right in the middle of the fucking mat. I think we called the fight there."

Reyes tells me about how Sarria plucked him from obscurity, back when he was just a karaoke enthusiast with a gig announcing dust bowl midget wrestling. He's amazed the man can trust anyone after his experiences the past two decades, an endless stream of business partners stealing fighters and venues and production secrets and sabotaging lucrative business opportunities, yet Sarria always gave a chance to the next shady slick-tongue with promises and an MBA.

Reyes tells me how the Arizona state athletic commission, that congregation of old boxing curmudgeons, threatened to throw Sarria into a jail cell after every Rage in the Cage show. They went as far as to place the promotion under an injunction, he says, but hell, Sarria staged events anyway.

Reyes explains how hard Sarria fought to legalize mixed martial arts in Arizona, how he had to keep a second job cold-calling folks to support himself all those years he sparred with commission Executive Director John Montano, and how sponsorships and media would always turn him and his red cage away like they were common street thugs.

I'm done fighting for all this crap and you people not appreciating what I've done and what I do.

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"He has every right to be jaded," Reyes says. "He's had a lot of stuff taken from him. He fought the fight for 17 years so other people could come and try and do what he does, and they sit there and fail and blame him. He spent a lot of money in order to get the right to fight in Arizona.

"I'd hate to see it end, but if it does end, it'll be because Roland decides to say, you know what, I'm done fighting. I'm done fighting for all this crap and you people not appreciating what I've done and what I do. Roland has helped these people have a place to do what they want to do. And it doesn't matter if you have never fought before, if you're an amateur, or if you are 27-1 and you fought in the UFC. If something happens and you go down, Roland is always giving you a second shot. He's always giving people a second shot. And if they screw him over again ..."

***

Roland Sarria is walking toward his car. It's a white Chevy Spark, one of those little smart cars. A surprisingly funny sight. Sarria says he never used to imagine driving around in something like this. He was too proud, too scared. He had his Mercedes and tailored suits and fresh-cut cigars. A man in a tailored suit does not drive a smart car. But hey, it's not like it used to be. That's just the way life goes.

Sarria guesses he only collected, at most, a hundred dollars from the smoker after paying out the venue staff. Should've charged people, his cousin announces, made some money. Swollen and victorious fighters slowly march back to the parking lot with their friends and family alternately consoling and celebrating, and Sarria just shakes his head.

He's on his way to go catch some dinner and bust out a few karaoke tunes. Paul McCartney's "The Long and Winding Road" is his go-to, he tells me, which seems strangely fitting.

I ask him later if this hurts, what two decades of work has left him. "Are you kidding?" he replies. "I'm heartbroken. This sport has broken my heart. I deserve success. I earned it. I earned it. I worked for it. I'm a godfather. I'm a pioneer. Why isn't anybody here for me? Why isn't anybody covering Rage in the Cage? Why aren't they covering King of the Cage? Monte (Cox) deserves it. Terry (Trebilcock) deserves it.

"Oh, because Bellator comes around or RFA? Who are they? Every time there's a big show that comes up in Arizona, the media supports them. Why? I mean, I don't get it. Rage in the Cage, at least in Arizona, people know who we are. One way or another, people know who we are. OK, our fight cards aren't the best. Of course they're not the best, we don't have the money. Give us what we deserve. We earned it. We earned it."

***

Roland Sarria is leaning back to show me his T-shirt. Thick white lettering weighs heavy across its black chest. Doomster. An ode to the nickname Sarria claims to have gotten for his surprising strength on the jiu-jitsu mats. Underneath in smaller red text: You Can't STOP a Legend!!!

"You like that?" he asks with a laugh. "I brought this for you. I did it just so I could bug people."

Another lazy morning inside Sunny's Diner. Sarria tells me about the time he awarded himself his own jiu-jitsu black belt. That one rattled their cages a bit. He did it for a good reason, he says, so he could compete in a black belt-only tournament. When people asked who promoted him, he replied simply, "God did." It didn't earn him a sparkling reputation.

But then, he's never had a sparkling reputation, has he?

He tells me that other than two people - Reyes and the matchmaker Sarria has retained for all 17 years, John Petrilli - every business partnership he's ever had has curdled. A painful number of those partnerships ended with the deserting party ripping a hole out of Sarria's chest on their way out.

Some of that was his own fault, he admits. In his younger days, his volatility didn't discriminate. He'd napalm bridges with everyone who crossed him. Issues of pay and unreliable matchmaking stalked his name across Internet message boards, and when a fighter eventually jumped ship for a bigger paycheck with a rival promotion, Sarria always took it a little too personally, likening it to one of his own abandoning him for the enemy.

Sarria claims to have been a millionaire twice in his life, but each time, he says, he lost it all.

Sarria claims to have been a millionaire twice in his life, but each time, he says, he lost it all. His firebrand approach contributed to both of those fallouts, each in its own way. "Some guys just got that gift," Sarria tells me. "They say the right words and get embraced and loved. Unfortunately, my personality has hurt me because I'm brutally honest. People don't like that. We live in a fucked up, phony world."

Mixed martial arts, UFC President Dana White likes to say, is the losing money business. No one understands that better than Sarria. At one point, his world was there for the taking. The moment was there. People knew who he was.

Now he often thinks to getting discovered, that a wealthy financier will do to him what the Fertittas did to White.

But at 51 years old and counting, Sarria admits, that dream is dying.

"I've kept Rage in the Cage alive the last six years from my personal money, my savings. But I've had enough," he sighs.

"I will be found eventually. It's going to happen this year. Someone out there in this world is going to find me. I truly believe, even though I'm losing faith a little bit, it's going to happen. It has to happen. It has to. I earned it."

***

Roland Sarria is joking about how he's the reincarnation of Spartacus. It's not the first time. A large broadsword with a black hilt and golden engravings hangs behind to the mini Thor doll that sits atop a computer monitor in his office. The thunder god is one of his favorites, he says, but lately he's taken to dressing up in ancient Greek garb and mock sword fighting while marathoning through hours of Starz's Spartacus series.

"Oh my gosh, if somebody videotaped me it'd be hilarious," he chuckles, gazing up at the polished steel. "My wife caught me once. I didn't know she was inside the office. She was watching me, and she was devastated. She goes, ‘You were not doing what I think you were doing.' "

One-half of RITC 171's main event fell through this past week. Petrilli had booked Edwin Dewees out of retirement to challenge undefeated RITC light heavyweight champion Dan Huber. Dewees is an old warhorse from the early days who fought 33 of his first 36 fights for Rage in the Cage before washing out of 'The Ultimate Fighter 4.' But this time around, things didn't work out.

Petrilli scrambled and eventually found another local guy, Bellator veteran Joe Yager, to step up against Huber on two weeks' notice. Sarria hardly seems concerned with the switch.

"I still wanna strip one more time." He rubs his thumb and index finger together as he considers it. "I still think I can do it. I can hang with these guys, I just gotta get in shape. It'll take me about three months.

"I'm a little older and I lost a step, but I could beat them in other ways. I had a lot of energy. I stripped exclusively for black women my first eight years. My style, I was a below average dancer. I wasn't as good as most of the guys in terms of looks, bodies, but I would destroy them with personality."

Sarria tells me, fairly proudly, that he stripped well into his mid-thirties. Seventeen years, in total, which seems pretty crazy. He owned an all-male revue called Latin Flavors. At the height of his prowess, back in his early-twenties, he says he raked in anywhere from $2,000 to $3,000 a week from his esteemed clientele.

It's a figure which, even if exaggerated, pales in comparison to the profit margins he saw from Rage in the Cage at its peak.

By 2008, the mixed martial arts business was booming. The dog days were over, and White and the Fertittas had transformed the UFC into a billion-dollar monster. Five of the promotion's most historically popular fighters were all simultaneous champions; B.J. Penn, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Forrest Griffin, and Brock Lesnar - the last two of which happened out of nowhere. Pay-per-view numbers were exploding. Yet UFC events were still held monthly or bimonthly, leaving room for the local guys to fill the void.

It was the perfect storm.

Rage in the Cage sold out everywhere it went that year, packing thousands of voracious fight fans into clubs, theaters, and even an event at Jobing.com Arena, home of the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes. Sarria pulled in anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 straight profit per show, he guesses. At 15 shows a year, cash was shipping to his doorstep by the barrelful. His baby had blossomed into a monster in its own right. It was a good life.

But the UFC, those Romans, they're conquerors, you see. And conquerors don't stop burning until they've torched the known world.

"I should have sold it," Sarria sighs, staring blankly ahead at the walls of his office, "If I did sell it, back in '08. That was the last year. Since '08, the last six years, it's been horrible. Everything fell apart."

The UFC staged 20 events in 2008. Twenty weekends where the MMA world was preoccupied with the big boys, eight of them free to see on cable partner Spike TV.

By the end of last year, that number mushroomed into 33 events, 20 free to watch on FOX or one of its many affiliates without crossing a pay wall. This year won't bring any respite, either. Five months into 2014, the UFC averaged nearly an event per week, testing the interest of even the most committed fight fan.

Now, Sarria admits, a successful Rage in the Cage event means taking home five grand, if he takes home anything at all.

You can see MMA on television, so why go watch nobodies or beginners and pay 35 bucks?

"Deep inside, we're all dying," he says, shaking his head. "It's fake. These little regional shows, if you look around, they're becoming less and less. We're going to be extinct. Too many cage fights. You can see MMA on television, so why go watch nobodies or beginners and pay 35 bucks? My tickets are expensive, so why? You could sit home and just watch UFC.

"No, it's done. The mainstream doesn't want to see A, Double-A and Triple-A baseball players. MMA at a local level is now 500 people, 700 people. That's it. Five-hundred or 700 people doesn't pay your bills. It's gone. The UFC, somebody, has to step up and help us out. Buy us. Where are you going to get fighters? Because when we all fall, you're going to fall too."

***

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Jamie Varner is stooped forward in his chair, wrapping the hands of some twitchy newcomer. It's 7:46 p.m. on fight night, and the commission rules meeting is supposed to be over by now. They're still plowing right ahead though, edging dangerously close toward RITC 171's 8 p.m. start time, and Sarria is barking at no one in particular. He's not in a good mood. The tension isn't soothing the rookie's nerves, but Sarria does not like to wait.

Varner was a junior in high school the first time he ever attended a Rage in the Cage show. In the main event, Homer Moore, one of the promotion's early stars and a genuine tank of a man, collided against Joe Riggs, a young heavyweight who grew up a block away from Varner's house. "Riggs was wearing a singlet with bleach blonde hair," Varner remembers. "He was like a fat Justin Timberlake or something.

"He fought another wrestler who I'd grown up hearing about, and it like was a wrestling match where they got to punch people. I remember thinking, god, there's so many times in a wrestling match I've wanted to punch people. Here I can actually do it? Damn, I want to do this."

That's how most of them started. Varner, Riggs, Cruz, Fickett, Dewees at first. Then Moraga, Dollaway, Gaethje, and countless others. It was a glorified game of telephone. High schools and community colleges churned out talented wrestlers, and stories about those easy paychecks and wild Saturday nights spread like wildfire.

"Pros could fight amateurs. Amateurs could fight pros, they just had to fight amateur rules, which was pretty much the same as pro rules," Varner says. "One of the craziest things I ever saw, Fickett was drinking in the crowd. Dude was totally drunk. I don't even think they needed medicals back then, they just had to get a pre-fight physical.

"Drew came out of the crowd, fuckin' borrowed a mouthpiece, borrowed a cup, threw on some shorts and fought a fucking guy. Drunk."

"Drew came out of the crowd, fuckin' borrowed a mouthpiece, borrowed a cup, threw on some shorts and fought a fucking guy. Drunk. I can't remember whether he won or lost, it was so long ago and I was young, but I just remember thinking, like, holy shit, this guy is a monster."

Varner fought nine of his first 14 fights on that crimson canvas. Now he's one of the room generals, a UFC lightweight and the new owner of his own gym. Someday he'd hoped to give his pupils their first test on the same mats that raised him, though its looking more and more like a pipe dream.

"Roland got a bad rap because he wasn't able to pay fighters, but he was the only dog in town, man," Varner says. "He put on fights every month, and I was able to catapult my record that I got here into the UFC and chase my dream. He was opening doors and giving people opportunities. Whether or not you like the guy, what he's been able to do for the fighting out here in Arizona ... I mean, it was just him.

"I owe a lot of my career, probably all of it, to Roland."

***

Roland Sarria is leaning against a T-shirt stand, holding a half-empty 32-ounce Coca-Cola cup full of beer in his right hand. He takes a sip. He's in a much better mood.

"About three years ago, I started to drink at the shows," he tells me. "I used to never drink. I used to be real stern, real strict, real tough. People didn't like that, but that's all I knew. I grew in Los Angeles with nothing. But the last three years I just show up, I drink, I'm silly, I laugh. People are like, is that the same guy? Isn't Roland a dick? And it's really weird, they like me silly and stupid."

Sarria watches some poor rookie walk out with his chin held high only to get blasted by a right uppercut to the jaw. Five seconds can be an eternity when you're terrified.

The rookie is unconscious and the crowd is erupting and Sarria is telling me how he still loves MMA. If only it loved him back.

The weekend before, I remember asking him what his legacy might be once he calls it quits.

"Piece of shit. User. Liar," he rattled off. "Took advantage of people. Exploited people. Exploited fighters. But this is what they should say: What an incredible guy. Pioneer. Fought for laws to make it better. People didn't realize what he was doing. They thought they were being exploited, little did they know, he was helping them."

Sarria paused to soak in the words. Then he smiled.

"But, I think when it's all said and done, the truth will prevail, and I'm going to have a good reputation."

***

Roland Sarria is roaring drunk, but no one seems to mind. He just announced his phone number over the loudspeakers, and now he's offering to give $100 to whoever texts him. Never have hundreds of hands shot into their collective pockets and purses so fast.

"I used to call the media years ago," he told me a week before at Sunny's Diner, when he first mentioned the stunt. He said he pulls it at every show. "The Arizona Republic, all of these guys. They don't care, so I quit doing it. If you notice, you don't hear about Rage in the Cage on the radio like the old days. Have you noticed that? I don't even do it. Now I just do social media. That's it. I'm scratching."

Sarria pulls a fresh Benjamin out of his wallet and awards it to a lucky upperclassman from Hamilton High School, then he calls John Moraga onto the stage as a special guest. Before 2.4 million people saw him vie for a UFC world title, Moraga fought seven times for Rage in the Cage. Just another name among hundreds.

Sarria is reminiscing and Moraga is grinning and the old promoter is telling us how much he loves us. And we love him right back.

The weekend before, I remember asking him about the moment he knew he was done with it all.

"I got nothing, man. My god, I was heartbroken. I was devastated. I never realized ... I'm nothing."

"I went to Strikeforce a couple years ago," Sarria replied. "One of my fighters fought Herschel Walker. Remember that fight? He wasn't my student. He trained at our school, he was a joke. Scott Coker was looking for a bum, so I said fuck it, I'll go to Miami and visit my family. Free trip. I didn't corner the guy. So when I went there I thought, oh this is going to be fun. I'll meet some of the guys like the old days, some of the reporters. I wasn't expecting to be treated like royalty or even be given a lot of time. But still, acknowledge me a little bit.

"I got nothing, man. My god, I was heartbroken. I was devastated. I never realized ... I'm nothing. I'll never forget that the rest of my life. My sister looked like she had tears in her eyes. I told her, ‘God, I didn't realize how small I am.' Because in my mind, I thought I was big. I did. Not big, but I thought I was bigger than that. And I realized that day, I want to say it was ‘09, I'll never forget that. I realized I was nothing. I was small."

***

Roland Sarria is reclining back in his office chair, in stitches over an old YouTube clip. He's 49 years young, 12 beers deep, and salsa dancing for one atop that crimson canvas. The kid across from him is shirtless, black gloves, black trunks, white trim and incredibly serious - a strange contrast next to Sarria's fitted jeans and dark dress shirt. Sarria's hands are down, then they're up, then they're back down. Black Trunks is furious, and Sarria is loving it. Thirty seconds later poor Black Trunks is on two knees, clutching his liver with his left hand while real-life Sarria hoots with laughter.

Sarria tells me he had to fight at least a few times before he quit, just to see what it was like. He hates it when promoters talk shit about their fighters if they haven't done it themselves.

He says Friday's show ended up being more profitable than expected. It was a pleasant surprise, and it was nice to see the turnout, he admits. It reminded him of the golden years. Afterward he sat in the arena for 10 or 15 minutes alone, thinking about how almost no one thanked him for their free tickets, or for making it all possible.

Sarria tosses a blue package into my lap with the words MALE ENHANCEMENT sprawled across the front. "This is my last year. I had to start a new business," he says.

"I created a peppermint strip that gives you a boner. One of its kind. I'm getting very rich right now."

I can't tell if he's serious, but he insists I keep the sample and try it out. A box full of what has to be thousands of florescent green boner strips rests along the wall next to another similarly marked package behind him.

Sarria points to the big framed article that hangs near the entryway of his office, its headline glimmering in big bold letters against the light. ‘He has the last laugh in the trenches.' Tucked away in the corner: 'Fall 1982.' Some local paper back when Sarria was an outlandishly undersized collegiate nose tackle at El Camino College. He showed me footage because I didn't believe him. Sure enough, there Sarria was - a 155-pound midget mingling among the monsters on the defensive line.

"Look at this. This is me," he says proudly as he begins to read aloud.

"‘I wanted to play real bad but I never got a letter from the university in my life.'

"‘Honestly I'm not the greatest student, but I've never seen anyone better than me.'

"This is funny shit, dude. I was crazy. This was my coach.

"‘His secret is a combination of things, but all his coaches agree, it starts inside. His heart is definitely larger than most people's. Roland has the heart of 10 people.' That was me. Look at how ugly I was."

"I got the last laugh in the trenches, and I'm going to get the last laugh in this business."

Sarria stares hard at the old photo, then laughs.

"I've never changed, from then to now. I got the last laugh in the trenches, and I'm going to get the last laugh in this business. Because let me tell you how: I'm going to outlast everyone."

The declaration catches me off-guard at first, but I think I'm starting to get it. How it must feel to live with that righteous sting of underappreciation. To be so close, to want something so badly, but recognize the moment is gone. Resigned to a fate but not ready to accept it. At least not yet. Not without one more good fight.

I'm going to outlast everyone. Sarria isn't lying, though he isn't quite telling the truth either. Seventeen years. Varner, Cruz, the lot of them - all gone now. Desert ghosts who fled to bigger things, yet the man who started everything remains at the beginning. It doesn't seem fair. But then, when has life in the fight game ever been fair?

And anyway, maybe Sarria is right. Maybe somewhere down the line, five, 10 years from now, someone will give him a chance, shake the Old Dog out of his retirement and he'll prove he knew what he was talking about all along.

Wouldn't that be something?

"I'm the best promoter with a penny." Sarria grins at me. "No disrespect to Dana White. I like Dana White, but he's blessed with a lot of money. Put us on ‘The Apprentice' with a penny each, let's see who can win. Nobody can match me."

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Bryan Tucker | Photos: Bianca Iuliano-Garman

About the Author

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Shaun Al-Shatti is a combat sports writer for MMA Fighting. He lives in Phoenix and generally gets angry about the Phoenix Suns. Follow him at @shaunalshatti. Read his two other SB Nation Longform pieces, "The India Diaries,” and “Ghosts of the Desert.”

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