‘It’s in your face’
A recent series of bouts at Winchester’s Sportsplex illustrates the fast-growing popularity of mixed martial arts
September 22, 2007
By David Selig
The Winchester Star
Fitz Philogene pounds C.R. Hess during their encounter at “MMA In The Valley III,” a series of mixed martial arts bouts presented last week at the Sportsplex in Winchester.
Winchester — The thump of a right first to the face may have been the last thing Brandon Cooper heard, but it was quickly followed by a thud and a roar.
Falling victim to a roundhouse right hand, the Stephens City man sank flat to the floor, powerless to stop his attacker.
In a boxing ring, the assault would have been over. On the street, someone may have been able to cry for help.
But in this case, the nearest police officer happened to be the man jumping on top of Cooper’s limp body and unloading two more blows.
This is the world of mixed martial arts, which longtime boxing ring announcer Henry Jones introduced as "the fastest-growing sport in the world" at last Saturday’s "MMA In The Valley III."
Some say it’s replacing the sweet science. Others say it’s just a fad. Either way, it had close to 900 adrenaline-filled fans at Kernstown’s Sportsplex leaping to their feet with each takedown, triangle, and rear-naked choke hold.
And perhaps the loudest eruption in nearly three hours of amateur hand-to-hand combat came when Cooper was knocked out cold in a bantamweight bout.
His opponent, Joey Miller, is a Strasburg police officer who got into the sport as a way to improve his self-defense skills. But on Saturday, Miller was clearly the aggressor.
He flattened Cooper with a clean shot to the face one minute into the third and final round and didn’t relent until the referee physically restrained him seconds later.
Conventional wisdom says it’s dirty to hit a man when he’s down, but in the octagonal mixed martial arts cage it’s fundamental to keep fighting until the ref calls you off.
And even though Cooper required immediate medical attention from two ringside doctors — he turned out to be OK — it did nothing to diminish the euphoric ending to Miller’s first MMA fight.
"That was probably the greatest feeling I’ve ever had in my whole life," he said minutes after leaving the ring. "Other than the birth of my two kids."
"I like throwing hands"
If mixed martial arts is indeed the fastest-rising sport in the world, Saturday’s 16 bouts sanctioned by the International Sport Combat Federation showed several reasons why.
The fights are quick — scheduled for three rounds of three minutes, but few go the distance — and the short list of forbidden moves includes eye-gouging, head-butting, hair-pulling, biting, and shots to the groin.
Bouts begin with two fighters on their feet, but from that point they can go in several directions. Strikers typically prefer to stay upright, while others better versed in grappling work to get into a clinch and take the action to the mat.
Unlike boxing or professional wrestling, the combatants enter the ring without frills, each looking like they could be your next-door neighbor.
Or your next-door neighbor’s son.
The first fighter to emerge from the tunnel and sprint to the octagon last Saturday was 17-year-old Luke Dawson, whose baby-faced look inspired fans ringside to joke that he should be wearing braces instead of a mouth guard.
A senior at Musselman High School in Bunker Hill, W.Va., Dawson is a talented wrestler who decided to try mixed martial arts as a way to stay in shape after the season ended last winter.
"I’ve wrestled in state [tournaments], but this is a whole new game for me," said Dawson, who was fighting just his second exhibition. "I’m not used to throwing hands, but I like throwing hands. You’ve got to learn some boxing and learn some kicks. I don’t have many kicks in my arsenal."
It didn’t take any kicks on Saturday, as Dawson’s attack forced the referee to stop his bout when opponent Mike Lilly couldn’t defend himself against an array of blows from the floor.
Dawson’s father was in the crowd to watch, and the young grappler said his mother has also come around to his new extracurricular activity.
"My whole family loves the sport," he said. "My mom was kind of ‘eh’ at first, but my dad just said as long as you don’t get hurt for wrestling, you can do it."
Dawson said he hopes to continue training in mixed martial arts after his final high school wrestling season, and he realizes it could someday become a way to earn a little money through sponsorships.
"Local is where it’s at"
His friend and fellow Musselman senior Cory Popanz is just 18, but he was featured in the night’s main event and improved to 3-0 with a first-round victory over Eric Marshman of Sterling.
Experts say Popanz has what it takes to eventually turn pro, the ultimate goal of "MMA In The Valley" promoter Lionell Royer — who also happens to train Popanz at his Inwood, W.Va., gym.
"I really want to support the local guys," said Royer, a former boxer and standout running back at Musselman. "I want to take somebody from the Valley and see one of them go big-time. That’s my goal. I don’t want to bring in a bunch of big names. Local is where it’s at."
Royer had been promoting boxing events when he was approached about six months ago by people craving a mixed martial arts show. Now, he’s ready to debut a team competition called the Valley Fighting League at "MMA In The Valley IV," scheduled for Nov. 17 in Harrisonburg.
The series — which debuted before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 700 at Winchester’s Lee-Jackson Best Western in July — will return to the Sportsplex on Dec. 8, when Royer hopes to have some championship bouts on the card.
And while Royer said MMA is "real hot right now" in the area, it’s only a microcosm of the way the sport has burst into the mainstream nationwide behind its pre-eminent federation, Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Formerly a pay-per-view only event geared toward hard-core fight fans, UFC has spread its appeal by establishing weight classes, taking some of the violence out of the fights, and marketing the sport with regular cable events on Spike TV and a popular reality show.
Those who spend their weekends flipping between football games shouldn’t roll their eyes.
The league’s latest major event, "UFC 75" aired on a tape delay on Sept. 8 on Spike and still had the highest rating of any show on cable that day for male viewers in the 18-35 and 18-49 demographics. (It topped out at more than 5.6 million viewers for the main event featuring UFC heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, according to the Neilsen ratings.)
"An incredible sport"
While Royer expects to hold a few pro fights at his next event, last Saturday’s card at the Sportsplex featured only names that are becoming popular locally.
One of those is Angel "The Predator" Ortiz, an advertising and marketing executive who lives in Berryville and also plays for the Winchester Tigers semi-pro football team.
A former Marine and co-founder of the Winchester-based Predator Fight Club, Ortiz battered opponent Derch Thayer of Martinsburg, W.Va., for just over a minute and a half before his bout was stopped.
Ortiz credits the referees’ knowing when to stop a fight as the main reason MMA loyalists say their sport is actually less dangerous that boxing.
He also feels mixed martial arts, which typically uses four- or six-ounce gloves — as opposed to boxing’s 10-ounce mitts — will overtake many of the fans who used to flock to the sweet science.
"Eventually it’s going to surpass boxing because it’s real," Ortiz said. "It’s in your face, it’s gritty. People love the fights — two men or women squaring off in a cage. It’s just an incredible sport and it’s going to continue to grow."
Royer said he expects boxing to survive, primarily in cities and urban settings, but he agrees that MMA is becoming more popular in rural and suburban venues because of the large number of martial arts studios.
In several countries around the world, MMA has long been more popular than other forms of fighting.
Ortiz said he has studied various martial arts for 15 years (focusing on MMA for the past four) and has fought overseas in Japan and Thailand. But Saturday’s event marked his first sanctioned bout in the United States.
"This is excellent, not only for the state of Virginia, but for MMA," he said. "For local fans, it’s wonderful. It’s spreading around nationwide, but it’s definitely spreading around up and down the East Coast."
"I had to do it"
While the sport’s popularity is growing, amateur events such as last Saturday’s series of bouts can be somewhat difficult to find.
Fitz Philogene learned about "MMA in the Valley" from Royer’s Squared Circle Promotions Web site and said he couldn’t wait to get on the card.
Philogene traveled to Winchester all the way from Miami to compete in his first MMA fight on Saturday, and won his lightweight bout against Martinsburg’s C.R. Hess by a unanimous decision after it went the distance and was turned over to three ringside judges.
Wearing an ear-to-ear grin and a T-shirt that read "I have no off button," the skinny fighter said he had to return home the next day to get back to his job as a veterinary technician.
"I’m a busy man, but I had to do it," said Philogene, who runs a Web site dedicated to wildlife and has hosted a television show on UPN. "This is my dream to fight in the cage."
The 33-year-old has been training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu — a martial art focused on grappling and ground fighting — for five years and just began learning MMA tactics in the past year.
As was common with several of the athletes, Philogene and Hess shared pointers and well-wishes in the backstage area after their fight.
Hess pressed his reddened face next to a nearby window, trying to judge from the reflection how badly he had been hit.
Philogene, on the other hand looked so happy that an observer wouldn’t guess he had just been brawling for nine full minutes.
"To be honest, with all the adrenaline pumping, I didn’t feel it when I was getting hit," he said.
While some fighters looked the worse for wear than others following their fights — and the officials spent the mid-card intermission moping blood off the ring floor — the camaraderie between fighters was routine.
Despite some fighters walking around with cotton stuffed in their noses and dark red stains on their shorts, no bad blood could be found in the locker room area. The evening of combat even began with an open prayer in the middle of the ring.
"You get into a zone"
Another often-overlooked trademark of mixed martial arts is the skill involved in each bout.
While several fans tried to pick winners when the pugilists emerged, the fights weren’t won on size or strength alone.
Shaun Rose, a fighter from Hagerstown, Md., strolled to the octagon with a swagger and mohawk that set him apart from his seemingly more reserved opponent, Cole Presley, of Harpers Ferry, W.Va.
Rose charged toward his fellow lightweight opponent at the opening bell, but within 18 seconds found himself writhing in pain from an arm bar and tapping out to indicate submission.
Along with the tactical and strategic nuance of the sport, MMA athletes say a common sacrifice helps them to leave the ring as friends instead of rivals.
Miller, the Strasburg police officer, has been training for months at Boyce’s Matial Arts Academy in Winchester and said he wouldn’t have been able to compete last Saturday if not for his family of fellow fighters who "put on the pads and beat the crap out of each other pretty much every night" in the gym.
His actual family had something to do with that, too.
"My mother goes to work early in the morning and then she stays at home late with my kids," said Miller, who has a 5-year-old daughter and 17-month-old son. "My ex-wife has helped me with the kids. There’s just an understanding that it takes a lot of time to do the training, and they’ve really helped me out."
As Miller iced down a swollen left eye socket — which he said he couldn’t feel — he was emotional, reflective, and thankful for the opportunity to fulfill his dream of climbing into the cage.
Somehow, this was the same man who minutes earlier was bouncing around and flexing his muscles as his opponent lay motionless 10 feet away.
"You get into a zone," Miller said of the in-ring experience. "Somewhere I’ve never been, I can tell you that."
"15 years ago . . . . Maybe 20."
Perhaps it’s the allure of finding that zone that had hundreds paying between $25 and $50 to watch local men lay their 9-to-5 lives aside and pound each other until one couldn’t continue.
And as popular as the sport is becoming, several fans are hoping to make their way into the ring before long.
A 16-year-old approached one of the coaches near the fighters’ staging area, asking how he could begin training — and even some of the older fans seemed to be ready to turn back the clock and try their hand in the octagon.
"I wish they would have had this [stuff] 15 years ago!" one fan shouted to his buddy during a break in the action.
He paused for a second, perhaps considering the carnage, then corrected himself: "Maybe 20."
Contact David Selig at