“When I was 14, my best friend punched me in the mouth and busted my lip open and I had to get stitches and still got scar tissue in my mouth from it, so I really wanted to learn how to fight so that wouldn’t happen again.” – “Disco” Dave Foley, Ogden, Utah

Mixed martial arts is a combat sport that involves a variety of different fighting techniques and skills, many based on traditional martial arts, wrestling and boxing, with two opponents pitted against each other inside a chain link cage. The sport increased in popularity in the United States with the creation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament in 1993 and more so in 2007 when the UFC bought its rival brand and merged all contract fighters into one promotion.

In 2009, I began photographing the story of MMA fighters and culture in Utah as a personal challenge and adventure into shape, contrast and texture, and found suspense and determination, skin and muscle, pain and adrenaline, bitter defeat and tearful jubilation.

MMA is male-dominated and testosterone-driven, so part of the challenge for me as a woman has been accessing everything beyond the cage and tapping into the fighter psyche. What drives one to train for months, perfecting body and mind, only to step into the ring to punch, kick and choke an opponent into submission or risk pain, injury and humiliation?

The answer was in exploring the periphery: finding male and female fighters, young people new to the sport, spectators and people who teach mixed martial arts, to photograph both large events and aspiring fighters in small, dirty gyms.

Jeremy Horn, a veteran UFC fighter who runs his own gym in Utah, summed it up for me:

“It’s the same thing that’s been happening from the very first time that one man punched another man.”

It is not about violence. It is about finding personal strength and, ultimately, personal victory.

There are gyms all over the state of Utah, including Foley’s Mixed Martial Arts in Ogden. Dave Foley trained as a boxer at the Marshall White Community Center at 16 and won the Golden Gloves State Championship 5 times before pursuing mixed martial arts. He has about 90 fights total under his belt, including professional boxing and MMA. He delivers beer by day and coaches kids and adults at his gym at night.

Much like the teenage Foley, many young people initially come to his gym just to learn how to fight, and some do not come from stable families. The most rewarding part of being involved with boxing and MMA, said Foley, is teaching kids to deal with their anger in a controlled situation and encouraging them to have self-esteem and a positive attitude.

“To me, it’s the greatest sport in the world.”

All images © Erin Hooley, please do not use without permission.