“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.”
Dave Castillo warms up in the basement of the Scrap Yard event center in Ogden, Utah before a mixed martial arts cage match against John Walser Saturday, Sept. 4, 2010. The fight community and culture has grown in Utah with the appearance of MMA specific gyms and frequent fight nights hosted by local promotional companies such as World Championship Full Contact, which arranged the Scrap Yard event.
“Disco” Dave Foley, the owner of Foley’s Mixed Martial Arts in Ogden, sports a black eye the day after a fight in Nephi.
Foley coaches Diego Alvarez in the back room before a boxing match. Most of the kids come into the gym because “they want to learn how to fight,” said Foley, but they must learn the art and discipline and to respect their opponents.
Amy “Lil’ Dynamite” Davis of Idaho kicks Andrea “The Killer” Miller of Utah during a full contact Muay Thai match at the Natural Disaster mixed martial arts night hosted by Total Mayhem MMA at The Gym Saturday, June 25, 2011, in in West Haven, Utah. Davis won the match by decision.
The cage is lit dramatically as the crowd watches fighters at Jeremy Horn’s Elite Fight Night at the XSI Factory in Lehi. “MMA is the fastest-growing sport in the world. It’s really popular, and it’s getting more popular,” said Jeremy Horn, an internationally recognized mixed martial artist. He owns and operates Elite Performance gym in West Jordan with his fiancee, former professional fighter Jennifer Howe.
Cornerman Eric Tillotson shouts at Foley during his fight. All fighters have cornermen for support and coaching before and after a fight and between rounds.
Dave Castillo pounds John Walser during his mixed martial arts cage match at the Scrap Yard in Ogden. Castillo easily defeated Walser.
Blood pours out of a cut and runs down Foley’s face after he caught an elbow from John Sharp.
Michael Robinson lies on the ground after being defeated by Cisco Alcantara at the mixed martial arts night hosted by Total Mayhem MMA at The Gym in West Haven.
Stephen “Doc” Graham sews up a gash on Foley’s head after a fight in 2009. The gash was caused by elbow strikes. There are event physicians at all professional fights, which are sanctioned by the Pete Suazo Utah State Athletic Commission. One must register as a professional fighter and promoters must pay a fee to hold a sanctioned fight night. Fighters are required to have HIV and Hepatitis tests less than a year old.
“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,” said “Disco” Dave Foley on becoming a boxer and mixed martial arts fighter. He started training as a boxer at the Marshall White Community Center in Ogden, Utah at 16 and won the Golden Gloves State Championship 5 times.
Brandon Medina at a Foley’s fight night in February 2010. Sometimes kids with “not so great family backgrounds” show up at the gym, said Foley. A young man’s father called one day to ask if Foley knew a doctor because his friend was injured – he had been stabbed. Foley wants to make a positive impact on kids and hope training at the gym keeps them out of trouble.
From left, Indiana Allred, 11, Kenji Olsen 8, Diego Alvarez 11, Vincent Valencia 10 in boxing class.
Members of Foley’s cheer each other on as they prepare for a kickboxing exhibition. Young fighters at Foley’s train in boxing, kickboxing and wrestling before moving on to mixed martial arts. Unlike sports like wrestling or football, there are no official MMA tournaments for children or young people, but Foley’s often hosts boxing and kickboxing events for local fighters.
People pack one such event at Foley’s to watch Gunner Legas, left, fight Raymond Tafolla. Foley and his wife Sahna took out a second mortgage on their home and spent their life savings to open the gym. Foley works a full time job delivering beer by day and often spends five hours a night teaching and still fights professionally. “Even when I’m tired and don’t want to come to the gym, every night that I’m here I have fun and it’s not about making money anymore.”
Chuy Diaz, left, who trains at Foley’s, and Dakota Vaughn go head-to-head at the exhibition matches. MMA fighters do not wear headgear or pads and only wear gloves with minimal padding. This could account for the lack of official MMA tournaments for young people, as knees to the face and elbows to the head are quite common in the sport and many trainers consider it too risky for people under a certain age.
Steven “Super” Siler hangs out backstage with his crew before a fight in Salt Lake City.
Rad Martinez stomps into the ring to face Steven Sharp at Showdown V at Utah Valley University. It is not uncommon for fighters to come from a wrestling background, and Martinez no exception: he is a former NCAA Division I All-American wrestler and was recently signed to Bellator Fighting Championships, a national promotional company.
Cisco Alcantara, right, of Ogden, punches Michael Robinson Saturday, June 25, 2011. Robinson tapped out from an arm triangle by Alcantara in the second round.
Jamie “Boogie” Anton, bottom, of Throwdown Elite in Orem, Utah, and Dave Allred of Elite Performance in Sandy, take it to the mat at Showdown V, a professional mixed martial arts fight night held at Utah Valley University November 20, 2009. MMA is a full contact combat sport that allows a variety of different fighting techniques and skills, some based on traditional martial arts and others non-traditional, with two opponents fighting each other inside a chain link round or octagonal cage. The sport increased in popularity in Utah and the United States with the creation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament in 1993 and moreso in 2007 when the UFC bought its rival brand and merged all contracted fighters into one promotion.
Judges keep score as two fighters are pressed against the chainlink cage.
The referee raises Steve Walser’s hand in victory as Foley looks to the ground. Judges scored three five-minute rounds of the fight and Walser defeated Foley by unanimous decision.
Steve “Razor” Sharp hangs his head after losing a match to Steven Siler at the Rail Yard in Salt Lake City. Most MMA fighters have a nickname to help them create a persona and stand out from other fighters. Both Sharp and Siler are popular among fans in Utah.
Foley holds a cold beer to his face after he rematched Kevin Hamby at a fight night held by Xtreme Combat in Nephi and ended up with a black eye and a draw.
Brittany Howard gets her hands wrapped by Foley backstage for her fight against Tandi Schaeffer at Showdown V. Although mostly a male-dominated sport, there are female MMA fighters. Howard, a security officer for the United States Air Force, became interested in boxing and MMA after she met her husband while deployed in Iraq.
Howard knees Schaeffer during the fight. She struggled through the match and was often stuck in Schaeffer’s “Muay Thai clinch” until the referee called the fight with 10 seconds to go in the final round.
Brittany Howard bows her head after losing to Tandi Schaeffer. Although this was the first professional mixed martial arts match for both women, Howard was much less experienced than Schaeffer, who has 8 years of experience teaching and training in karate and Muy Thai kickboxing. Finding an opponent at a similar level of skill and experience can be tough for some Utah fighters, especially women.
Brock “The Machine” Jardine throws his fists in the air as he prepares to fight.