Pride fight: Mixed martial arts fighters are warriors and gentlemen
By Michael Betts
Published in News on April 3, 2011 1:50 AM
Thomas "Moose" Huffman, co-owner of ABI's MMA, center, with Sensei Josh Marshall, head instructor and co-owner of ABI's, give directions to Kevin Kenna in between rounds of his first match.
Ariel Montanez prepares before his first MMA fight by throwing quick punches in the fighter locker room.
Kevin Kenna had been to war before, but this was different. It wasn't Iraq where he served with the Army for a year at Combat Outpost Mead, 20 miles outside of Baghdad.
"I stood behind a gun and that was enough to keep the enemies at bay," Kenna said.
But on fight night on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base late last month, there was nothing to stop Steve Hudson from pummeling the soldier, except his own hands, feet and skill.
Facing off inside of a 20-foot steel cage in front of a screaming crowd during the base's monthly Fight Lab:13 Mixed Martial Arts Fight Night, Kenna, who lives in LaGrange, knew he was a long way from the converted Army tent and plywood walls, dubbed Babylon MMA, where he got his start in the sport while stationed in Iraq as a way to blow off steam and to stay in shape.
"We spent every night in there for two hours when we did not have a mission," he said.
But the reality that he is about to step into the ring for his first fight, instead of simply training with his friends, becomes clear when he hears the announcer ask the crowd if anybody wants to see somebody get punched in the face.
"I have been punched in the face before, but not in an official fight," Kenna says.
All the nerves vanish when Kenna hears his 6-year-old son and namesake, Kevin Michael Kenna Jr., introduce him to the ring.
"I didn't pick out any entrance music. I didn't think it would pump me up. But Kevin changed things. He is everything to me. It became real," Kenna said, all 5-foot-5-inches and 170 pounds of him ready for war. "My first step in Iraq was like when I first stepped into the steel cage."
After the bell rang, "It was muscle memory."
To the crowd, which likely would have been as comfortable in the Roman Coliseum watching two gladiators face off as it was in the Corrosion Control Hanger of Seymour Johnson, Kenna appeared alone inside a steel cage.
But he wasn't.
Just like in Iraq, nobody enters the fight without his team around him.
In his corner were the co-owners of ABI's MMA in Goldsboro, Thomas "Moose" Huffman and Sensei Josh Marshall, as well as Tim Bendge, his cut man, who stood ready to stem the blood that was guaranteed to flow.
For the past year Kenna had been honing his fighting skills under their tutelage, especially with the help of Marshall, a mountain of a man at 6-foot-9-inches and 522 pounds of agile bulk with black belts in Combat Jujitsu, Taekwondo and Kenpo.
"I had a lot of pieces to the quilt and (Huffman and Marshall) put it together," said Kenna, whose father had given him a background in boxing because "he did not want me to be a victim."
But more important than any of those skills was Kenna holding his son in his heart, allowing him to battle and to endure elbows, knees, punches and kicks to every part of his body for the first round of a scheduled three-round bout -- three minutes of controlled brutality.
It was different than those fights on the battlefields in Iraq -- no enemies here -- just a challenger, Kenna said.
"I was not mad. I appreciated my opponent," he said.
When the bell rang, signaling the end of the first round, Kenna's team jumped into action, swinging the steel cage open, giving their wounded warrior a stool to sit on, upright like an arrow after years of practice standing at attention, while Bendge held cold compresses on his face as Marshall and Huffman yelled advice over the roar of the crowd.
The second round starts.
Kenna acknowledges that he has understood his team's advice, breathes deep to refocus, stands, and at the bell, taps his opponents' gloves in a show of respect -- something they stress at ABI's -- and the fists begin to fly once again.
As the crowd roars, Hudson grabs Kenna and throws him hard to the mat.
Kenna is able keep his focus and places a tight arm bar on Hudson. Drawing on all of his strength and the techniques he learned in training, he bends his fellow warrior's arm, forcing it a direction it was never meant to go.
Eventually, Hudson cannot resist. He taps out at the 2-minute, 53-second mark of the second round.
The final bell rings. Moments later Kevin Jr. darts into the ring and is raised skyward by his victorious father as the spotlights shine on them, the crowd cheering.
This warrior has won his battle.
But the night doesn't end in victory for all of ABI's students.
Ariel Montanez, a former Marine from Goldsboro, has never been to war, but there is no doubt he is a warrior. The Marine Corps made him into one -- and ABI's made him into a martial artist.
His night -- his first as an MMA fighter -- would not end with a hand raised in victory. Instead it ended with him lying flat on his back with his opponent Ryan Freeman standing over him.
But there is a code of honor even for the defeated.
"I firmly believe what separates winners and losers are how they act afterward. I take my losses and learn from them and become better," Montanez said.
And now Montanez will take that experience back to ABI's where mixed martial arts has reached the mainstream, and where he is now an instructor.
"You can't be a meathead and be successful at MMA," Huffman said, acknowledging that the sport has grown since its days where it was seen simply as barenuckled brawling. "You have to have knowledge of at least two and three martial arts. The public has come around to the fact that it's martial art and you have to know two or three disciplines."
According to the UFC's website, the leading mixed martial arts company has seen its fan base grow by 106 percent in recent years and now ranks as the sixth major sport league with more fans than professional golf.
But for the people participating in the sport on the local level, ranging in age from 3 to 53 years old, mixed martial arts is not just about the fighting and the steel cages. For some it's an intense workout -- a chance to get in shape and feel better about themselves. Montanez lost 55 pounds through mixed martial arts.
For others, especially for the youths involved, it's about fitness, but also self-respect, self-esteem and self-discipline. They also focus on teaching the young fighters self-defense and how to properly deal with bullies.
"It's not just about the cage, its about the kids," Huffman said.
Most importantly, the sport, and locally, ABI's MMA, are places where the community, especially airmen and regular residents, can come together, said Huffman, a former airmen who was stationed at Seymour Johnson.
"We all come together in training," he said.
And for some, guys like Kenna, it's a chance to fight, not because they like beating people up or being beat up themselves, not in hopes of reaching the UFC someday, but simply for the fun, for the pride and for the personal glory of the experience.
Away from the cage and the adulation of the crowd, back in the staging area for the fighters it is quiet. A few fighters, some of them losers, some of them winners, mill around, though most are sitting icing their wounds.
Kenna slowly moves to the corner where he had left his gym bag before the fight.
He cuts off his blood-stained hand wraps and places them on a chair next to his Army ID.
"I'm keeping those," he says to himself.