What draws Mainers to one of the world’s most ‘brutal’ sports
As the training rounds increased from 60 seconds to five minutes on a recent Monday morning, so did the intensity level as members of a mixed martial arts class at Young’s MMA tested each other’s grappling skills.
A couple of local professional fighters were in the mix, but most were pros in other fields.
Squaring off at one end of the mat were a master’s degree candidate in human resource management and a sterile processing technician at a local hospital. At the other end were two brothers, one a pharmacist and the other on active duty with the U.S. Air Force security forces.
What draws such an eclectic mix to a sport where fists and feet fly, and a bloody nose or black eye is often the only trophy?
“People say it’s an awesome feeling and you won’t understand it until you get in there,” said Glory Watson, a veteran of one amateur bout. “They’re not kidding. It’s phenomenal.”
Watson prioritizes mixed martial arts within her everyday life, which also includes jobs as a nanny and a bartender.
“I work at a bar and there was a fight and I broke it up, but I felt like I really couldn’t do anything, so the next day I messaged [friend and fellow MMA devotee] B.J. Garceau and asked if she was still sparring.
“She said come in on Friday at 9, so I did and I’ve never left.”
More than a few notable MMA veterans — such as former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia of Eastbrook and fellow contender Marcus Davis, a Houlton native who now lives in North Carolina — worked as bartenders or bouncers before finding fame in the cage, but today’s MMA classes often include combatants from virtually all walks of life.
“Everyone has this kind of misguided idea of what an MMA fighter is, but it could be anybody and that’s kind of a cool thing about this sport,” said Young’s MMA founder and head trainer Chris Young. “It isn’t just this big, burly barbarian that everyone pictures. It’s people from every walk of life, every size, different athletic abilities all looking to test themselves.”
Reasons to believe
The steady growth of a sport is undeniable.
Current UFC stars like Conor McGregor and former champions like Ronda Rousey are becoming household names beyond the arena, while ESPN recently agreed to pay Ultimate Fighting Championship $1.5 billion for television and streaming rights over the next five years.
Maine has had a steady connection with that top-level promotion over the years, like UFC president Dana White, a 1987 graduate of Hermon High School who maintains a home in Levant. Bruce Boyington of Brewer recently captured the featherweight championship of Rhode Island’s Classic Sports & Entertainment MMA, considered one of the top regional promotions in the country, in a nationally televised bout.
Since the Maine Legislature legalized mixed martial arts in 2009, nearly a dozen gyms have sprouted up that provide training. That includes two in Greater Bangor: Young’s MMA and Titan Athletics of Brewer.
Aaron Lacey, a former Brewer High School football player, discovered the sport several years ago through friend and co-worker Damon Owens, an MMA fighter who encouraged him to give Young’s MMA a try several years ago.
“Chris told me it was a conditioning class, so it’s not going to be very fun,” Lacey said. “It was the old-school days, and we literally did two straight hours of conditioning, but I had the time of my life.”
The 27-year-old Lacey is now 5-2 as an MMA professional heading into a Sept. 8 NEF bout at the Cross Insurance Center against fellow Bangor-area veteran Jonathan Lemke.
Lacey also has a job at Tradewinds Supermarkets and works as a personal trainer. He hopes continued mixed martial arts success will lead to bigger fights and more money.
“I have dreams and things I want to accomplish,” he said. “I’m growing a family with a fiance and a beautiful soon-to-be stepdaughter, and I want to put a roof over their heads and make sure she can go to college and always have food on the table.”
“It just happens that the one thing I’m really good at is fighting. It’s what gets me out of bed everyday and what keeps my head on straight on straight,” he said. “It keeps me in shape and out of trouble.”
Roger Ewer, a 45-year-old Orono pharmacist who is a 1991 graduate of Foxcroft Academy, got involved in MMA to stay in shape and learn a new sport.
“There’s so much to it, techniques so advanced that it would take forever to learn, but it’s fun to try,” said Ewer, a former high school wrestler and the father of five sons. “Of course, at my age staying in shape is important, and there’s no better way to do it than come in here and roll around on the mat.
“It’s a badge of pride to be able to say I’m doing this at 45.”
Ewer’s younger brother, C.J., a 1998 Foxcroft Academy graduate and a member of the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame, uses mixed martial arts as part of his physical conditioning for work with the Air Force security forces.
“I just like to push myself to the limit,” said C.J., also a former high school wrestler. “It’s almost like I take the fights as a byproduct of me wanting come in here and work with the guys and wanting to keep the wrestling and the athletics up.”
A test of time management
Many MMA practitioners face the same challenge: finding the time.
“The hardest part is balancing everything and putting family and friends on the back burner while you’re training,” said Catie Denning, a full-time bartender who is just one class away from earning her master’s degree in human resources management. “Sometimes they understand and sometimes they don’t. They just think, ‘Oh, you’re going to the gym,’ even though it’s much more than that.”
Fighters thrive on the fitness and competitive spirit forged in the cage, but they admit it often comes at a price.
“I’ve got four little [daughters] so every minute I’m at the gym I could be spending time doing something else, especially during the summer,” C.J. Ewer said. “I do feel guilty about it, but the girls take it well and don’t seem to mind.”
Garceau switched from working days to an overnight shift in order to create more training time. But as someone who lives with Type 1 diabetes, she values the opportunity to work out regularly.
“This is a huge part of what I call my treatment plan,” she said. “The people in my life are very understanding that this is a priority for me because it’s gotten to the point where my life now revolves around my training. My coach knows we have to have a life, but we commit most of our time here.”
Fixing for a fight
For those who compete in front of a live audience, the experience creates all kinds of emotions.
“The best part for me was when I walked out for the fight and they put the Vasoline on my face, everything came together and it was just a big, ‘Here we go,’” Roger Ewer said. “All that worry I carried for eight weeks of camp just faded when I went into the cage because I knew that win, lose or draw I was going to do everything I had been trained to do and be proud of what I’ve done.”
Young describes fight night as the reward for the rigors of training camp.
“The fight is where you get to go in there, have fun and show the world what you’ve been doing,” he said. “It sounds strange, but the fight is really the easy part when you see what these people go through for eight weeks to get there. It’s tough: a lot of pain, a lot of sacrifice, depriving yourself of food; it’s a really brutal ordeal.”
Everyone wants to win, but satisfaction can come in many ways.
“I just wanted a chance to step in there and show what my team and I had worked on together. I’m not just fighting for myself. I’m fighting for my team. We’re a family,” Garceau said. “Right now I’m hoping to get another fight some day soon, otherwise I don’t plan on fighting again. But I still plan on training just as much because for me it’s been life-changing. It makes me who I am.”