MMA was started not as a sport, but as a challenge. Think of the Gracie family, determined to prove the superiority of their fighting style, walking up to any would-be challengers, whether in the gym or on the beach, to prove who was king. From that spirit of challenge and superiority, mixed martial arts was born. It's easy to forget those roots when you tune in to the UFC on Fox. But in a bar and grill in a strip mall outside of Chicago? There, those roots are crystal clear.
Friday night, the Chicago suburb of Addison. I'm at a kickboxing and Muay Thai event titled "Striker's Paradise" produced by Imperial Fighting Challenge. The place is packed. Absolutely packed to the gills, with people standing everywhere, jostling for position, trying to get a clear view of the ring. That mass of people is the first thing you notice. The second is the pockets of matching shirts. Gym shirts. That's because this is an amateur event featuring local talent. Fighters are here to represent their gyms and their teams, and their teammates are here to have their backs. It's gym vs. gym warfare - the Gracie challenge alive and well.
With all amateur fighters, you're going to get varying degrees of skill. Some were pretty raw, substituting gusto and an all-attack mode for technique or defense. Yet as the night wore on, the skill level steadily rose, leading to excellent technical battles in the final three fights. In those main events you had a great back-and forth war in Antonio Sanchez vs. Angelo Walsh, plus a pair of big KO's from Tu Warren and Axel Mendez - both of whom looked like skilled, seasoned fighters with bright futures ahead of them.
So, yes, there was skill on display. But as was often the case with early MMA, the appeal of a show like this is not simply the technical skill. It's something more - that elemental spirit of competition. That need to show who is best, not just for yourself, but for your team, that need is here. And it's intoxicating. All night, there's a palpable air of tense excitement in the room. Every time a fighter is announced, a portion of the crowd goes nuts. When that fighter takes the ring and starts to war with someone else's fighter, the feeling in the air changes. Yes, there are only two men in the ring, but in the audience it is abundantly clear that combat sports are team sports. These are teams in attendance, and if their representative wins, they celebrate together. Of course, the flipside is that for every win, there's a loss, and they take it hard. There's always this vague feeling of a potential fight breaking out, and while it never does, that feeling gives the entire event an electric vibe.
It's that spark that makes events like these what they are. This is combat sports at their most elemental - two fighters, each with a tribe behind him, fighting to establish dominance. While there's much to be said for the strides combat sports have taken over the years, there's also great pleasure to be had from seeing this side once again.
Sometimes that feeling comes through in the strangest of places - like a suburban strip mall. Friday night, inside that strip mall, Imperial Fighting Challenge captured that feeling. I'm glad I was there to be a part of it, and I know I'll be back the next time they are.
- I would be remiss if I did not mention that I was one of those matching shirt wearing tribesmen. My teammate Joshua Horsley was making his debut on this event, representing Team Andre Madiz and Conviction Martial Arts. He won in an impressive unanimous decision. And, despite my best attempts at journalistic impartiality, I couldn't resist letting that team spirit move me in celebration.
- Performance of the night goes to Tu Warren. His round 3 head kick KO was nasty, and was preceded by an excellent, patient performance. Less impressive was the cornerman of his opponent Julian Collins, who challenged audience members to fights and hurled derogatory obscenities after Warren's win. Not a pretty scene.
- As I mentioned, these were almost all kickboxing or Muay Thai fights. One of the defining skills here was the clinch, where nearly every fight ended up. Fighters either knew how to use it, or they didn't, and that was frequently the difference between a win and a loss.
- One exhibition fight was between two kids - a boy and a girl, both seeming to be around 10-12 years old. They fought their hearts out, and I'm glad to see kids taking an interest in kickboxing, but it left a kind of weird taste in my mouth.
- Full results are here.
- The return date is not 100% finalized, but the company is looking at being back in four months. They have a goal of bringing fans the best Muay Thai/kickboxing action and promoting the sport in the US, and if this show was any indication, they're doing a good job there. Chicago area fans - check them out if you can.