It’s 5:30pm and the gym of Charlottesville’s MMA Institute is alive with the leathery crackle of boxing gloves and the muffled, scuffle-thud rhythm and squeak of bare feet on padded flooring. There is the litany of sharp nasal inhalations and grunts as well as the barked instructions of a squadron of coaches. Housed in the back half of a warehouse on Greenbrier Drive, the gym consists of one large padded room—maybe half the size of a basketball court—that, but for a back wall equipped with a rubberized chain-link fence and another wall of torso-level mirrors, is reminiscent of a wrestling training facility. The institute features the largest team of both professional and amateur mixed martial arts fighters in the state (mixed martial arts is a full-contact combat sport that allows the use of both striking and grappling techniques).
And on this night, despite the fact that these men arrived less than half an hour before, already there is the reek of hard, physical exertion. Sweat.
The fighters—eight amateurs and three professionals—are each paired with a partner of the same weight class (e.g. bantamweights ranging between 125 to 135 pounds), while five coaches watch every move. The men circle one another with focused intensity, only their eyes are devoid of any lust for violence; theirs is the gaze of an artist immersed in the calm seizure of the moment. Rather than angry, these men come off more like collaborators, like muscle-bound tango partners engrossed in a rehearsal for a high-level competition.
“The biggest problem facing the mixed martial arts scene is one of perception,” says 46-year-old Jay Colligan, a longtime gym member and promoter/ringside announcer for Charlottesville’s Main Street Arena Fight Night Challenge events. “People have this notion of MMA events as some kind of seedy, barely legal form of human cockfighting, and it’s just not true.”
For the uninitiated observer, the combative nature of the sport can overshadow the deep mutual respect fighters on this level have for one another.
“Your opponent is like a mirror,” says Dave Morris, 45, owner of the Charlottesville MMA Institute and a former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter. “He reveals the flaws in your form…which should be viewed as a gift.”
In the far corner of the room, Ginseng Dujour, 30, and Carlos Martinez, 21,—two of the gym’s most promising fighters—are sparring. With his grizzled beard, mane of shoulder-length dreadlocks, gleaming skin and chiseled figure, Dujour demands attention. He is the room’s visual anchor. Martinez—a bit taller, baby-faced, padded by the slightest vestige of adolescent pudge—unleashes what is an astonishingly swift flurry of jabs. Ducking behind a shield of forearms, Dujour dances a retreat. Just before the jabs stop coming, as if anticipating the first flagging instant of their climax, Morris barks a command: “Knee!” Dujour plants his feet and with the terrifying agility of a big cat launches himself upward into the air, hurling his right knee toward Martinez’s chin. Although the blow does not land, clearly it catches Martinez off guard. Jolted, he’s forced to make an unexpected defense—a sort of cringing sidestep as fists and forearms seek to ward off the knee.
Clapping and smiling broadly, Morris intercedes, congratulating Dujour on his listening ability and flying-knee technique. He steps between the men and begins instructing Martinez on the flaw in his punch combo that made this potentially devastating counterattack possible. Meanwhile, grappling coach Ray Cadell has left his position leaning cross-armed against the padded wall to instruct Dujour on another potential option—the flying-knee strike was a risky gamble that could have ended disastrously—for deflecting Martinez’s onslaught.
“What you saw happening there was two-fold,” Morris explains later. “On the one hand, you saw a fighter exhibiting the ability to listen. Both of those guys are great developing fighters. But while Carlos is on the verge of being ready to go pro, Ginseng’s already there.”
Listening, Morris says, is a major indicator of a fighter’s readiness to make the leap from the amateur to professional circuit (a jump he compares to playing JV basketball versus playing in the NBA).
“When you’re fighting, you’re totally focused on your opponent,” says Morris. “Your corner can use his experience and visual advantage to exploit weaknesses. When you hear him make a command, you have to react instantly. No hesitation at all. That trust can be the difference between winning and losing a fight.”
The second crucial thing the Martinez and Dujour vignette reveals is the institute’s—and Morris’—philosophy of instruction.
“We have a team of instructors with a range of backgrounds broad enough to cover the spectrum of martial arts useful for this kind of competition,” says Morris. “The idea is, while my training leads me to approach a situation one way, a guy with a different background may come at it quite different.”
Fighters and coaches often cite the chess match metaphor. What makes the game—and this sport—so interesting is there is no fixed, predesignated approach. Participants have the ability to exhibit an astonishing array of styles, with many having little, if anything, in common with one another.
“The thing is, with such a broad range of fighting techniques available,” says Colligan, “while great fighters tend to master one particular form, they then augment that style with others, hoping that, in doing so, they reduce its inherent vulnerabilities, as well as enhance its various strengths.”
With each fighter commanding an incredible repertoire of stylistic fluency, any given situation—in Martinez’s case, a boxer-like attack—becomes the inspiration for an infinite array of possible defenses and counter-offenses. At the MMA Institute, a team of about 20 in-house and visiting instructors hold black belts and/or championship wins in disciplines ranging from judo, American freestyle karate, Brazilian jiu jitsu, sambo, Greco Roman wrestling and muay Thai.
“Rather than one solution to a given problem,” says Morris, “our guys are presented with a variety of options that can open doors to new technical possibilities.”
In the past, each school featured a master trained in one particular discipline, but MMA (and UFC) fighters must draw from multiple styles and schools to be competitive in the cage. How this shift occurred is key to understanding the MMA art form.
Through cultural migration, the advent of television and the Internet, martial arts forms that were once isolated to particular regions and cultures were made available to audiences that otherwise would have had no access. This process was bolstered by the popularization of mixed martial arts combat as embodied by the Ultimate Fighting Championship tournaments in the early ’90s, and had much to do with the efforts and successes of three-time UFC champion and hall of famer Royce Gracie (who helped found UFC). With the fights offered on international pay-per-view and heavily marketed to combat/contact sport audiences and Gracie being both a wildly entertaining fighter and an avid practitioner of Brazilian jiu jitsu, when he won the first, second and fourth UFC competitions, this fueled increased interest in the form. Suddenly, would-be fighters all began studying the technique, and gyms popped up en masse. As new fighters and champions emerged, historically or geographically obscure techniques such as muay Thai (a centuries old, hybrid version of kickboxing from Thailand), capoeira (a dancing, acrobatic technique purportedly developed and practiced on the sly by 16th-century West Africans enslaved in South America) surfaced.
Mixed martial arts’ popularity increased steadily through the early 2000s, and when Fox Sports Media Group struck a deal to carry UFC and MMA fights in 2011 (on its FX, Fuel TV and Fox Sports Net networks), the sport exploded: In 2015, Fox Sports News reported an average viewership of 964,000 for its UFC preliminary fights, a 22 percent hike from the year before.
This newfound notoriety led to better conditions for up-and-coming amateurs (for instance, the widespread development and syndication of amateur fighting leagues with official rules—hence Charlottesville’s Fight Night Challenge), and better pay for professionals (for whom Morris says regional appearances pay around $500 for showing up plus $500 for a win; whereas, according to ESPN, UFC rates range from $10,000 for a beginning, entry-level fighter, to top-draws such as champion Georges St. Pierre’s $4-5 million per bout).
But, as Morris can testify, getting to this point was a long, hard climb.
“Back in the ’90s, fighting in a regional match meant you didn’t always know what you were getting yourself into,” says Morris. “It was kind of like the Wild West.”
Of the many horror stories, one details the time Morris showed up for a fight that turned out to have no rounds. While nowadays, an MMA main event or championship fight runs for a maximum of five, 5-minute rounds (with non-main events clocking in at three 3-minute rounds), when Morris arrived at one purportedly premium promotion, he discovered the championship bout was slated to run straight through.
“We fought for nearly 19 minutes straight!” he laughs, shaking his head. “It was insane. You talk about exhaustion!”
Elsewhere, similar discrepancies were occurring. This had much to do with the fact that, as the sport was still in its infancy and was just beginning to catch on, there was no officially sanctioned governing body to enforce a collective set of rules. As such, much like the early days of American football, a money-hungry promoter could easily lease a respectable-seeming venue, promise a classy event and put on what amounted to brawls.
“There were a lot of bad promotions,” says Morris. “You had to be careful. A lot of companies would put together good, reputable-looking materials, then round up street-fighters and throw them together in the ring.”
Of course, when matched against a master, these unsophisticated fisticuffers didn’t stand a chance.
“It was really a turn-off to see that kind of thing going on,” says Morris, whose own record was 17–1 while competing mostly in UFC-sanctioned events. “For a long time we did what we could, but it really helped things when the sport became popular, which led to the adoption of rules, an educated viewership and the creation of sanctioning bodies that could vet the fights.”
Still, there remained much room for abuse. After years of seeing phony promoters putting on bogus (not to mention dangerous) events, when Morris was approached in 2010 by Mike Stanley, owner of Louisa’s MMA Institute gym, and offered the opportunity to develop an amateur-just-on-the-cusp-of-going-pro MMA fight series—the Fight Night Challenge—with the new owner of Charlottesville’s Main Street Arena, Mark Brown, Morris leapt at the opportunity.
“What really made me want to do this was, just before Mike got in touch with me, I’d brought three of my amateur fighters to an exhibition up in Staunton,” says Morris, “and it was bad.”
By bad he means the promoter had Morris’ guys matched with barroom brawlers, some of whom showed up reeking of booze. As the whole point of an amateur fight is, for serious practitioners, gaining experience—i.e. getting a feel for being in the cage with a well-trained combatant, honing one’s skills and preferably getting a win yielding video footage marketable to pro venues such as the UFC—Morris was offended. He refused to participate in such a spectacle, packed up his guys and went home.
“With the arena we had the opportunity to build an event series from the ground up,” says Morris. “I’d been fighting and training fighters for going on 20 years,” and running the MMA Institute for eight, “and finally had the opportunity to do things the right way. Like, if you were going to make the most respectable, fighter-friendly environment possible, what would that look like?”
The first thing Morris did was ask Stanley to handle the matchmaking.
“The thing about matching amateurs,” says Cadell, “is you have to be able to put guys together who are [size-wise] pretty equally matched and have complementary or [comparatively] interesting skill sets. That’s what makes a fight entertaining to watch.”
With Stanley’s integration into the state’s fighting community, Morris’ reputation for integrity and their mutual knowledge of MMA, this meant the two could easily convince upper-echelon developing fighters to perform at the new venue.
In the beginning the FNC was to feature solely amateur fights, with plans to expand the event schedule to include professional state championship matches, but Morris wanted to make sure fighters were treated as professionals from the get-go. His reasoning was that, although they were amateurs, the kind of guys he wanted to attract were those who—like Martinez—were on the verge of making the leap to the big leagues. (Here, it’s useful to think of the FNC as roughly the equivalent of an upper collegiate-level venue where athletes hoping to attract a pro contract go to compete, with the major difference being that MMA amateurs can get sponsorships—from, say, a local car dealer, nutrition supply store or sports equipment dealership—and trade teaching classes at gyms for memberships, training sessions and other various perks.)
“Fighters should feel respected,” says Morris. “A venue like ours gives fighters the opportunity to gain experience and practice their craft.”
In effect, the FNC was conceived of as an extension of the smaller gym communities, a place where enthusiasts could tap into the bigger regional and state community while putting their skills to the test and readying themselves to compete in larger, professional venues in Richmond, Northern Virginia and beyond.
“We worked hard to create an atmosphere more akin to an Olympic event than a prizefight,” says Colligan.
Which brings us to the venture’s other integral component: It had to be family-oriented.
“Dave’s wife runs the desk, and sometimes his daughter,” says Colligan. “We have classes for 4-year-olds on up. We have entire families that come in together to train. When he retires, Ginseng”—a first-generation immigrant from Haiti—“wants to return home and found his own gym and create an extension of this community there. Above all, our gym is based upon family values.”
Morris wanted this vibe, this sense of an inclusive group camaraderie to be extended to the Fight Night Challenge, which attracts about 1,000 spectators to each event.
“We made it kid-friendly,” says Morris. “We try our best to book the kind of fighters that, if a kid walks up to them after a fight and expresses interest, they’ll smile at them and let the youngster know what the mixed martial arts are all about.”
–Words by Eric J. Wallace, Photography by Studio 621