A 13-year old knocks out a fellow child with a head kick. Two palookas windmill at each other with reckless abandon. A concussed twenty-something with a crimson mask swings wildly as a sweaty crowd roars in approval. And of course, there was “Big Sexy.” Yes folks, the world of underground MMA is alive and well in Tennessee.
I attended Valor Fighting Challenge’s latest installment in Soddy-Daisy this past Saturday night expecting…well…I don’t know what the hell I was expecting. Certainly not what I was delivered. Tickets ($35 and $85 if you wanted “table seats”) were pricey, but the card featured 18 fights, sprinkled with seasoned professional veterans, first-time amateurs, and actual children. I went because five fighters from my MMA gym (shout out to Blalock’s IMB, the best damn gym in Chattanooga) were showcasing their talents on this night, but what I got was a helluva lot more.
First, the crowd. I come from the world of indie wrestling, where 100 is a healthy crowd, 200 is a full house, and 300 means call the fire marshal. So you can imagine my surprise when the line was around the door, capping out at what I could estimate between 500-700 very warm bodies, filling an un-air conditioned building on a 90-degree day. This created something north of a sauna, to the literal point that they started handing out water to any and all patrons, on the sheer hope that we didn’t pass out. Worse, the building had these giant non-functioning air conditioning units in each corner, taunting us like oases in the desert.
Most of this crowd knew *someone* who was fighting or was at least affiliated with one of the home gyms of one of the fighters, so the fighters were not lacking for rooting sections. And seemingly everyone there knew the hometown boy, “Big Sexy” Billy Swanson, a slovenly husk of a man whose fans were adorned in “Make America Sexy Again” Trump-esque hats. Billy was of course in the main event, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
I mentioned children. Yes, the card kicked off with the young’ns having at it in kickboxing “exhibitions.” And these young’ns were YOUNG, with the second match on the card featuring one of my training partners, Eli Blalock, making debut at the ripe age of 13. Eli, my boy, knocked his foe silly with a vicious kick to the head, and I’ve never been so proud. You may question the morality of hundreds of grown-ass adults cheering on two just-teens doing battle in an Octagon, but, well, it felt right at the time? Though it was a bit sobering when the defeated foe exited the cage crying into his parents’ arms.
Onto that gooood shit. The next series of battles were between fighters with little/no fighting expertise whatsoever. And. It. Showed. My absolute favorite was one fighter employing what I can only call the “windmill” offense, swinging with absolutely everything he had, no regard to defense or technique or anything other than landing his hammering fists literally anywhere onto his opponent’s body. Did he win? You fucking betcha. Via TKO.
Later, another fighter, face completely full of blood (a solid 8 on the Muta Scale) was swinging wildly, completely unaware of his surroundings and knocked out on his feet, was still allowed to fight, when it hit me: these referees are amateurs too. Next time you complain about Herb Dean or Big John McCarthy, remember that it could be a lot worse.
As the night went on, the fighters became more skilled, and the fights became more technical. You would actually see fighters with a solid ground game, defense was employed (something sorely lacking in the openers), fights went the distance, and even the refereeing got better. A friend of mine lost via heel hook, a move you rarely see executed this side of Kurt Angle. There was an actual Pancrase-esque BJJ battle between two fighters that allowed open hand slaps, bringing me the closest I’ve ever been to genuine shoot grapplefuck in my life. My boy Ian Stephens, who fought on the Ultimate Fighter, made his comeback after five years off and tapped out his face-tatted opponent in less than two minutes.
Six hours and 15 pounds of lost sweat later however, it was time for the main event, featuring the hometown boy, “Big Sexy” Swanson. Hogan ain’t seen a pop like this, lemme tell ya. Big Sexy’s opponent was actually legitimate, a fighter from Atlanta’s American Top Team (one of the best camps in the country) whose muscled physique starkly contrasted Big Sexy’s Rubenesque features. To wit, there was a 40-pound weight difference between the two, and that weight certainly wasn’t muscle. To me, even despite the weight difference, this seemed like a mismatch – jacked up dude from Atlanta is gonna fuck up Sexy Soddy-Daisy Boy, and the exhausted sweaty crowd will riot and I will surely die.
So you can imagine my surprise when Big Sexy started holding his own! Swanson’s ground game was impressive, and he used his bulk to “fat” (for lack of a better term) all over his opponent, who couldn’t buck the much larger man off of him. Big Sexy kept getting takedowns, then mount, then side control. He wasn’t as strong in the stand-up game, but knew his weaknesses, and when he’d get in over his head, he’d shoot a double leg, and fell his opponent like a tree. Rinse, repeat. It wasn’t the Sexiest fight you’ve ever seen, but the hometown boy did what he had to do, and won a split decision, causing the crowd to celebrate like V-E day.
All in all, underground MMA, and Valor Fights in particular, is something I’d do again. I’d make sure the building had air conditioning, but there’s simply nothing like the feeling in a crowd when someone gets knocked/tapped out in an actual fight. Multiply this by 18, and I certainly got my money’s worth. And hell, I learned of the cult of Big Sexy. Make America Sexy Again indeed.
-Ben Zani (Twitter)