MMA fights gain popularity among Austin sports fans

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Despite common belief, mixed martial arts is not all about grunge, violence

As a group of 18 young fighters entered the Austin Music Hall for the eighth King of Kombat tournament Saturday night, the atmosphere was electric.

Simply walking into the venue and feeling the anticipation in the air was an experience in itself. In a building accustomed to holding concerts and shows on stage, a giant heptagonal cage could not have been a better fit for the center of the main atrium. The cage served as the focal point for viewers of nine mixed martial arts — commonly known as MMA — fights that took place, pitting amateurs against amateurs and professionals against professionals in “The Uprising.”

Despite the common perception of MMA fighting, one that depicts the sport as a grungy, violent attempt to join the accepted ranks of world-class boxing and non-staged wrestling, there is actually a great deal of civility and sportsmanship that takes place in the ring before and after a fight. This check on the barbaric potential of a fight between two men helped create a family-type environment surrounding a brawl probably best suited for mature adults.

With a crowd — estimated at just fewer than 2,000 — that picked its favorite fighters along the way, there was never a dull moment in the four hours of action at the popular downtown entertainment destination. In what was deemed by many as “fight of the night,” Diego “Cera” Brandao of Albuquerque, N.M., edged out Derek Campos of Dallas in a split-decision, as the bout lasted all three five-minute rounds without a knockout or submission.

Austinites have been quick to back the new movement in recreational entertainment. These fighters come from all kinds of different backgrounds in terms of experience, style and physique — the practice of styles such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, taekwondo, kickboxing, wrestling and “ground ‘n’ pound” is clearly becoming very popular on a widespread basis. It is drawing in throngs of fans, young and old, from cities across the country.

“When the crowd gets into it and stays loud, the guys get real pumped up and fight harder,” avid MMA fan Ramón Fernández said with a smile. “They really feed off the energy and get fired up.”

Fired up may be an understatement. During their introductions, out of the red and blue corners by the ring announcer, each fighter had a unique way of mentally preparing for the coming fight. Some of the more entertaining and emphatic walk-ins came from Josh “The Cobra” Scales, Chris “The Wacko from Waco” Spicer, Jacob Austin, Mitchell “Give ‘Em Hell” Hale, James “Deuce” King and Chas “The Scrapper” Skelly. Whether these intimidation ploys directly correlated with success in the ring was certainly in question.

Many of the biggest trash-talking fighters were also the ones who were quieted by an early knockout or submission.

Preparation for these fights, which can last up to 25 minutes, is certainly not lacking in time, effort or commitment.

“These guys are worked until they puke. They have to carry around a bucket for the whole three or four hours that they’re in there,” said Nick Marafiugi of Xtreme Fight Championship Training Center in Cedar Park. “The trainers really work you to the bone.”

Despite the tough practices, the sweat and bloody teeth that are sacrificed every time a fighter steps into the ring, it is a sport that develops enduring camaraderie and long-lasting brotherhood.

“I’ve been to quite a few different training centers, and XFC has been incredible in the way it brings everyone together as one big family,” fighter Matt Mazurek said. “Everyone is so supportive of everything we do, and they push us as far as they can without breaking our confidence or will to persevere. There has never been a time in my career where I’ve considered quitting or that I’ve have had any regrets about what we do here in this gym.”

Some are converted boxers, former black belts or masters of different martial arts. Others realized they enjoyed the thrills and challenges presented by a highly anticipated fight. The common theme among almost all of the fighters is how they are able to continue pursuing their dream and passion through a strong support system of family, friends and coaches.

“It’s our advantage that all of our coaches and families are behind us 100 percent. We do this drill where all of the lights in the facility go off and we’re told, ‘Stand up or drown,’” Mazurek said. “It’s our job to put trust into our coaches and ourselves — to know that whatever we do is only going to help us in the long run. That’s real stuff right there.”