If you ever get the chance to talk to a professional MMA fighter, it's worth asking about the fights he had before he started making real dough. The grimy ones. Almost all the MMA guys of a certain generation have wild stories about scrapping in the streets or in the gyms after hours. Joseph Benavidez, a New Mexico high school state wrestling champ, has one about the Brown Derby, a hard-man's saloon in Silver City, N.M. In 2005, Benavidez had his first "professional" fight in the Brown Derby. He recently told Ben Fowlkes at MMAFighting.com about it:
Benavidez asked around and, sure enough, someone was putting together a night of MMA fights down at the Brown Derby in Silver City. It wasn't the kind of deal where they offered you an opponent and you could accept or decline. Instead it was the kind of deal where you were either in or you were out. And if you were in, it meant you showed up an hour before fight time and got a look at your opponent for the first time across a crowded bar.
No weigh-ins. No rules meeting. No sanctioning. Not even a locker room to warm up in.
"I get there, and I'm the first fight, so I'm warming up in the bar," said Benavidez. "There's people around me drinking beers. There's this old drunk Mexican dude in my face, telling me what to do. And this is probably 20 minutes before I'm going to go out, and he's totally drunk, trying to give me advice and tell me what to do. It was bizarre."
It probably didn't help matters that, instead of normal fight trunks, Benavidez was wearing a pair of underwear he'd bought at Target. That was a trademark of his all the way until he entered the WEC, he said. Even in his fight at Dream.5 in Japan he came in sporting the Target underwear.
"I just thought they looked so good, no one would know," he said.
When the event was finally ready to get started, Benavidez and his opponent, who at least looked to be around his size, were called into the ring. There were chairs set up at ringside, but the bar patrons quickly ignored them in favor of crowding as close to the action as they could get.
"The people just ended up hanging off the ring like it was Lionheart, the [Jean-Claude] Van Damme movie. There's no security, nothing like that, so they're just all up on the ring."
Once the fight started, Benavidez wasted no time. He threw a leg kick, went for a takedown, then stood over his grounded opponent and started hammering him with elbows to the head.
"I was literally bouncing his head off the ground — boom, boom, boom — and his corner threw in the towel."
It's crazy to think that places like the Brown Derby still exist in America (although the Google maps image indicates that the bar may recently have been hit by a sidewinder missile). They hark back to another era, when hobo champions drifted from one frontier town to another, promising to lick any man put in front of them. MMA has always had this gritty undercurrent to it, with fighters squaring off for little more than bragging rights in underground "smokers." To an extent, the smokers still happen, but not so often with drunks hanging off the ropes. The rapid encroachment of professionalism in all corners of MMA has sanded off many of the warts in the sport. (When you have six-year-old rich kids learning how to ground and pound in fancy dojos, it's hard to retain any Fight Club cred. (Not to say that improved oversight hasn't been welcome.))
Point is: A fighter's introduction to MMA can take many forms, few of them uninteresting, especially for older athletes or the ones in their prime today. Most of them came up when the sport was far more rough-and-tumble than now, a mere six years after Benavidez's barroom brawl. Their stories rarely fail to entertain. Which is why MMAFighting is running a series on the subject called "My First Fight." Here's an excerpt from the Rashad Evans entry, in which Evans walks into his first MMA gym. It's the gritty urban counterpart to Benavidez's saloon:
"I was thinking it would be this martial arts gym with all this discipline and stuff. It was this dilapidated, wore-down warehouse underneath a bridge in Lansing, Michigan, next to these nasty railroad tracks that nobody even used anymore. It was a bad part of town, and I walked in there like, well, I'm about to get robbed."
He followed his new friend up a rickety staircase, the smell getting thicker and mustier as they ascended. He could hear the unmistakable sounds of men yelling, punctuated every so often by the ringing of a bell.
"Then we got in there and the room was funky as all hell. There was blood and booger smear on the wall. It was like a nine-by-twelve-foot room, just really small, and these guys were rolling around like crazy, taking turns and rotating in on each other, just beating the hell out of each other. It was like a real life 'Fight Club.'"
Perhaps somewhere right now, a kid is still smearing blood and boogers on a wall and dreaming of glory.
My First Fight: Joseph Benavidez [MMAFighting.com]