Pound for pound 

Caged combat–and mixed martial arts fighter Brian McGrath–make their Missoula debuts

Brian McGrath hits hard. Every time he snaps a punch or a kick into the leather pads, it creates a resounding crack that echoes through the Third Street basement studio of the Missoula Black Belt Club. He keeps at it, driving the punches home, pivoting on the balls of his feet for power, and again there is that crack, like the report of a pistol.

The sound still echoes in the air when he lands the next blow. And the next. And the next.

“That’s it,” says Matt Powers, owner of the Dog Pound Submission Fighting Academy where McGrath trains. “Come on, I know you’re tired. Keep it up!” The problem is it doesn’t seem as if the 20-year-old McGrath can keep it up much longer. He’s been hammering away at these pads for four consecutive rounds of five minutes each, and his breathing has become labored. He is covered in sweat. His hands, barely covered by tiny four-ounce gloves, are gradually sinking below his chin as his arms grow heavier. This is the point where most people would head for the showers and call it a day.

Brian McGrath doesn’t have that luxury.

At the moment he is preparing for July 9, when he will step into a cage at the Missoula Fairgrounds with a man who is determined to beat him into submission. Although he’s trained in this sport for almost a year, this will be McGrath’s first time in the cage, his first true test. If he drops his hands then, if he lets fatigue overtake him, he could pay for it with a high kick to the temple or an arm lock that wrenches his elbow and forces him to give up.

He is punishing himself now so he can punish someone else later.

McGrath knows that mixed martial arts, often referred to as MMA or ultimate fighting, is an unpredictable, unforgiving sport, and he has to be ready for almost anything.

MMA isn’t boxing and it isn’t wrestling, but rather an amalgamation of several different fighting styles, including Thai kickboxing, judo, boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Legal moves include not only punches and kicks, but knee and elbow strikes, as well as choke holds and painful joint locks.

The strange thing about this University of Montana student and Hellgate High graduate is his gentle, almost shy demeanor. Excessively polite and articulate, outside of the gym McGrath seems more like a boy scout than a cage fighter. Though he has a long history in the fighting arts, from karate to wrestling, he claims he doesn’t enjoy hurting people at all.

“What’s drawn me into the martial arts in general is just the competition,” McGrath says. “I’ve never really been into inflicting pain on people or anything like that.”

That isn’t what most people would expect to hear from someone about to fight in a locked cage—for free. And after he talks me into holding a large foam pad against my thigh for him to practice his kicks on, it isn’t something I’m sure I believe.

Whack. Whack. Whack.

McGrath hammers his shin into the pad over and over, each hit sending a stinging vibration into my leg. After only three minutes of this, I move the pad to see a deep red welt forming on my thigh. He tells me that if I think that’s bad, I should try getting kicked in the leg without the protection.

In MMA, this is a common strategy. Kicks like these can pulverize the legs of a fighter, rendering him all but immobile in the late stages of a bout. It’s just another part of the game for McGrath and his mentor, Matt Powers.

Though 15 years separates the two, Powers and McGrath look as though they were carved from the same stone. Both keep their heads shaved close, and both have the wide-shouldered build of born athletes. As the two begin to talk, however, the difference between them becomes apparent. Powers, an Oregon transplant and the co-owner of Missoula mortgage company Challenge Financial, is anything but shy.

Powers speaks with rapid enthusiasm about any topic, from fishing to politics. When he talks about mixed martial arts, he does so with passion in his voice, making sharp gestures with his hands. He is a man who appears to be in constant motion, and he is the brains behind Missoula’s Dog Pound Fighting Academy, which he says he started last summer to give himself and his friends a place to train.

The Dog Pound is what is commonly known as a fight team—a group of men who train together and then compete in grappling tournaments and MMA events. The Dog Pound currently consists of about 15 regular members, most in their early twenties, and many of them University of Montana students like McGrath.

Powers says he plans to expand the Dog Pound’s operations, and he has recently secured practice space in the National Guard armory on Reserve Street, in addition to the space he rents from the judo practitioners of the Missoula Black Belt Club at Third and Higgins.

It is Matt Powers who organized and promoted last weekend’s Montana Caged Combat, and he is almost solely responsible for bringing the event to Missoula.

Powers says McGrath has been with the organization from its inception, and his humble attitude has mixed well with the Dog Pound’s overall environment.

“We want people who can leave their ego at the door, and that was a good fit with Brian,” Powers says.

THE TOUGHEST SPORT AROUND

The Ultimate Fighting Championship first introduced the no-holds-barred style of fighting to American audiences in 1993, though similar events had existed in Brazil for decades. The UFC opened to moderate success in the United States, but suffered setbacks when opponents accused the sport of being too dangerous and barbaric.

The UFC didn’t help its own cause by promoting events as “no-holds-barred” fighting, where anything could happen. Fights went on without rounds, judges, or weight classes. Promoting the sport as a gladiatorial bloodbath only heightened the criticism of the UFC.

One of the most powerful and outspoken critics was Sen. John McCain, who denounced MMA as “human cockfighting” and led a legislative campaign against the sport. By 1997, he had convinced all but a handful of states to ban the fights, and pressured cable television companies to remove it from their pay-per-view selection.

The sport was illegal in Montana, where there is a strict ban on “spectacle fighting,” until proponents like Powers went before the state athletic commission this year to prove its validity as a sport, and succeeded. Powers then helped create the Montana Fight Federation to oversee MMA events within the state.

Claims of barbarism still evoke a strong response from MMA fighters like Powers and McGrath.

“I think it is a much safer sport than boxing,” McGrath says. “It isn’t just hitting people. You have submissions, you have takedowns, and if you do get hit by someone wearing a four-ounce glove, you’re not going to stand there and take it for several rounds the way boxers do.”

It’s true that boxing, where fighters wear 10- or 12- ounce gloves, has produced plenty of deaths over the years, yet is still accepted by the mainstream public. MMA enthusiasts proudly proclaim their sport has never had a death in a sanctioned event, but that doesn’t mean the fighters are perfectly safe, either. Injuries like broken noses and jaws, as well as torn ligaments and fractured hands are common.

Still, Powers claims, the damage is no worse than those suffered by football players or other “extreme sports” athletes.

“I watch people who do BMX riding jump 90 feet in the air and land on their head. Then as soon as they get out of the hospital, they go and do it again,” says Powers. “To me, that’s suicide. This is a sport. To those who do it, it’s an art and a passion, and they’re competing against guys who feel the same way.”

Recently, MMA events like the UFC have experienced a resurgence in America. The introduction of judges, rounds, weight classes and a stricter set of rules has helped to counteract claims of barbarism by the sport’s detractors. Last spring, the UFC collaborated with cable network Spike TV to create a hit reality series “The Ultimate Fighter,” in which 16 fighters competed for two $100,000 UFC contracts.

Spike aired a live finale for the show and an estimated 2.6 million viewers tuned in, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The question remains as to whether that success will carry over into Missoula. It is the latest of many American cities to embrace the new sport, and MMA already has a small groundswell of support in town. Ninjastar.tv, an MMA news website (full disclosure: I’m a contributing writer) is based in Missoula. And recent UFC events have drawn standing-room crowds to The Press Box.

Powers and McGrath are both hopeful for MMA in Missoula, pointing to the success of Wednesday night fights at the Wilma, in which McGrath competed three times. But the fact is that with the sport only recently legalized in Montana, it’s nearly impossible to gauge the precise interest level before the fight.

THE FIGHTING LIFE

Saturday night’s Montana Caged Combat attracted fighters from Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, California, and even Pennsylvania to compete as amateurs. Though they received free lodging in Missoula, and were partially reimbursed for travel expenses, none were paid for their July 9 performance.

Even fighters recognized as professionals rarely make enough money from fighting to sustain themselves. Most work day jobs, and some coach at gyms or fighting academies to make ends meet. Almost all MMA fighters agree that it is not a sport in which there is a great deal of money to be made.

“I really don’t think there are too many guys who fight and genuinely think they are going to turn pro and do this for a living,” Powers says. “They do it because they love to do it.”

In the many small-scale promotions that have popped up around the nation in the past five years, such as Sportfight in Portland, or King of the Cage in California, professionals often do battle for a few hundred dollars. Even in the UFC, only the elite fighters like Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz and light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell break six figures for a bout. Most fighters who compete in the UFC earn less than $10,000 for stepping into the cage.

Earning a living from fighting is the farthest thing from Brian McGrath’s mind as he begins his final week of preparation before his match. A 4.0 student majoring in Health and Human Performance with a minor in Japanese, McGrath is scheduled to leave in August for Japan, where he will study for a year before returning to Missoula.

So why would a guy with so much going for him want to unnecessarily risk injury by fighting in a cage?

“This is important for me, mostly as a mental test,” McGrath says. “I want to know how I’ll handle it if I get in a tough situation. I want to know that I can stay calm and patient, and not freak out.”

So McGrath concentrates on his physical preparation, which includes a grueling regimen of sprints, weight lifting, and fight training.

REVENGE

McGrath’s opponent, Ryan Hart, fights for the prestigious Team Quest in Portland, Oregon. It is arguably the best fight team in the country, and its members include former Olympic wrestlers and a long list of professional fighters who compete at the sport’s highest level—the UFC in America, and the Pride Fighting Championships in Japan, where the sport is vastly more popular.

Team Quest is lead by 43-year-old Randy Couture, a former Olympic wrestler who until recently was the UFC’s light heavyweight champion. Like Couture, Team Quest fighters are known for their ability to take opponents down, push them against the cage, and then grind out victory with vicious strikes in a method commonly referred to as “ground and pound.”

“Obviously, it’s hard not to let that slip into your mind,” says McGrath of his opponent’s training. “But every fighter is different and just because a guy trains out of one school doesn’t make him limited to that one style.” If McGrath is trying not to think about the success Team Quest fighters have had in the past, it probably doesn’t help that the Dog Pound is already 0-1 against them. In May, McGrath watched his friend and teammate, Lloyd Woodard, take on Team Quest fighter Ed Nuno in Portland’s Sportfight. McGrath was in his high school pal’s corner for the fight, and says he was hopeful when Woodard used his tremendous hand speed to control the opening minutes of the bout.

“I really felt like Lloyd was dominating the fight,” McGrath says, reflecting on watching his longtime friend in the ring. “He was doing everything right.”

That is, until he caught a looping overhand right on his chin.

Woodard went down, stunned. Unlike boxing, where a downed fighter is given at least until the count of eight to recover from a knockdown, in MMA the action goes to the ground when a fighter does. Nuno pounced on Woodard with a brutal flying punch—a move that involves a standing fighter diving down onto his opponent, putting his full weight behind the blow. It is one of the signature techniques of Team Quest fighters. The punch landed squarely, knocking Woodard out cold and giving him his first loss.

In MMA, it’s just that easy to go from winning to losing. One mistake, one wrong step or moment’s hesitation, and a fighter can suddenly find himself on the mat, unconscious and defeated. McGrath and Powers both know this. And they know how difficult it is to watch a teammate lose.

“When you go to the fights and watch people who you’ve trained with, it’s tough,” says Powers, who admits to being something of a father figure to the younger members of the Dog Pound. “You really care about them and when they get beat, it’s heartbreaking. In training, you’re with them when they bleed, when they get knocked down, when they don’t want to go anymore, and then if they lose, your heart breaks because you know how disappointed they are.”

Woodard may have lost the fight, but he wasn’t beaten. In fact, he was right back in the gym the next week, training for Montana Caged Combat. As for McGrath, he admits he can’t completely block out the image of his friend lying unconscious in the ring as Team Quest members celebrated around him. When asked if he’d like to knock Ryan Hart out as a measure of revenge against Team Quest, he can’t help but grin sheepishly.

“Definitely,” he says. “It’d be great to go out there and score one for Team Dog Pound.”

FIGHT NIGHT

Brain McGrath is trying to stay calm, but it can’t be easy. As he paces the fighters’ dressing room, which is little more than a curtained area with old wrestling mats thrown down on the concrete floor of the Missoula County Fairgrounds exhibition hall, the sound of the anxious crowd outside pours in.

McGrath turns his back to the noise and snaps punches into the empty air. On his face is a light sheen of sweat that glimmers in the dim light.

In a few minutes, he will emerge from the dressing room and make his way down the aisle to the caged ring erected in the middle of the hall. There, in front of a crowd of almost 2,000 fans, including his friends and family, McGrath will face his long-awaited mental and physical test.

Earlier fights this evening have proved what all MMA fighters already know: victory is never certain, and anything can happen.

In the third bout of the night, McGrath’s Dog Pound teammate, Brett Cameron, spent three and a half minutes pounding on his “self-trained” Oregon opponent, only to be choked into submission in the last 25 seconds of the first round. Cameron, a former Marine, looked as shocked as anyone.

In the next match, Bozeman fighter Russell Detiene brought the crowd to its feet with a flurry of punches that thumped off his opponent’s skull. Detiene later won the fight with an arm lock, stretching the elbow of Wyoming’s Tyler Muniz almost to the point of snapping.

And yet throughout it all, the fighters always end by embracing each other before leaving the cage, many of them chatting amiably, despite the fact that they’ve spent the last few minutes trying to hurt each other. The violence now out of their systems, they can’t help but have a friendly respect for their opponent.

For its part, the crowd has spent the last two and a half hours making it clear exactly what they came to see.

When, midway through the second round of a 170-pound bout, referee Marcus Lewis stopped the action to allow a ringside doctor to examine a cut over the eye of a fighter, the crowd filled the arena with boos, and then began chanting, “Fight, fight, fight!”

They got their wish, as the bout was allowed to continue, but that didn’t stop them from expressing the same disapproval when a later bout was stopped by the referee after a fighter was dazed by a series of damaging punches and was no longer able to defend himself.

Mostly, however, the crowd appears enthusiastic and relatively knowledgeable about MMA, which Powers would later say he was surprised and happy to see. One look at the filled arena was enough to convince him that he might have a winning idea on his hands, and he mentions the possibility of future shows in Missoula before the night is over.

With only one fight left before his, McGrath allows himself a peek through the dressing room curtain to watch as teammate Lloyd Woodard makes his way to the cage.

Woodard’s opponent is Wyoming Warrior’s Guild fighter Randy Bingham. He appears much older than the 20-year-old Woodard, and when the fight begins, it becomes clear that he is no match for the athletic Dog Pound fighter.

As soon as the referee gives the signal to fight, Woodard charges across the cage and lands a straight right hand to his opponent’s face, then presses him against the cage and takes him down to the mat. Within 30 seconds, Woodard has positioned himself behind Bingham and is choking the older fighter with a forearm across his throat. Overwhelmed and running short on oxygen, Bingham is forced to “tap-out,” the signal for submission, thus ending the fight almost before it has really begun.

Now, with Woodard’s match over, it is time for the main event. It’s time for Brian McGrath to make his way into the cage for the first time.

In his corner, McGrath strips off his shirt and bounces from foot to foot. His face is relaxed and his trim physique shows the signs of his intensive preparation. Ryan Hart is shorter than McGrath, and does not have the same muscular definition. But with two MMA fights under his belt, Hart is the more experienced of the two fighters, and in this game experience can go a long way.

It also doesn’t hurt that Hart has Team Quest fighter and star of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality TV series, Chris Leben, in his corner. Leben is popular with the Fairgrounds crowd, but during the introductions the audience makes clear that his popularity does not extend to Hart.

Just before the fight starts, McGrath and Hart lock eyes. This is the moment for which Brian McGrath has been training. This is why he sacrificed for so many months, and regardless of what happens, soon it will all be over.

As the bout begins, both fighters charge across the mat toward each other and Hart forces a clinch, a position in which Team Quest fighters are usually dangerous. McGrath pounds his knees into his opponent’s body, while Hart works him back against the chain-link cage.

“Toe stomp!” Leben shouts from outside the cage, and Hart complies, bringing his heel down repeatedly on McGrath’s toes.

The damage appears to be inconsequential, but it is a move designed to frustrate a fighter into making a mistake. McGrath isn’t falling for it. But as the two struggle for position in the clinch, Hart manages to take McGrath down, putting his back on the mat and his head against the cage.

Here Hart is poised to begin the “ground and pound” technique, but McGrath doesn’t stay still long enough to allow his opponent an opportunity to strike.

“Get out of there, Brian,” Powers urges. “Stand up!”

After only a few seconds, McGrath manages to lean his back against the cage and rise to his feet, ducking a punch from Hart in the process.

The crowd explodes. In the bleacher section at the rear of the arena, they begin to chant McGrath’s name. The rest of the first round is a back and forth war, with both fighters avoiding submissions and then reversing the position on their opponents. At one point, McGrath appears to be caught in a dangerous choke, known as the guillotine.

“You got him,” Leben shouts to Ryan Hart. “He’s choking. Finish it here.”

McGrath’s face turns a deep red, a sure sign that Hart’s forearm is squeezing tightly on his trachea. But McGrath frees himself, and the crowd erupts as the horn sounds to signal the end of the first round.

This is only the third fight of the evening to reach into the second and final round. If both fighters can last another five minutes, the outcome will be decided by judges’ score cards. In MMA, judges operate much as they do in boxing. They award points in each round based on damage done by a fighter, dominance in the round, and aggression.

After round one of Hart-McGrath, it looks like a tough call.

Between rounds Powers encourages McGrath to be more aggressive on his feet and use his superior striking skills, while avoiding the takedown. In the other corner, Leben gives a pep talk to an obviously winded Hart.

“Don’t tell me you’re tired,” he says. “You didn’t come all the way out here to get tired, did you?”

In round two the fighters fly at one another.

Hart again pins McGrath against the cage, but can’t hold him there. As McGrath spins away, Hart goes down on one knee, his hands low. For a moment the fighters look at each other, as if they, like the crowd, are wondering what will happen next. Hart can’t seem to bring his hands up, and as he lunges forward McGrath tags him with a left-right punch combination to the cheek.

Then they are back to the ground, Hart on top raining down punches, then McGrath reversing the position. At one point McGrath ends up on his back while Hart stands above him. It is the set-up to the flying punch that Team Quest fighters love to employ—the same flying punch that knocked out Lloyd Woodard less than two months ago.

Sure enough, Hart raises his right hand and then plunges down on McGrath, aiming for his chin. But McGrath has seen this before. By the time the punch arrives, he is no longer there. Instead, he is up and driving into Hart, pushing him onto his back.

The fight ends in a fever, with both men struggling for position. The crowd cries out for another round. When the fighters are brought to the center of the ring for the winner to be announced, the judges have rendered a split decision.

Only one point stands between winner and loser.

Just then, the referee raises Ryan Hart’s hand. A moan rises up from the audience, not so much in argument as in commiseration. After a fight like that, it doesn’t seem fair that one man should have to lose. McGrath only nods his head, and then he and Hart wrap their arms around each other again, only this time in mutual congratulation.

“He’s a tough kid,” the 26-year-old Hart says afterward. “A fight like this one is always mentally and physically exhausting, but it’s great to be a part of.”

As for Powers, he couldn’t be more proud of his Dog Pound fighters, including McGrath.

“I was extremely happy with the way things went tonight,” Powers says. “Brian fought a tough opponent, and fought him well all the way to the end.”

As the house lights come on and the fans begin to shuffle out, the fighters stand among them with an odd air of self-satisfaction. You can tell who they are by the lumps on their foreheads, the swollen eyes beginning to change color. McGrath is among them, a bruise on his shoulder blade the only apparent damage.

He isn’t upset about the decision, and he doesn’t offer any excuses. He simply nods his head and agrees that while he did everything he could to win, this time it just wasn’t enough.

“I think he was the better fighter tonight,” McGrath says. “I’m sure I’ll fight again. But now I see what I need to work on.”

It’s a good thing, too. Because on Monday the guys from the Dog Pound will be back at it again, pounding on each other and enjoying every minute of it.

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