Fight Clubs: Military veterans take fighting skills to the next level
Stars and Stripes June 24, 2007
Scene, Sunday, June 24, 2007
Brian Foster remembers watching his first mixed martial arts fight while still in the service and wondering how much punishment he could take.
A few phone calls and sparring sessions later, he stepped into the ring for his first match.
“I was in the Marines, and I had been through Army Ranger school, but I really wanted to know if I could get in the ring and beat those guys,” he said. “It turns out I could.”
He took less than five minutes to knock out his opponent.
Now he’s boxing and choking out martial arts experts for a living in the International Fight League. And you can’t beat him.
“This isn’t the weekend warrior stuff any more that I did in the military or while I was a tattoo artist,” Foster said. “This is the real deal. It’s not flag football. This is the NFL.”
Professional poundingThe IFL, founded in 2006, wraps up its second season of fighting this fall. The league was developed as a team- based alternative to the already-established Ultimate Fighting Championship league and its related mixed martial arts contests, and has drawn modest crowds in its first two years of operations.
Mixed martial arts itself has become more mainstream over the last few years, evolving from the no-holds-barred matches of the 1990s to an officially sanctioned fighting style.
UFC matches have become a major pay-per-view draw, generating $223 million in pay-per-view sales in 2006, more than either boxing or wrestling for the year. A reality show to find their next great fighters airs on cable stateside and on American Forces Network overseas.
The IFL airs its competitions on the new MyNetworkTV, owned by the FOX network. Overseas troops will begin seeing more of the league’s fighters in coming months, as part of upcoming USO tours to military bases worldwide.
But the sport — and the IFL — is still more brutal to casual fans than traditional boxing or Olympic wrestling.
In one contest, a fighter was dropped in the first round by an opponent’s flying knee to the head. Foster lost earlier this year when his opponent put him in a guillotine choke, locking his arms around Foster’s neck from behind to stop the blood flow to his brain.
“I still wanted to fight”Foster, 32, is one of several league fighters who first learned of the sport while in the military. He spent five years as part of a reconnaissance unit based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and started watching the fights with other Marines in his free time.
“I had always done karate and other martial arts, and the last two years I was in (the Marines) I found some guys to train and spar with,” he said. “I started fighting when I got out, maybe two or three times a year.”
When the IFL came calling, it gave him an opportunity to make punching his career.
“I was getting beat up, and I figured if I was going to keep fighting I needed to take this more seriously,” he said. “And I still wanted to fight.”
Josh Odom, a current Army sergeant with the Florida National Guard, said had fought in some local karate tournaments but began thinking about MMA it as a career while stationed in Iraq in 2003.“When we got deployed, I met a guy who knew Brazilian jiu jitsu, and he started training me,” the 25-year-old
said. “I got DVDs of the UFC sent over, too. I started watching Frank Shamrock fight, and I was impressed with how well-rounded he was.
“I sent him an e-mail that said, ‘when I get back home, I want to train with you.’ He said, ‘Come on over.’”
When Odom and a friend arrived back home, they made an immediate road trip to California to visit Shamrock’s gym. After a few days of impressive leg sweeps and headlocks, the MMA legend offered Odom a spot on the team.
A place to fightBoth Odom and Foster fought for Shamrock’s San Jose Razorclaws this season. In the IFL, teams of five fighters train together before bi-monthly contests, and win or lose those events based on the team’s cumulative record.
Mark Miller, another former Marine, fought with the Chicago Red Bears and said the team format took some getting used to. The 28-year-old has been making a living at MMA for the last year, picking up bouts wherever he could.
“I’d train on my own, and I’d fight on my own,” he said. “So you get used to that, but basically I had to take what I could get. One week I’d fight for $300, win or lose. The next I might be getting $1,000 if I won, but nothing otherwise.”
The league gives each fighter $2,000 a month to cover living expenses and the coaches extra cash for training costs. And even though the league is team-based, individual fighters can pick up $1,000 bonuses for feats like the quickest win of the night, the best submission move, or the crowd’s favorite knockout.
Both the Razorclaws and Red Bears have already been knocked out of the league playoffs, posting 4-11 records for the season. Miller and Foster both accounted for half of their team’s wins, going 2-1 in their three matches.
But both also said the experience — and the extra cash they earned — made the year a success for them. In addition, both men are waiting to hear if they’ll fight as part of a best-of-the- field tournament after the league’s fall playoffs, which would pit the top fighters in each weight class against each other.
“The best thing is now I have a team and a place to do this,” Foster said. “I do nothing else but train for this 24 hours a day. And to fight like this, you have to.”
For more information, check out www.ifl.tv.
The rules of IFL
• Bouts are three rounds, four minutes each.• In the event of a draw, the bout will go to a fourth and deciding round• The fighting area is a standard rectangular boxing ring, not an octagon• All fighters must wear a mouthpiece, groin protector, six-ounce gloves and shorts. Shirts and shoes are prohibited.• Headbutts, eye pokes, and related gouging moves are prohibited• Throat strikes, elbow smashes to the head, and spine punches are prohibited• Kicks or knee strikes while a fighter is down are prohibitedFor a full list of rules, visit: www.ifl.tv/About-Us-Rules-Guide.html#3