It’s the first of a long line of questions that come to mind.
Why would someone train three hours a day, five days a week, for months – if not years – for something that is going to last nine minutes, tops?
Why would someone subject themselves to such a strenuous routine in return for zero pay and potential pain and humiliation in front of more than 1,000 people, many of which are close friends and family?
Why in the world would someone take up participating in mixed martial arts cage fighting – an emerging sport that seems better enjoyed from the comfort of a sofa than the brutal reality of the octagon – as a hobby?
Vandalia Community High School graduate Travis Blain attempts to explain.
‘It’s the biggest rush ever,’ said Blain of stepping into the octagon and competing in a sport made famous in recent years by the wildly popular Ultimate Fighting Championship.
That’s quite a statement considering ‘rush’ is a word that became synonymous with Blain’s name during a high school football career in which he ran for a VCHS-record 1,743 yards on the gridiron. He achieved that record rushing total thanks, in large part, to a bruising, physical style.
Now, Blain is attempting to use that same approach to make a name for himself in a self-aggrandized ‘combat sport’ that makes football seem like pillow fighting.
And he isn’t alone.
Blain is just one of several Fayette county natives and residents who will be on the fight card Saturday night at Crossroads Challenge IV, an MMA extravaganza featuring 17 three-round amateur bouts at Effingham’s Rosebud Theater.
Doors will open at 5:30 p.m., with fighting set to begin at 6:30.
Many of the participants are first-time fighters and UFC fans chasing the ‘rush’ Blain speaks of. A handful of them will be out to relive it after getting a taste of glory in previous Cross Challenge events.
All of the participants have the following three things in common.
They will not get paid.
There is there is a chance they’ll get hurt… badly.
And, both those factors considered, they’re having trouble convincing those close to them that they are sane.
‘My mom told me I’m barbaric and stupid,’ said rural St. Peter resident Mike Whitehead, who will make his MMA debut Saturday in a 185-pound bout against Norman Baker. ‘My dad wishes I’d get a different hobby.’
Brownstown resident Edgar Hunter is getting a similar vibe from one of his parents.
‘My mom won’t ever watch me train or ever watch me fight,’ said Hunter, who will make his MMA debut against Bill Clark in a 205-pound bout. ‘She thinks I’m too nice of a guy to be doing this.’
Fellow Brownstown resident Brett Madeker, who will be making his MMA debut in a 205-pound fight, has been constantly catching static from his baffled co-workers at Petco Petroleum.
‘They’ve all been saying, ‘Why do you want to do that?” said Madeker. ‘… That’s my motivation – I don’t want to catch (flack) when I go back to work Monday.’
Though that trio’s sanity is in question, their dedication is not.
Along with Josh Wattles (Ramsey), Tim Mason (Fayette County), Don Thierry (Vandalia) and Louis Dewehrt (Shumway), Whitehead, Hunter and Madeker are part of Team Mercenary, a group that’s taken its name from the local company promoting the fourth installment of the Crossroads Combat Challenge.
The team has been training under the guidence of Mercenary Promotions president Todd Angel and teammate Dale Stolte at The Zone in Vandalia for the past several weeks.
And they have not been taking it easy.
The average practice starts with a 10-minute jump-roping session, followed by a medicine ball routine that makes your hamstrings throb just hearing Stolte describe it.
‘And that’s basically just our warmup,’ Stolte said.
The team then works on standup fighting for an hour – a mix of standard boxing, kickboxing and martial arts – before working on Stolte’s specialty for an hour.
Stolte, a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, was recruited by Angel to train his fighters in the all-important art of ground fighting, which combines elements of wrestling and martial arts.
The training session concludes with what Stolte refers to as ‘five minutes of hell.’
‘We put one guy in the middle for the entire five minutes,’ Stolte explained.
‘If we’re doing standup, it’s one minute with pads, and then you spar for a minute, and so on. If it’s on the ground, we put you in a back position, and it’s a fresh guy (on you) every minute for five minutes.
‘That’s the most grueling workout you can possibly do,’ Stolte said. ‘That’s the way to train for MMA, in my opinion.’
Thanks in large part to Stolte’s leadership, Whitehead feels he and his teammates’ preparation will help them overcome their collective inexperience.
‘With our team, you’re going to see a bunch of guys who have trained – and trained hard,’ Whitehead said. ‘I guarantee you’re not going to see any of our fighters get tired in the first round. We go non-stop at our practices.’
Blain agrees that stamina is the key to success.
‘Ninety-five percent of it is cardio,’ said Blain of his pre-fight preparation.
But, despite their extensive preparation, all parties admit to being nervous as fight-day approaches.
‘I’m real confident, but at the same time, I’m scared and nervous,’ Whitehead said. ‘For the last three weeks, every day, that’s all I think about. It runs through my head the whole time, non-stop.’
Hunter has been involved in martial arts training since he was 15, and has been preparing to fight for a year. Still, he says the magnitude of what’s about to happen hasn’t quite registered yet.
‘I don’t really think I’ve accepted the fact that we’re going to be hitting each other as hard as we can,’ Hunter said.
As the big day approaches, Hunter has developed a peculiar pre-fight psyche-out technique – reverse trash talking.
‘I’m going in expecting to be knocked out,’ Hunter said. ‘If he connects, I’m done. I understand that.’
However, Hunter concedes that if he isn’t immediately beaten into unconsciousness, his karate, Jiu-Jitsu and Moi Tai could give him an advantage as the fight progresses.
‘I feel as confident standing as I do on the ground,’ Hunter said. ‘And I know as soon as I get hit and get mad, it’s going to be 100 percent me trying to knock him out.’
Hunter’s primary motivation is to avoid humiliation.
‘I can accept that he’ll get knocked out or I’ll get knocked out,’ Hunter said. ‘I just don’t want to get knocked out in front of 30 of my buddies.’
Madeker shares Hunter’s latter concern, but hopes to overcome it by channeling his inner ‘Hulkamaniac’ by walking into the octagon with the sounds of Rick Derringer’s ‘I Am A Real American,’ Hulk Hogan’s theme song during his WWF heyday in the 1980s.
Madeker and Whitehead, both Army veterans, believe their military background should be an asset.
Whitehead feels his aggressiveness should serve him well, too.
‘I’m not scared to get punched,’ Whitehead said. ‘And, honestly, I don’t think there’s anybody that can knock me out. I’ve got a solid skull, and I’m not scared to stick my head out there and take one so I can give one.’
Stolte, an experienced and talented amateur, has been as big of an asset coaching the mental side of the sport as the physical. He says the key for inexperienced fighters is overcoming the inevitable ‘adrenaline dump’ they’ll experience just prior to their respective fights.
‘When you walk into the ring the first time and you see a thousand people staring at you about to fight, you feel like a 200-pound man’s on your shoulders,’ Stolte said. ‘Your legs are gone – and you haven’t even thrown a punch yet. But, two seconds after that bell rings and you get punched in the face, it all goes away.’
Such was the case in Stolte’s first-ever MMA fight, as he registered a first-round knockout despite minimal training.
He has since trained at Gracie Barra in Springfield, a gym made famous by UFC welterweight champ and fellow Hillsboro native Matt Hughes.
Stolte’s 145-pound championship bout with Mike Long will be the main event Saturday.
All parties agree that Stolte is the fighter to watch.
‘He’s a mean little feller,’ said Whitehead before breaking into a Scottish accent, ‘He’s wiry.’
Stolte admits that he was born with ‘a natural ability to fight,’ something that is neccesary for success – and something that many who attempt to fight MMA are simply lacking.
Fortunately, Team Mercenary doesn’t fall into the latter category.
‘A lot of guys, you can see in their eyes, they’re not fighters,’ Stolte said. ‘These guys want to brawl. This is what they want to do.’
Note: Mulberry Grove native Dustin Lindahl and St. Elmo native D.J. Mahon are also on Saturday’s fight card.