Nov. 11 2009 12:00 AM

MMA a hit in mid Michigan

The people of Lansing pour through a narrow doorway, packing a retired garage from wall to wall. Not a seat is empty, forcing many in attendance to stand. Behind a gray tarp, soldiers, students and average young men wrap white athletic tape around their hands and knuckles. The announcer slowly walks to the center of the ring under the dim lighting of the spotlight. He pulls down a microphone hanging from the ceiling and, with a booming voice, asks the crowd, “Are you ready for a fight?” The crowd answers with a roar.

This is the world of mixed martial arts, or MMA, one the fastest growing sensations in sports. Designed to demonstrate the most effective combination of fighting styles for unarmed combat situations, MMA blends martial art forms from around the world into full contact competitive sport.

The rules of most MMA fights are simple: knock out or force your opponent into submission without committing fouls, such as head butting or striking the spine or groin. What makes it so exciting to fans and participants is the freedom to use kicks, takedowns and holds most popular combat sports, like boxing, don’t allow.

What began with the nowfamous Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, in 1993 has exploded into hundreds of grassroots leagues across the United States. These local leagues typically feature homegrown amateurs hoping to gain enough experience to go pro, or experience the unadulterated thrill of the fight.

Lansing is rising as a hub on the amateur circuit, with fights scheduled nearly every week and drawing anywhere from 100 to 1,500 spectators, depending on the venue.

“People would think that we get a bunch of crazies, but a lot of the people that fight are well-educated college students,” said amateur MMA fighter Johnny “Machine” Shasteen. “The crowd we get at fights is pretty diverse, too. Families, gym members and your average Lansing citizens; they’re just a bunch of good people who enjoy seeing a fight.”

Big House Boxing and MMA of Lansing hosted Fight Night on Oct. 17 at its gym on the corner of May and Cleveland streets. Big House is one of about 30 martial art training centers in the area, but it is unique in that it trains fighters in a variety of styles, including jiu-jitsu, muay thai and boxing. Their nighttime event featured nine fights, showcasing a variety of weight classes and styles.

Was it violent? Yes. Blood was shed by the second fight, leaving one contender with a busted nose in his MMA debut, forcing him to forfeit the match after the first round, due to breathing complications. Another fighter suffered two broken ribs within the first seconds of the first round later that night. Both fighters walked away with huge grins, embracing their opponents in congratulations, as they exited the ring.

“It goes back to Cain and Abel,” said amateur fighter Nick “Bull Shark” Bunting. “Some people just love to fight.”

Bunting stepped into the ring that night against an opponent who was visibly larger and more toned. But looks can be deceiving. From the moment the bell rang, Bunting dominated his opponent and won the fight in the first round with a submission hold. After the announcer asked him who he would like to thank, Bunting pumped his fist in the air, and, to the amusement of the crowd, shouted, “Fucking Lansing!”

Nearly every fighter repeated Bunting’s gratitude toward the city that night. There is no doubting the pride they take in their hometown, but what that makes Lansing home to so many amateur fighters?

Shasteen, 23, was born and raised in Lansing, and he has been competitively fighting since last December. An unemployed, full-time student at Lansing Community College, he has firsthand experience with the difficulties of the recession and Michigan’s rising unemployment rate. Competitive fighting offers a distraction, but he sees it as more than a pastime. “If I can give a feeling of hope to my family and friends or, hell, a complete stranger, then this is all more than worth it to me,” he said.

The story behind Big House’s share in Lansing’s MMA scene begins in a small banquet room of Immanuel Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Boulevard, where owner and founder Carl Hatley used to hang punching bags from the ceiling. He started the boxing program to train anyone who was interested and had anywhere from 25 to 40 in regular attendance before he left to establish his own gym. His first classes were free, a sign that training means more than money to Hatley.

He credits the sport’s rising interest to leagues, like the UFC, but also to a deeply rooted innate thrill. “People like fights,” Hatley said. “Remember school, right? In the school days, whenever there was a fight, everyone would gather around. Nothing’s changed. People still gather around.”

Hatley immediately rebuts any notion that his gym members are blood thirsty, adrenaline junkies; he said many members of the media inaccurately portray MMA fighters to be. “Most of them are recreational,” he said. “Maybe 10 percent of them want to be pro or amateur fighters, and only about 5 percent of those guys actually get there. The majority just come here after work or school to get a good workout.”

Hatley said the gym draws a diverse crowd, including students from LCC, Michigan State University and Cooley Law School. “I’ve even got some people from the city government and State Capitol building coming in here to train,” he said.

Stereotypes linking MMA to underground fight clubs or backyard wrestling leagues have been damaging to the sport. Its bad reputation has led nine states to ban amateur MMA fights and five states, including Michigan, to ban professional MMA
fights, forcing some to seek out fights on American Indian reservations
or other states. Michigan has been a legal battleground for legalizing
professional MMA in recent years. In 2007 the state Senate passed the
"Michigan Unarmed Combat Regulatory Act," which imposed regulations on
various forms of unarmed combat sports, including MMA. Gov. Jennifer
Granholm approved the bills, but because there were no clear outlines
in the language to sanction professional events, only amateur events
coordinated by approved gyms and promoters are legal in Michigan today.

setbacks haven’t hindered Ron DeLeon from establishing a successful
competitive fighting promotion company. DeLeon has been the only major
non-gym affiliated promoter of amateur boxing and MMA in Lansing for
more than 12 years. Starting from scratch, he has moved from
small-scale boxing matches in small venues to selling out the Lansing
Center with an average attendance of 1,200 to 1,500. DeLeon said he has
received very little criticism from local and state government.

work hand in hand with government officials with every event I put on,”
DeLeon said. “I follow the proper procedures, I hire good referees and
I hire very qualified physicians to monitor each fight. It’s like
football. On fourth down and 23, the refs know they’re calling a pass
play, so they look at the wide receivers the entire time. In fighting,
we know what to look for, and we protect the guys from anything
serious. I have yet to see a guy seriously injured or hear any serious
protests at my fights.”

The promoters and fighters interviewed for this story said a few broken ribs, like fighter Brian Contreras suffered at last month’s Fight Night event, is about as serious as it gets.

was my worst injury since I started MMA,” Contreras said. “It’s slowly
healing, but I know I’ll be back in the ring for my fight in a few
weeks. I can’t wait to fight again.”

government regulation of the sport began, one MMA-related death has
been reported. On Oct. 20, 2007, Sam Vasquez, a 35-year old
featherweight from Houston, was knocked out by a punch to the chin from
Vince Libardi in a match in Houston. Two weeks later, he was in for
surgery to remove a large brain clot. Less than a week after that,
Vasquez suffered a severe stroke and was put into a medically induced
coma from which he never woke up.

Similar horror stories have occurred. Legs
have been broken in unnatural ways, spines have been snapped and skulls
have been crushed in. But the majority of MMA fighters seem to be
unshaken. “We sign up for this, and we know what we’re getting
ourselves into. It’s not like you’re sending two dogs into a cage
against their will. We know it can be dangerous, and we do our best to
protect ourselves from that,” Contreras said.

world of MMA and competitive fighting is growing fast, but it has a
long way to go before it earns the unanimous acceptance and respect it
desires. But there is little doubt that it has found a welcoming home
in Lansing.

think there are a lot of young guys that don’t have too much going for
them because of the bad economy,” Shasteen said. “Lansing has been down
for a few years now, and so have the people. [Competitive fighting]
gives guys a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. It’s kind of like a
‘Rocky’ story, you know? Everybody wants someone to cheer for. It
uplifts everybody. It makes them feel like they’re working toward

Upcoming MMA matches

Capital City Cage Fight Championships 8
p.m. Friday, Nov. 13 Lansing Center, 333 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing
$20-$40 Tickets available at Aldaco’s Restaurant, Tasmanian Tire and
Value Tire rondeleonpromotions

Big House Superfights 7 p.m. Saturday Nov. 14 $15-$25 (517) 894-2506