The sport of mixed martial arts is sweeping the nation, and Southwestern Virginia is no exception, as Radford University’s Dedmon Center prepares to host its first cage fight on Saturday.
The Tech Mixed Martial Arts & Fitness Academy and Combat Fighters Challenge Promotions will present the event, titled “Combat in the Cage 2.” Several local fighters will be part of the weekend’s action as they look to raise awareness of the sport in the area.
“I’ve been promoting kickboxing events for years, and martial arts for the last 22 years, but the new ticket is out there is MMA,” said Perry Gibson, lead instructor at the academy and promoter for the event. “A growing population is viewing it on TV, so for people to go out and watch it live, even at the amateur level, it’s really exciting for the locals.”
Blacksburg resident Trey Hull and Shawsville native Christian Leonard are two of the school’s high-profile athletes that will fight on Saturday, and both will attempt to bolster their undefeated records in the sport.
“I just want to go out there and work my hands, work my ground game, stay patient and stay calm,” Hull said.
While fighting may be foreign to some, Hull is no stranger to hand-to-hand combat after spending six years as an Army Ranger.
“The Rangers actually had a combatives program, since they’re real big into survival,” Hull said. “After all, there’s no reason to put all that money into somebody and then have them die, so if you lose your primary or secondary weapon system, you’ve always got your hands.”
Beyond the technical training the military provided, the Rangers also helped Hull with his mental toughness.
“One of the biggest things you see people losing in both amateur and pro MMA is heart,” he said. “But one of the biggest things you find out when you’re a ranger is whether you have it or not, and you don’t make it six years without having it.”
Leonard took a different route to discovering the sport, but he’s been training at the academy since he was 14.
“I was originally a football player, but I was too small to really play football,” Leonard said. “I figured I’d go to a sport that had weight classes, a sport that you could compete in without being large.”
He currently competes at 155 pounds, and has adjusted nicely to the sport’s size requirements, as he plans to turn professional in 2013.
“We’re definitely going to have to take it up a notch with my training,” Leonard said. “I train hard now, but I’m going to have to be in here for three-fourths of my day training hard to prepare for the next level.”
Hull will also be pursuing professional opportunities in the coming months, as he heads to New Mexico to train with Tapout, a recruiter for professional MMA.
“Clay Guida is going to be there with a lot of other really well known UFC guys, and it’s going to be awesome to see what that level really looks like,” Hull said. “You watch it on TV, but even NASCAR looks easy on TV, so I’m hoping to go up there and get some awesome advice.”
Coaches expect big things out of the two athletes, both on Saturday and in the future.
“Their work ethic is the best I’ve had at our school here,” Gibson said. “We’re 18-0 as a school, so we’re hoping to continue that with Christian and Trey.”
While the former ranger and former football player may both be unsurprising participants in the event, 36-year-old mother of three Allison Haynes might raise some eyebrows when she enters the cage.
“I came to Tech MMA about two years ago to just to get in shape and work out,” Haynes said. “It wasn’t ever my plan to do kickboxing or MMA, but after about a year and a half of training, I had kind of met my fitness goals and was just ready for another challenge.”
Despite her initial reluctance, it was Gibson that convinced her to step into the ring competitively.
“Perry had told me for about a year ‘you should think about fighting’ and I was telling him he was crazy,” Haynes said. “Finally, last December, I just woke up one day and said ‘I’m ready.’”
Haynes’ family is supportive of her efforts, to the point that she isn’t the only family member at the academy these days.
“My kids are going to be there on Saturday, so there will be a big home crowd here for me,” she said. “All three of them train here too, so they know what it’s like.”
The weekend’s fight will be Haynes’ third bout in her career, as she wades further into the increasingly popular sport.
“I definitely think with all the TV, it’s just growing so much,” she said. “Between women’s boxing and the Olympics, I think there’s more and more of a growth in the area, and more people seeing it as a sport.”
Many of the event’s organizers and participants hope that Saturday’s affair will show people that MMA is more than just controlled violence.
“There are still a lot of people out there that consider MMA violent, but it’s not,” Gibson said. “If people actually watch it and look at the technical side of what’s going on and start understanding how these guys get to where they are, then they start appreciating it.”
The public’s response will play a large part in determining the sport’s future in the region. Gibson organized the first “Combat in the Cage” at Tech’s Cassell Coliseum last April, and will use this event to gauge the feasibility of future contests.
“The goal is to have at least two MMA events a year in the area, maybe up to quarterly,” he said. “We’ll just have to see how the market accepts it, and if the spectators can help us get out there and put these things together and make it continue to grow.”
While Gibson has to focus on the future, the academy’s athletes are concentrated strictly on the
“I take things one fight at a time, and fight for myself and my coach,” Leonard said. “He’s like a father to me, so just to see him happy is great, and if you push for something more than a win like that, then a win will follow.”