Fight club

Extreme-fighting champ Richard Montoya and his buddies just can’t resist getting together to rough each other up in a cage

Cage fighter Richard Montoya’s lightweight boxing gloves are a relatively new addition to the sport. Back before cage fighting was legally sanctioned, bare-knuckled fighting ruled the day in this almost-anything-goes form of combat.

Cage fighter Richard Montoya’s lightweight boxing gloves are a relatively new addition to the sport. Back before cage fighting was legally sanctioned, bare-knuckled fighting ruled the day in this almost-anything-goes form of combat.

Photo By David Robert

As I descend the stairs, the atmosphere changes. The air is thick with sweat and the sound of quick shuffling on a padded floor.

There are two white circles on the floor and, along one side, a chain-link fence. Inside each of the two circles, two men hit, kick and throw each other. A fifth man is standing between them, looking at a stopwatch and giving time warnings. After one minute, the fighters rotate through different combinations of opponents. One guy always stands out to keep track of time.

Just as Richard Montoya explains, “We’re taking it easy tonight, … mostly open-handed slaps and light kicks,” one of the combatants violently knocks his opponent to the ground. But the fallen fighter is quickly back on his feet and breathlessly congratulating his opponent on the takedown: “Good one.”

Montoya is the light-heavyweight champion of the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) organization, and violent sparring is a regular occurrence in the basement training gym of his southeast Reno home.

Montoya is affable in a way that belies his tremendous, sculpted, tattooed body and ferocious fighting ability. He is friendly, clear-headed and very enthusiastic about his sport.

And what a sport it is. Cage fighting is fast-paced, full-contact, mixed-martial-arts combat that incorporates boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, jujitsu, muay Thai and, as Montoya says, “Whatever the fighter is comfortable with.”

“Comfortable” doesn’t seem like quite the right word. The typical fight consists of three five-minute rounds, though fights don’t usually go the distance. Because of the all-inclusive nature of the fighting, a successful combatant must have a vast repertoire of moves, including different punches, kicks, knees, elbows, toe stomps, takedowns, arm bars and chokeholds.

The latter two are submission holds, moves in which a fighter puts his opponent in an immobile situation, often with a bone on the verge of breaking. The goal of this is to force an opponent to “tap out” and forfeit the fight.

Then there’s the cage. Montoya concedes that it’s largely for commercial purposes.

“It just seems more brutal,” he says. “It has a primal appeal for the public.” The cage has practical applications as well. “If a guy has me in a hold, I’d grind his face against the cage and be able to get out.”

Although the cage-fighting style is as close to realistic street fighting as a legal, professional sport can be, there are a few regulations: no head-butting, biting, scratching, eye-gouging, fish-hooking, hair-pulling or small joint manipulation (you can’t twist off toes or fingers). Punches are allowed everywhere but the base of the skull or the groin, and fighters wear hardened cups to protect their testicles. An official will stop a fight for excessive blood loss, submission or, of course, a knockout.

In the early days, cage fighting was even rougher and rawer. There were no weight divisions, and the fighting was done bare-knuckled. (Light, open-palmed gloves are worn now.) Many early cage fights were illegal matches that took place in remote warehouses. If the fights were raided by police, fighters would pretend they were performing in the phony style of pro wrestlers.

Though Montoya has been fighting professionally for only 15 months, he’s already established himself with a 4-0-0 record and the WEC championship belt that he won last August.

Montoya’s opponent was considered a sure bet to win the World Extreme Cagefighting championship belt, but Montoya won the fight, brought the belt home to Reno, and plans to keep it.

Photo By David Robert

“I’m serious,” he says. “People say I’m good at this, and I don’t want to blow it.”

He attributes his success to his strict training regimen, which includes the biweekly basement fight clubs and boxing training with boxer Kelvin Davis. “I’ll train with anyone who’s willing,” says Montoya.

Much of Montoya’s training is done with the core group of regulars that includes Dakota Converse, Josh Triner, Riki Roberts and Junior Escartia, a dedicated and passionate bunch of guys whose idea of a relaxing time is to browse a big book of submission holds and try them out on each other.

“If you put enough pressure on in this position, it will break your opponent’s arm,” Roberts tells me cheerily as he holds Escartia’s arm in a particularly painful-looking position.

“It hurts,” says Triner, when asked about the appeal of this kind of fighting. He had to sit most of the night out after Montoya delivered a hard kick to his thigh.

Converse explains that he comes from a wrestling background, but he enjoys the mixed-martial-arts cage fighting style. “I like hitting people,” he explains. “Wrestling is mostly just throws. This is a more well rounded sport.”

“It’s the pinnacle of different fighting styles,” Converse says. “It’s everything combined, it’s one-on-one, and there’s a broader range of approaches. With other martial arts, everyone trains and fights the same. With this, you don’t know what kind of fighter you’ll be up against. It’s more interesting for a fighter. … It’s fun for us.”

The guys are all calm, casual and centered. They have their aggression under tight control and are not the hot-blooded types likely to run out and pick fights.

“I’m basically a pacifist,” says Roberts, the same guy who’d just a few minutes earlier been demonstrating easy ways to break arms. “When people find out that I’m a fighter,” he laughs, “they always ask what belt I am, and I tell them ‘pink belt.'”

Montoya is a family man. He hasn’t fought since last August because of the birth of his son, Miles. His wife, Michelle, is supportive of his fighting career and often acts as a sort of unofficial manager.

“I support him,” she says, “but I hate it. I hate to watch. And for the last three fights, I was pregnant, so I couldn’t sedate myself like I did for the first fight.”

“Michele’s got to be pretty sporting to have five or six sweaty, stinky guys coming over twice a week,” adds Converse.

Montoya’s first three fights all lasted under a minute and ended with his opponent summarily defeated. His August WEC championship victory over Abraham Baxter is his only fight that has gone for all three rounds. The fight, which took place at the Palace Indian Gaming Center in Lemoore, Calif., was set up as a sort of demonstration for his opponent, with Montoya cast as the clear underdog. Before a crowd of about 6,000, Baxter had an elaborate, Apollo Creed-style introduction with smoke and blaring music.

Montoya, in contrast, came out dressed as a humble, Clark Kent nerd. After a hard fight, Montoya won by unanimous decision.

For his next fight, Montoya will be returning to the The Palace on Jan. 22, this time to go up against Jason Lambert, a fighter with a record of 16-5-0.

“This will be a hard fight, a good fight, and I hope to keep the belt here in Reno," Montoya says.