Mixed Martial Artists paint the canvas red in Reno
On Aug. 24, a recent Saturday, at the Reno Events Center downtown, two fighters entered the large cage in the center of the room. There was a crowd of about 600 onlookers or so. According to promoter Rick Collup, that was only about half the size as the crowd who shows up for Ultimate Reno Combat’s busier events, but it was a busy night around town.
The event was Ultimate Reno Combat 43. I was seated just a couple of rows back and had a clear vantage of all the action. The first couple of fights, which featured less experienced fighters, were fairly tedious, and I was able to maintain my detached reporter’s perspective. But the fights got more exciting as the event carried on, and by the time of the evening’s two title bouts, I was on my feet, rooting and cheering with the rest of the crowd.
The first title bout was for the Ultimate Reno Combat 135lb Women’s Title. Auttumn Norton relentlessly dominated Brieta Carpenter and won quickly with a first-round TKO.
And then there was Ultimate Reno Combat Lightweight Title. Reno fighter Sinjen Smith, the belt holder, was up against Rob Gamble of Oregon. The fight was a rematch. The first time the two fighters met, Smith won by submission in the first round. Gamble felt that the referee ended the fight too soon and called out Smith for a rematch.
On Aug. 24, Gamble entered the cage first, followed by Smith, who was greeted with cheers from the hometown crowd.
The fight was over in less than 15 seconds. After a few preliminary punches and kicks, where the two fighters seemed to be testing each other out, Smith moved in with a quick combination—a couple of quick hits and then a devastating kick that connected Smith’s shinbone to the side of Gamble’s head. Gamble collapsed, and Smith followed him with no hesitation, pounding his fists into his opponent a couple of times before the ref intervened.
Smith was ecstatic. He started celebrating his victory, dancing around happily, hopping on top of the cage wall and screaming in triumph.
Then, when he noticed that Gamble was still unconscious and would need to be taken out by EMTs on a stretcher, he got visibly upset. He raised his hands to his head and teared up. The crowd, which had been raucous with cheers moments before, was totally silent. The PA system, which had been blasting a boastful hip-hop tune, fell silent.
Swept up in the heat of the action during the fight, I felt a stomach-sinking sense of anxiety—the feeling that I had been complicit to something horrible, like it’s all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. It was like somebody ripped the needle across the record.
Then, the crowd finally took a breath and let out a cheer when Gamble started moving his hands and communicating with the EMTs.
After the announcer—somewhat redundantly—proclaimed that the still visibly shaken Smith was the victor, Smith did his best to express the sense of concern palpable in the audience.
“First of all, Rob, you’re an awesome guy,” he said. “This is the sport. I’m sorry that it turned out the way it did. I hope you’re going to be OK, man. I care about you. … You’re an awesome fighter, man. I hope you recover fast.”
Then, he dedicated his fight to Natalia Berumen, the young, recently deceased sister of a family friend.
It was a somber, bittersweet ending to an otherwise energetic evening.Out of the cage
Over the course of the last 20 years, Mixed Martial Arts fights—one-on-one combat between fighters with diverse skill sets, drawing on boxing, wrestling, judo, karate and more—have grown from mysterious events discussed in hushed tones of disbelief to a central part of the mainstream of American sports. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the largest professional MMA company, is essentially a major league sport. In mid-August, a UFC Fight Night on Fox Sports attracted nearly 2 million viewers. And former and current MMA fighters like Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell and Ronda Rousey have become household names—at least in houses that follow sports at all.
But, like most sports, in addition to the professional level, there are various minor and amateur leagues. Locally, there’s Ultimate Reno Combat, owned and operated by Collup, who also owns and operates the Reno Academy of Combat gym and the Blood Happens Fight Wear clothing company.
“We were pronounced the number-one amateur event in the nation by the [International Sport Combat Federation], the number-one sanctioning body in the world,” says Collup. He’s a coach and trainer, as well as a promoter and business owner, as well as a former fighter himself. He comes across as surprisingly easygoing for a fight promoter, with infectious, clear-eyed enthusiasm for his sport. A Reno native, he’s owned his gym for 20 years and began promoting fights in 2008.
Most nights, the air at the Reno Combat of Academy is thick with sweat and the squeaks and sounds of bodies hitting the mats and breathing and grunting, as various athletes train hard, working out and sparring. There’s a diversity of ages and nearly as many women as men. MMA is not just a sport for haggard, grim-faced bruisers—though there’s certainly a few of them involved.
Collup is big and strong, but quick to smile. He carries himself with clear authority but little need to show it off.
“I like MMA over boxing and wrestling and all that stuff, because it’s a mixture of all of them,” he says. “So, you have the best of all worlds. Plus, what I got out of it, is that I grew up being picked on by my brother and stuff like that, so I grew up as a really tough kid. I’ve always been physically aggressive, I guess, by nature. I played football. But I like that I can get into the cage, and it’s just me and someone else.”
Collup agrees that the sport has changed over the course of the more than 20 years that he’s been doing it. A little bit of regulation—gloves and no headbutts—and the sport has become a legitimate, mainstream part of American culture.
“I did it when it was called no-holds-barred and people thought we were crazy prison people,” he says. “People would be like, why do you guys try to kill each other? No, you just try to beat someone else up. Well, now it’s a full-blown sport. … You’ve probably heard it, but cheerleaders get hurt way more often than we do. It’s all superficial. You get a cut and you’re bleeding all over, but it’s just a little dinky cut.”
Injuries aren’t unheard of, but aren’t necessarily common either. A 2006 Journal of Sports Science & Medicine found the risk of injury comparable to the risks in boxing.
The Reno Academy of Combat offers classes for children and teens, men and women. In addition to a few different varieties of MMA, they offer classes on jujutsu, zoomba, cardio kickboxing and more.
The fighters in Ultimate Reno Combat are unpaid amateurs, but they receive a lot of perks—including $40 fighting gloves and other equipment, as well as videos of their fights. Collup says that many of the fighters are trying to build up fight resumes to eventually go professional with the UFC or another professional company. He says he likes to support up-and-coming athletes with the free perks.
“I don’t want to be broke, but I’m never going to be rich,” he says. “I guarantee you that. And I never want to be rich. I don’t like money. Everybody laughs at me when I say this, but I think money is kind of evil,” which is an unusual attitude for a promoter. But he’s passionate about his sport and the fighters at his gym.
“There just all good kids,” he says. “I love them. They’re like my kids.”
“He’s kind of like a father figure to all of us,” says Smith about Collup. “He treats us like family.”Life saver
A few days before his fight with Gamble, Smith was excited and confident.
“The hard part is your training camp,” he said. “You have a date and time that the camp is designed to get you ready for. And that’s the hard part, the training. You’re basically just going through hell, especially the week, two weeks prior to the fight. You’re really pushing yourself, trying not to get hurt, trying to improve your skill—just hours and hours of training so hard. And fight week is pretty important because most people have to cut so much weight. Personally, I cut a little over 20 pounds. … You’re basically going off the pure mentality of this is what you really want. This is what I really want, so nothing’s going to stop me. And by the time you weigh in, it’s all worth it.”
He said Smith’s strategy and visualizing the fight beforehand were important parts of the sport: “In training and preparing for the fight, you’re kind of thinking of a game plan. You’re thinking of what your next move is compared to his next move and trying to stay a step ahead at all times. I want to make this my chess match. I want to make this my fight.”
Brando Amaro is another fighter from the Reno Academy of Combat who had a fight on August 24. He was more introspective than cocksure before his fight. He seemed to think about the sport in a methodic and analytical way. He said he got into it watching the early seasons on TV as a kid.
“I just fell in love with it,” he said. “There’s a guy, Diego Sanchez, who’s Mexican-American like myself, and me and my brother would just cheer him on the whole time. I was never a confrontational person. I tried to avoid fights as a kid. I got in a few, but I never liked fighting. But there’s something I like about MMA that got me hooked. But after that, I started going down a bad path. I started hanging out with a bad crowd in high school. I started getting arrested. By the time I was 15, I had already been in jail twice, in juvenile hall. I didn’t know what to do. An officer in there told me, what was I planning to do with the rest of my life? And honestly, I didn’t know how to answer that. It really got to me.”
He decided he needed to take up a sport and went to the Reno Academy of Combat. After one day of training he was so sore he could hardly walk.
“I thought, there’s no way I could ever fight; I better look for something else,” he said. “But something kept me going even though I hated the training at first. … Every day I just kept coming in for a full year. That’s when I got hooked on it, and Rick offered me my first fight. It sounds kind of silly, but really it did kind of save my life in a way. If I never set foot in this gym, I don’t know what I’d be doing with my life. I’d probably, honestly, be in jail right now. That’s the path I was going down. And it got me focused on school, because if I didn’t have good grades then my dad wouldn’t bring me in for class. … People would think that, knowing how to fight you’d be more confrontational towards people, but it’s totally the opposite.”
He eloquently described the sensation of getting into the cage: “I’ve never done something that’s given me so many emotions all at once. It’s the strangest thing. You’re happy. You’re excited, a little anxious, a little nervous, angry a little bit, sad a little bit. You’re sad because you’re like, I could do so many other fun things. But then again, you realize why you’re doing it and why you love to fight and then you get happy again. It’s crazy. Walking into the cage is probably the hardest part. Everything hits you all at once. You get tunnel vision.”
Jordan Raulstan had her debut fight on August 24.
“A lot of my family members and friends, when I told them I was doing it, they were like, what? Why didn’t you keep playing soccer?” she said beforehand. “A lot of my family members aren’t going to go to the fight because they don’t want to see me get hit. I’m going to get hit, but in all honesty, MMA is safer than, like, bullriding, where people get killed.”
She likes that the sport is about individual achievement and that it’s possible to quickly see improvement through training.
“I can train as hard as I can for soccer or basketball, but if the team loses it wasn’t necessarily me who caused it—it was a team thing,” she said. “With MMA, however hard I train, I get that back out of it instantly. If I win or lose, that’s on me. … I like how quickly I see the results. However hard I work I see the results so fast.”
She said that when she first came to the gym, she, like many of the fighters, was intimidated.
“I am girly girl,” she said. “When I leave here, I have my makeup on and my hair done and wear fancy little clothes. So I walked in here in a tight little outfit, and I thought, oh god, they’re going to look at me and be like, get out of here. My first month and a half here I was god-awful. You want me to hit somebody? Are you crazy? And I started to try and try harder.”A sport, not a game
Raulstan’s fight against Hailey Meyer was third on the evening’s card. The crowd rallied behind the local girl: Shouts of “Let’s go, Reno!” and “C’mon, Jordan!” echoed through the events center. The fight was mostly fought up close, with the two combatants grappling against the cage wall and the ground. It was difficult for my untrained eye to tell who was in control. After three rounds, it was announced that Raulston won in a split decision. Meyer seemed upset. In a close fight with no clear-cut winner, the decision went to the hometown girl at an event organized by her own gym. However, later in the evening, it was announced that there’d been a mistake and the decision was reversed, with Meyer taking the win.
It was then Raulstan’s turn to be frustrated. A rematch seems inevitable.
“I went up to her, gave her a hug, and said good job, and said I’d rematch her if she wanted to,” Raulstan told me after the fight. “She said she would. I think it deserves a rematch. And next time, I’m going to finish the fight. I’m going to make sure it’s blatantly obvious next time, just so there’s no confusion.”
She’s enthusiastic about continuing in the sport after her first fight.
“The first round when I got in there, I was kind of panicking, like what am doing in here? Why am I doing this? But the second and third round I legitimately had fun.”
Later that night, Amaro seemed in constant control of his fight. It was fought mostly on the ground, with Amaro delivering punches from atop his opponent, and won by unanimous decision after three rounds. Despite the victory, Amaro was critical of himself afterward.
“I didn’t push the pace,” he said. “I’d counter him, I’d hit him, and then I’d back up and wait on him, instead of just cornering him. I know I could have finished him. I give him credit though. He’s a tough guy. It definitely helped me get a little more comfortable and looking back at the fight, I know what I need to work on.”
Even with the win, Amaro’s perspective is to look at it as a learning experience, and to examine what he could do better.
“It’s sport, but it’s not a game,” he said “Baseball, soccer, you can play it. But fighting? You can’t play fight. You’ve got to fight.”Knockout
Gamble recovered quickly.
“Yeah, I’m mad I lost, but I’m OK,” he told Collup later that night.
It was Smith’s first victory by knockout.
“I go into the cage and I want to beat the opponent bad, but I never want to permanently hurt somebody,” he said afterward. “I want him to be able to walk away from it and be able to fight another day. It really scared me. I thought I broke his neck or something because he didn’t move for what felt like 10 minutes.”
It was more like three minutes, but it’s easy to understand how it felt longer to Smith.
“I was brought to tears in the cage,” he said. “Rob’s a good guy. We’re all sport in the cage, but sportsmanship out of the cage. I never want to permanently hurt somebody. I thought he’d never walk again. I was like, what did I do? I was thinking all this stuff. The hammer fists—I shouldn’t have done that. But it’s not going to stop me in future fights. We both know what we’re getting ourselves into. … I wouldn’t expect him not to do the same thing to me if I was in his position. His coaches were talking to me. They saw how upset I was. They told me not to worry. ’He knew what he was getting himself into, just like you. He’s going to be fine. Calm down. Don’t feel bad.’”