Mixed martial artist James Irvin eyes the big-time
In another world he left behind two years ago, Citrus Heights native James Irvin would be working construction, making $40 an hour, safely distanced from the trials of being a mixed-martial-arts fighter. But instead, on a Thursday afternoon in September, he was at Niavaroni’s Kickboxing Academy in Roseville, trading kicks with buddy Billy Miles and pursuing a dream that cannot be stemmed by the dictates of reason.
With his 6-0 record, Irvin is that rarest of commodities in the burgeoning subculture of mixed martial arts (MMA): an undefeated heavyweight.
To be a mixed martial artist, you have to live it. Irvin spends upwards of $600 a month on vitamins and four different gym memberships to keep himself in shape. It’s one thing to know kickboxing or how to joint-lock a man into submission. It’s wholly another thing to do both in a cage against a highly motivated opponent, with the adrenaline dump kicking in as the gate is locked and with all eyes on you, hoping for your deliverance or destruction.
He and Miles, a 2-0 middleweight, are longtime buddies who grew up together in Loomis. Both are 26, disarmingly polite and generously tatted. “If anybody can tell you why they do this,” Miles said, “they’re crazy.” Miles, like Irvin, doesn’t swap punches and kicks for much money. Both made $400 in their pro debuts, half of that contingent on winning, which is the standard fare in the sport. Miles is currently building a deli in Auburn, and in another iteration of fate, he would be an upper-middle-class kid with good prospects in front of him. But, like Irvin, he likes competing and can’t resist the sport that had him puking after his first match, unable to control his heartbeat despite winning.
On September 23, Irvin will face Roy “Big Country” Nelson in “Sportfight,” a Reno event promoted by Randy Couture, the Ultimate Fighting light heavyweight champion. But for Irvin and manager Mike Roberts, it’s just the next step toward an ultimate destination: the big money and storied dream of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
In the world of MMA, you keep your friends close, as a ready body to box, grapple and bleed with. Miles and Irvin have known each other since they were teenagers. They turned pro last year at the Gladiator Challenge in Colusa, a low-level feeder show defined by high hopes, hard-edged types and meager pay. Both were part of the now-defunct No Limits Underground squad, which came to an impromptu end when the team’s gym—a barn in Sheridan—closed without explanation from the owner. Since the loss of the team’s training space last month, the two have been operating on a whim, finding whatever places they can to get in the necessary hard-wiring required for a sport that brooks little room for error. They are “ronin,” freelance fighters looking for whatever place they can find to hone their skills while their opponents train full time, undistracted by day jobs and other pedestrian concerns.
Irvin continues to live with his parents and would have had a pretty easy life cut out for him were it not for the fighting.
“I was working in my dad’s construction business, building schools,” he said. “I gave up my company truck and everything to do this. I want to get to where I can make a living fighting.”
Irvin has an upside that extends beyond the bluster and self-confidence necessary for fighting. He has trained with the highest caste of the sport, from Couture to Quinton Jackson and former champion Tito Ortiz. He proudly tells of a workout with Couture where he took down the venerable champ with a double-leg shoot, something unprecedented in the four fights since Couture decided to drop 20 pounds and dominate the best light heavyweights in the world.
“I have it on videotape,” said Irvin. “Randy took me down a lot, too, but he was impressed, because nobody else was able to take him down.”
Equipped with four-ounce gloves that do little more than protect the thrower’s hands, Irvin is a fearsome striker, a destructive puncher with potent quickness. This is what differentiates him from the mulleted rubes that typically are associated with MMA—the sport’s origins a decade ago are what the general public remembers, but the skill levels have been ratcheted up light years since then.
This is also the reason that he finds it difficult to get fights with local talent—he has a reputation for hurting people.
“His hand speed is unreal,” said Miles. “It’s hard me for me to keep up with him.”
In addition to knocking out all six of his opponents in the first round, Irvin has wrestled with the best in the MMA world and has acquitted himself well, according to his manager, Roberts.
“He rolled with Ricco Rodriguez, and Ricco didn’t tap him,” Roberts said, commenting on a training session earlier this year with the former UFC heavyweight champion. “James is an extremely strong guy, and he knows how to escape submissions.”
Even in the parasitic world of boxing, a potential commodity like Irvin would be pampered, treated like a hothouse flower, out of respect for the enormous upside he represents. But in MMA, he’s just another guy looking for his next break. In addition to Miles’ support, he has Steve Renaud—a fellow fighter—as his kickboxing coach, and interest from the UFC’s top brass as the impetus to keep going.
“We are always looking for new talent, especially in the heavyweight division,” said Joe Silva, UFC matchmaker. “James looks like he has potential. It will be interesting to watch him as he steps up in competition.”
Irvin doesn’t worry about the harder competition he will have to face to get to the big show, whether it’s the UFC, where a heavyweight can make $100,000 or more an appearance, or in Japan, where fights pack 70,000 seats and purses are even bigger.
“These guys aren’t the athletes I am,” said Irvin, who played football at Azusa Pacific University before becoming a fighter.
“I get more nervous with each fight, but mentally I’m better each time,” he said. “I’m pissing constantly and nervous, and then about a half hour before the fight, I get so mad at how nervous I am.”
He takes that with him into the match, turning pre-bout angst into channeled aggression. "There are two different types of fighters: guys who’ll fight anybody anytime, and guys who build up their records fighting guys who can’t fight," he said. Irvin falls squarely into the former camp. "I gave up everything to do this, and I want to make a living at it."