Before Friday night, I admittedly considered mixed martial arts fighting with the proverbial grain of salt, nothing but a fringe sport for the savages.
Before entering the pavilion, you get a sense of the energy. A whole slew of high-end cars pack the parking lots and well-dressed people of all ages filter into the venue typically used for elegant weddings.
The fight card on Friday night for the RFC 27 “Showtime” event featured nine professional bouts with six fighters having some type of local ties. The main event involved a 135-pound match between Jared Crawford and Tampa-resident Geanne “La Pulga” Herrera, who eventually secured a victory towards the end of the night.
Yes, the sport involves a gladiatorial aspect. The fight card periodically produced some astonishingly violent moments, including the highlight of the night when Vincent McGuinness sustained a broken arm after Jose Laguar slammed him to the ground in one of the 155-pound matches.
But as I watched each fight and talked to each winner after his victory, I learned how the athletes use incredible technique, agility and guile to gain an advantage over their opponent.
I also learned that each fighter has a unique athletic background just like any other sport.
Laguar, for instance, won several national championships as a wrestler in high school and has years of training in Jui-Jitsu. And to help get him ready for his third professional fight on Friday, he spent two months learning and mastering gymnastics.
“Anything to help me become a better athlete and better prepared professional,” Laguar said.
It’s a statement similar to something often uttered by the Major League Baseball players I’ve interacted with over the years writing for ESPN and MLB.com.
Ivan Delvalle, 29, moved to Tampa from Kansas two years ago because he had heard this area has some of the best coaches and training centers in the country. The Puerto Rican native originally went to Kansas to live and learn the family trade — race horse training.
“Yeah, that’s what I was going to do and I actually was on my way to becoming a full-fledged trainer, but I had seen MMA fights on t.v. and my family kept saying I should try it, so I did,” said Delvalle, who won three state titles as a wrestler in high school. “I did well and decided to move here where my mom was and to get the best training in the country.”
Delvalle, who had won all five of his amateur bouts, scored his first victory as a pro with a triangle finish on Phil Daru.
All in all, attending MMA fights is an exhilarating experience. A DJ blasts bass-laden intro music for each fighter, fighters enter with a certain bravado passing within a whisper’s breath of people lucky enough to sit in the ticketed seats, the ring announcer bellows out the fight details and ring girls from Scores sashay around the caged setting.
Each fight lasts about as long as it typically takes one to share a pithy text conversation and the similarity is ironic, considering the growth of the sport over the past decade.
“It’s kind of underground, but it kind of relates to everybody and it brings out everybody from all types of backgrounds,” said Seanzito Lemarr, 25, a Tampa resident who has been following the sport since his childhood days. “It’s a multicultural sport and it gives people a chance to see the unexpected. Just because somebody has a good record, and somebody looks tough doesn’t mean he’s going to win.”
Lemarr, for the record, predicted Herrera’s victory.
“Watch, you’ll see, he’s going to knock that guy out, watch it.”
A minute later, Lemarr was correct.
The next major MMA event in the area is the Battle of Tampa IV on Auguest 17th at the IMAX Theater in Channelside Cinemas. For more information, check out www.battleoftampa.com.