Throughout the 20th Century, the country and Tulsa witnessed a surge in the time-honored sport of boxing. Greats such as Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Rocky Marciano and Oscar de La Hoya brought excitement and buzz to the ring and world.
Not discrediting the former, but the 21st Century looks to be heading in a different direction with mixed martial arts fighting. A popular reality TV show, multiple fights viewable on TV along with a large push in the fighting community have created quite a stir for the sport in and out of Tulsa.
There is no denying the popularity of mixed martial arts in America and around the globe. T-Town has been keeping pace alongside the rest of the world in this regard.
Last year, the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Strikeforce held shows in Oklahoma. The UFC and Strikeforce are the two dominant promotions in the world. Both held high-level fight cards to appease Oklahoma's ravenous MMA fan base.
Ultimate Fight Night 19 took place at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City on Sept. 16, 2009. Almost three million viewers tuned to Spike TV to watch the live card. The 9,490 attendees marked the second highest draw for a Fight Night.
A week and a half later, Tulsa welcomed Strikeforce Challengers III to the SpiritBank Event Center. Showtime aired the main card, which was highlighted by Thomas Longacre battling Travis Calanoc.
Still not sure if the sport is worth your attention? Take a look at these fighters' plights.
Here are three fighters Tulsa proudly claims as homegrown talents. Like the majority of local fighters participating in the sport, each has his own personal story.
Student of the Arts
If your only experience with MMA was a fight card back in the mid '90s, chances are you saw a grizzly bear look-a-like such as Tank Abbott. His fans followed him from bar to tavern from city to city during the prime of his career.
Nowadays, hundreds of Tulsans eagerly await Trey Houston's fight career to unfold. However, you have to follow him from library to classroom to training gym. Then, repeat.
The affable 21-year-old star of the University of Tulsa's rugby team is set to graduate in December 2010 with a degree in Energy Management and Geosciences.
Houston was 16 years old when he first caught the UFC bug. "My stepdad had just bought a big screen TV, and he was excited about high def," Houston said.
Matt Hughes and Frank Trigg battled in the main event of his first fight-watching experience. They really enjoyed the victorious Hughes.
Houston credits his entire family for keeping him grounded, while providing the perfect complement of support. His mom and stepdad watched most of his fights to date. He receives equal support from his dad and stepmom who currently call North Carolina home.
"It started from there. I went several years just thinking I wanted to try this, but I was finishing up high school," said the Bixby graduate who fights in the 185-pound division.
Many fighters start training with the intent to improve cardio and physical shape. Not Houston. Fighting was the purpose.
TU stepped up with an academic and an athletic scholarship offer to pay for his schooling. Forgotten were the UFC aspirations. School and rugby demanded his time.
He eventually rekindled the mixed martial arts fire. After checking out several gyms and not enjoying the atmospheres, he found himself in Skiatook training with "Nasty" Nate Orand.
Orand jumped to Apollo's Martial Arts, and Houston followed his mentor in early 2009.
"I've always been more of an individual sport guy," he said. "I like rugby, but it's frustrating because no matter how well I play, I can't solely change the course of the game. I like being able to just do it myself."
His professional record is 2-0. Do not let the lack of fights fool you. He compiled an impressive 8-1 record in the amateur ranks. He fought twice in one weekend as an amateur just to gain invaluable cage experience.
"I started asking for a fight about a week into training," Houston laughed, "which was terrible." The persistent nagging paid off just two months into his training.
The first amateur fight illustrated just how much was left to learn. After being taken down over and over in the first round, he caught his opponent with a knee in the second round to capture his initial victory. "I won, but I shouldn't have," he said.
As a college student with dual scholarships, his personal bills are limited. This factored into his decision to hold off turning pro.
"When I turned professional, I didn't want to learn how to adapt to being in a cage," Houston said. "I wanted to be comfortable in the cage. I didn't want to look like an amateur when I was fighting professional. I wanted to show up as a professional and look like a professional. I wanted to wait until I was ready."
Amateur fighting is a complex subject. Elbows on the ground are illegal in amateur fights. Shorter rounds are used, but fighters are not paid. "The only one who benefits is the promoter," said former Ultimate Fighter Mikey Burnett. "Amateur MMA? Why not do amateur wrestling, amateur jujitsu or amateur boxing?" Burnett continued.
On the other hand, fighters such as Houston use the amateur bouts to hone their skills. Some situations cannot be replicated in a gym--no matter how hard you train.
Local promoters insist amateur fighting is good business for fighters, not just promoters. "When you do turn pro you don't want to end up losing five of your first 10 fights because you didn't learn what you should have learned as an amateur," said Xtreme Fighting League promoter, Dale "Apollo" Cook.
Matchmaker extraordinaire Dorothy Faas of Freestyle Cage Fighting agrees.
"People really underestimate a lot of the factors that go into a fight," she said. "As an athlete, they come in and do not realize they are going to get an adrenaline dump."
Houston dispels many fighter-type myths. Ask him about nutrition, he'll oblige. Inquire about a basic technique utilized inside the cage? No problem, he will answer.
"I don't like the persona that fighters have," Houston said. "If anyone asks me anything about fighting, I don't act above it no matter how basic the question is. Not every one knows about (the sport)."
Not bad for a 21-year-old TU rugby player.
Going in for the Kill
"They wake us up in the middle of the night. We jump in our vehicles and off we go. That was March 20, 2003," said Levi Avera (pronounced Avery).
Avera joined the Marines in 2000 upon graduating from Claremore High School. After Sept. 11, his enlistment changed dramatically.
His early military duties included floating off of the coast of Afghanistan and Pakistan in the wake of the USS Cole bombing in October 2000. They were charged with protecting unarmed ships such as fueling and supply ships. "It was really boring," Avera said of the 70 days aboard a ship in the Middle East.
His next assignment was to the 1st Battalion 2nd Marines Charlie Company. In January of 2003, his unit moved into Kuwait. They were told of the impending invasion. "We were like, that's bull," he said. "I've already heard this story before."
The March 20 date stood true. The United States, with minimal help from allied countries, rolled into Iraq.
"Three days and about 16 fighting holes later, we're in an enormous fire fight in Nasiriyah, which was the same town Jessica Lynch got hit in," he said. "Jessica Lynch got hit probably two hours (before we got there)."
They took fire on the edge of the city around 8am. The fighting stopped at dark.
"I lost all my gear when we came through Nasiriyah. My truck got blown up. I wasn't on it, luckily. I guess some other guys were...," he said, as his voice trailed off.
They were advised the war was over in April. They left the sand behind on May 10, 2003. After the initial surge, most of his time was spent patrolling city streets.
"Mostly the younger people were cool," he said. "The younger people would come and ask for food, money or candy. I don't know if that means that they like us or that they think that we're rich."
A five-month break followed before six additional months in Afghanistan ended his commitment.
Life lessons were learned. Human lives were lost. Special bonds such as the one formed with his squad leader Brendon C. Reiss will never be forgotten. Reiss was killed during a March 23 battle in Iraq. Avera named his first daughter Brynn Reese after his fallen comrade.
Avera was introduced to mixed martial arts during his training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. He broke a leg wrestling with his buddy "or on the ice if my mom's going to read this," he laughed. The free time led to movies. His selection revived the competitive juices from his high school wrestling days.
"You could rent movies for as long as you wanted to for a dollar," he said. "I saw these Ultimate Fighting Championship videos."
Never before had he experienced the sport. His wrestling background drew him to UFC Hall of Fame fighter Dan Severn.
Avera first learned the armbar technique watching UFC 1 through UFC 6. After training to learn the correct technique, he finished five opponents with the same submission to date.
The acclimation back to civilization proved difficult. He was now 21 years old. A prime party age for most. After the atrocities he witnessed, alcohol seemed to have the answers.
Looking to break the pattern, he started training MMA in November of 2005, the same year UFC aired its first installment of The Ultimate Fighter. His initial gym experience ended with two classes in one night and lots of puking.
The next night went much better. He sparred with a fighter in training. "I bloodied his nose; he blacked my eye," he said. "I went home and told my mom. I was excited. I hadn't had a black eye since my sister punched me when I was in seventh grade." That started the process. It felt good.
He took his first fight on March 10, 2006. He has since compiled a 13-6 record. This equates to five fights per year.
On his first trip inside the cage, Avera said: "The guy I was supposed to fight was horrible. His record was like 0-10. They were just going to let me fight him so I could get the nervousness out."
This was before Oklahoma introduced amateur fights a year ago. The opponent was changed at the last minute to Joe Bunch. Bunch entered the cage weighing 185 while Avera cut weight to 165 for his originally scheduled lightweight bout.
"I took my 300 bucks and paid some bills because I was poor. Still am poor," he laughed. "Fighting doesn't make you a whole lot of money."
He now fights out of south Tulsa's Team Nogueira gym. His day job includes teaching women's fitness in Haskell.
It started with one lady asking for his personal training services. Then another joined. By week's end, 15 names were on the list. His classes outgrew the community center. He recently opened "Avera's Athletics" to keep pace with the demand.
So why keep fighting? "I like it now. I say I hate getting punched in the face. Really, I don't mind it," he said. He was hesitant to pursue a career in fighting at first. Getting punched in the face was not appealing at the time.
"At first it was just to get in shape," he said. "Then it was because you hold the belt people expect you to fight. Then it got to the point where I want to."
He fights for his fallen friends. The war took a total of 22 of his friends. Perhaps the cage experience is cathartic. His fallen companions are never far from his mind.
"I think about them--even when I'm training," Avera said. "Everything hurts. You know what? These guys can't feel this pain. They don't get to take breaths of air."
Think you can intimidate Avera in the cage? Think again. There is a reason he enters the cage to Trace Adkins' "Arlington." His buddy Biggie Shay from the BMMS on 92.1 The Beat dubbed in the names of Avera's fallen friends to the already heart-tugging song.
"That's what I fight for," Avera said. "I don't fight for money. The money is great because it helps me pay bills. I don't fight for fame. I really don't care. I didn't give the sacrifice like a lot of them did."
He did, and he continues to do so.
Moving like a Hurricane
Imagine if you arrived at work and did an outstanding job. How awesome would it be if your employer doubled your pay? What if they rewarded you with a 250 percent bonus check for doing a knockout job? Not a bad day's work.
Such is life for current UFC middleweight contender Gerald Harris. Not bad for a local kid who took up wrestling at Nathan Hale's junior program in the third grade.
Harris wrestled his way from East Central High School to the pinnacle of the sport. He has developed quite an arsenal of skills in and out of the cage along the way.
Harris earned his bachelor's degree from Cleveland State University. He taught history in Florida for two years. "I really wasn't feeling Florida, so I wanted to move back to Oklahoma," Harris said. "I was working on my certification to teach at East Central and coach, and that's when I started fighting."
With minimal MMA skills at the time, he relied on athletic ability and a superior wrestling pedigree to carry him at first. His first fight came against Ryan Lopez in Oklahoma City during the summer of '06.
"I just wanted to be one and done. I just wanted to get some money to get by," said Harris of his initial fight. A teaching certification in Oklahoma was still his priority.
He put his opponent in a submission hold to win the fight. Before he blinked, he was entered into a FCF tournament. Exhibition matches were hard to come by for Harris. "Nobody wanted to fight a wrestler," he said.
He won the tournament and captured the FCF belt. "I was done fighting," he said. "I was just going to teach and work on my certification. They called me at the last minute and asked if I wanted to defend my title."
"No" was his answer. Then they offered him $1,500. "I was like . . . OK," he said with a laugh.
He accrued a 7-2 record. He earned a spot on season seven of The Ultimate Fighter reality show. Coaches Rampage Jackson and Forrest Griffin stole the spotlight, but another memory stands out.
His first in-house fight was against eventual champ Amir Sadollah. Harris dominated. However, midway through the second round he got caught and went down.
"I (dived) in on a single leg and the referee (Josh Rosenthal) jumped in and stopped it," he said. "I shouldn't have got knocked down."
Many of the reality series' fighters are given contracts whether they advance in the house or not. Harris was not as fortunate. The UFC cut him a month before the series aired on Spike TV.
"I was upset, but in the long run it paid off because it gave me time to develop as a fighter," he said.
He hooked up with Tulsa's favorite pugilistic pariah, Allan Green. They train together down at Ghost Dog in North Tulsa under the watchful eye of his strength and conditioning coach Machoe Johnson. Johnson, also known as "Peppe," runs his boxing training as well.
Harris mixes up his training. He'll visit MMA gyms across the city including Team Nogueira and Absolute Combat Alliance, but Ghost Dog is home. They corner his fights.
Sparring with Green has elevated Harris' standup. "There is no bad match-up for me in the UFC," he said. "On paper, you may say 'that guy is a three-time National Championship wrestler,' but this isn't wrestling, this is MMA wrestling. This isn't boxing, this is MMA boxing. There is a difference."
His confidence comes from training and his training partners. "I'm not going to step with anybody in the cage who can hit like Allan Green. I just feel unbeatable no matter what is going on in my life, I feel unbeatable."
That might be true as Gerald's brother Corey was killed in March 2009. Harris entered the cage seven days later in Red Rock, Okla.
The loss of his brother was not the only adversity he faced that day. His opponent David Knight holds the record for fastest knock-out in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma was also under siege from a mid-March snow storm at the time.
"I had nobody there," he said. "My trainer got there at the very, very last minute--maybe an hour before I walked in the cage. I was there by myself."
For a fighter, disrupting the pre-fight ritual can have a negative impact on the mindset. Couple the weather and lack of corner men with the ongoing grieving process and Harris entered the cage at a disadvantage, to say the least.
Allan and Peppe showed up. "That's all I needed," Harris said. "I turned that switch on. That's my last piece of the puzzle I needed. It was one punch KO. I caught him with a stiff jab and knocked him out cold. I didn't even find out who I was fighting until the day of the fight. That's how stressful it was."
Harris goes by "Hurricane" to honor his father, also named Gerald Harris. His father boxed under the moniker of "Hurricane" before injuries ended his career. Now Mr. Harris sits cage-side watching his namesake.
Faux-fighters often sport skin-tight shirts and radical looks. Harris blends in with his Clark Kent appearance. Oversized clothes and glasses disguise the in-cage Superman. "People never assume I'm a fighter," he laughed.
He is sponsored by local businesses such as Discount Sports Nutrition, Brookside Body Piercing & Tattoo and Buffalo Wild Wings. Their loyalty is about to start paying off. The world is about the feel the Category 5 blowing.
His next stop is main carding pay per views. "I'm in the door, that's all I needed," Harris said. "They aren't going to give me anything. I've got to earn it."
His next chance to earn it comes Wednesday, March 31. Harris takes on undefeated UFC newcomer Mario Miranda at Fight Night 21 in Charlotte, NC.
2010 and Beyond
The sport's future is bright in Tulsa. The SpiritBank Event Center, Expo Square Pavilion and several casinos hold fight cards on a monthly basis.
There are at least a dozen gyms claiming to train mixed martial arts in Tulsa County.
Tulsa rolled out the welcome mat for iconic fighters such as Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Dan Henderson, Forrest Griffin and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in the past year. What does 2010 have in store for fight fans?
On March 6, Dale Cook's XFL promotion returns to the SpiritBank Event Center. Headlining the event is former UFC middleweight contender and decorated Oklahoma State wrestler Jake Rosholt.
The evening also features Trey Houston battling Victor McCullough. Levi Avera defends his 170-pound title against Mike Jackson. A kickboxing bout featuring Randy "Boom Boom" Blake rounds out the card. (Contact Apollo's for ticket information at 627-7070.)
Freestyle Cage Fighting is in the midst of a successful 135-pound women's tournament. The winner is scheduled to be crowned on June 12 at the tournament's finale.
FCF also claims Josh Bryant as one of their own. You can catch Bryant on the UFC's latest installment of The Ultimate Fighter. The show airs Wednesday nights on Spike TV beginning March 31 culminating with the live finale on June 19.
FCF's next Tulsa card is set for April 17th at the Expo Square Pavilion. Special guest and legend in the sport Randy "The Natural" Couture will be on hand for the festivities. Visit exposquare.com for ticket information.
Is the competition friendly between Tulsa's two dominant promotional forces? On the surface? Yes. Behind the scenes? Sometimes.
After a Jan. 16 scheduling snafu (two fight cards on one night), both would be wise to communicate future fight dates to avoid watering down the attendance figures.
Tulsa's passionate fans deserve better. Why force a decision between the two? Back-to-back weekends would be advantageous for all.
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