Quick, name one of boxing's current heavyweight champions. Caught you off guard? You are not alone. The Golden Ages of Jack Dempsey, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson are all over. Why the gradual shift in spectator preference from boxing to Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA?
"It's not like boxing where you only have a few weapons," said Tom Jones, who fights out of Mikey's Gym, 11652 E. 21st St.
He trains with UFC up-and-comers, light heavyweight David Heath and Clayton Marrs. His specialty is submissions or leg locks.
"It's definitely a chess match," he said, referring to the plethora of ways to end a contest.
Believe it or not, MMA is actually a safer sport than boxing. One-punch knockouts are easier on the medulla oblongata than continual blows to the cranium over 10 rounds. Thanks to UFC's new management and the NSAC (Nevada State Athletic Commission), actual rules are in place.
Long gone are the days of old-school bar-brawling that took place at UFC 4: Revenge of the Warriors. Why mention UFC 4? It was held Dec. 16, 1994. The place? Tulsa's Expo Square Pavilion. Striking the gonads and eye gouging have since been outlawed.
The creation of TUF (The Ultimate Fighter) on Spike TV opened the floodgates. Once the public started educating themselves to the nuances of MMA, the final haymaker was dealt to boxing. Don't take my word for it. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the Pay-Per-View buys.
MMA submitted boxing and has become the extreme sport of choice. The numbers from 2006 confirm what many have speculated. Eight out of the top 10 PPV events last year featured the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC.
The top purchased event was UFC 66, which garnered over 1 million PPV buys. The only boxing bout to crack the top 10 was Oscar De La Hoya vs. Ricardo Mayorga.
What does this have to do with Tulsa? I'm glad you asked.
Tulsa has been involved with extreme fighting/MMA since the beginning. Tulsans continue to crave the raw, unadulterated combat in its purest form. Nary has an extreme fighting card in Tulsa taken place in front of empty seats.
Four sanctioned boxing events took place in Tulsa during the 2006 calendar year. Eleven MMA events took place during the same time frame last year, according to the Oklahoma Professional Boxing Commission. That is almost a three-to-one margin. So far in 2007, the ratio is seven-to-three in favor of MMA.
Most fighters are, queue the cliché detector, regular guys. Marrs is a Tulsa Fire Fighter. Jones is a cost estimator. Heath was recently laid off by a telecommunications center in Tulsa. Day jobs come and go but extreme fighting is here to stay.
The original Tulsa representative to the MMA world, Mikey Burnett, fought in the late '90s, but his legacy lives on.
"A guy I worked with was one of Mikey Burnett's brothers. I found out about this place and came here and stepped in under (Jones and Marrs) and have been here ever since," said Heath.
Heath sports an undefeated record. He's thrown down in front of sold out crowds in Tulsa, Las Vegas and many stops in between, and he battled a Canadian fighter in front of the US Troops in San Diego at the UFC Fight Night 8 back in December.
Marrs cornered Heath at both UFC events.
"I wrestled 20 years plus. I wrestled all through elementary and high school and five years in college at the University of Central Oklahoma. Olympics are about the only thing you can do with wrestling," said the welterweight contender.
"I was kind of burnt on wrestling, but I still loved it. I jumped in and started learning jujitsu, boxing and kickboxing," he said.
It was with much trepidation I entered the gym to interview these guys. One wrong question and I may have been on the way to the ER. I was especially fearful of Tom "Vulger" Jones, who I watched fight a year ago at the Brady.
"You have to flip that switch," he told me of his fighting persona.
"I've probably got more fights than most people in Oklahoma. I've been fighting since 1998. I was training two or three years before that. I kind of evolved as the sport did," said the amicable Jones.
"As soon as MMA hit in the United States, I started working at it. I got in a lot of fights when I was little. I have a lot of issues - that helps," laughed Jones. His professional record is 11-5.
Jones tackles the middleweight division at 185 pounds. This is another facet of MMA that destroys Boxing; MMA consists of five weight classes.
Lightweight is under 155, welterweight is under 170, middleweight includes 171-185, light heavyweights tip the scales at 186-205 and, of course, everything over is considered heavyweight.
Boxing has 16 weight divisions. Sixteen! What is a bantamweight? No wonder America can't keep track of the champions. The weight classes and multiple titles in each division make it impossible.
"From a spectators stand point (MMA) is just blowing up," said the excitable Jones. His training partner Clay Marrs grew up in Tulsa, and wrestling is part of his blood.
"I grew up wrestling my whole life. When I learned about submission wrestling and jujitsu I fell in love. That guy (across the ring) in his mind has to give up. He's surrendering pretty much. For me that's the ultimate victory. If you can get a guy to do that in front of everybody." He stopped to revel in the idea of his arm held high after victory.
Tulsa's very own David Heath scrapped on April 20 against Brazilian powerhouse, Lyoto Machida. He lost a close decision to fall to 9-1 overall. The event was UFC 70 in Manchester, England. How did the UFC powers that be find Heath?
"Another fighter's manager inadvertently hooked me up," laughed Heath.
He submitted the now infamous Sean Salmon at a show Texas. Another ho-hum victory right?
"His manager was really pushing him with the UFC. He was undefeated at the time. He was 6-0 and I was 6-0," he explained.
Heath was brought in to improve Salmon's record. Wrong answer.
"I was planning on going to school a week from that Monday. That guy's manager calls the UFC's matchmaker and said 'hey, our guy that we were talking about took his first loss but we still want to get him in the UFC -- when do you think we can do that?' The UFC said, 'get him some more wins and, by the way, who beat him?'"
The fighter in question, Salmon, is best known for his face attacking Rashad Evans foot in a knockout for the ages. Evans, one of the top light heavyweights, took two rounds to finish the overmatched Salmon. Heath had him crying 'uncle' in under one minute.
"(Salmon) got dropped in the deep water a little too quick," Heath said. "I am kind of friends with him to a degree. We communicate."
"He's always making friends with the guys he's fighting," chimed in Jones.
"I'm just not averse to being friendly with him because it doesn't matter to me. I am going to beat him up either way. I don't care what their state of mind is," remarked Heath to Jones in a matter-of-fact kind a way.
Heath trains fulltime now. He signed a four-fight contract with the UFC. Local businesses would be wise to attach their name/logo to this budding star. A few sponsorship dollars could gain national attention for your business and help a local fighter along the way.
The UFC events sell out with regularity. The fans are rabid for action. Does the splendor of the event creep into his mindset? Do celebrities distract his focus?
"I'm a little too relaxed for my own good. I notice quite a bit at my fights. I'll talk to people ring side. I'll talk to the guy I'm fighting. I'll respond to a fan I hear say something which is a correction I am working on in my game," said Heath.
Marrs has a different take. He, along with Jones, cornered Heath at both UFC events and rarely allows the moment to overcome him.
"We walk past people and I walk right by them. I didn't see anything but Dave's back. Following Dave. We walk right by all these celebrities. We are like five feet from them and I didn't even know they were there until it's over," he said.
Watching on television later brings the full appreciation for what took place. The mega-event seems just like another day at the office until it is over.
"When we are going out we are pretty close to some of the fans. I always try to make sure to catch the kids. Ultimately we are at the purest part of the sport. We are the ones getting into the ring. The combatants. The warriors.
"It's those people buying those seats. I have no problem high-fiving. To a little kid, that may mean something. I'm nobody at this point in the sport but to that little kid--I may be Muhammad Ali to a seven year old," said Heath, humbly, considering he gets paid to annihilate the competition.
It's Martial, not Martian
The gym's membership isn't fighter exclusive. Eighty percent of the clientele just enjoy the cardio and training. They are never pressured into fighting.
From time to time a newbie strolls in wanting to test his mettle in the ring or cage.
"To most people it looks a lot easier on the outside. A little dose of reality usually separates them. Even in a non-striking just grappling type scenario, your average person will understand how really truly tired you get," said Jones.
"And how insanely fast you get that tired," chimed Heath.
"There is no better workout. There is no better cardio. There are firemen who are on the job and policemen on the job who come up here to get them something that will help them in everyday lives. Maybe some self defense. They come in here and stick it out, tough it out and stay with it," added Marrs.
"We don't put any pressure on anybody to fight," said Heath.
They train year-round, maybe taking one day off each week. The training intensity kicks up several notches five to six weeks prior to a fight. Everything from cardio to dieting undergoes an overhaul.
These warriors require optimum physical and mental capabilities for battle. Anything less could lead to disastrous results.
Six weeks out "you spar more, you spar harder," said Jones. "We're pushed harder in here than we are probably going to be pushed in a fight."
The fighter with the next bout receives the most attention and punishment. "I'm pretty much the bait and everybody else is the shark," explained Marrs as he readied for his next bout. The combatant is surrounded by his cohorts and they take turns working him over.
"Guys I can whoop on a daily basis start to whoop me. You'll never fight anybody like that. In a fight that guy has been in there the whole time you have. We want to take the beating (during training)," he continued.
"I don't know how all the other teams train. Even when we are getting beat on, to us, it's just another day. We get kicked, punched, knocked down," says Jones. His nose has been broken 168 times by my rough estimation.
Each gym specializes in certain techniques or aspects of the fight game. Mixed Martial Arts is a combination of Boxing, Jujitsu, Wrestling, Judo, Karate, Kickboxing and Kung Fu among others.
"We've got so many guys here that are so good at different things. Like Clay has such good wrestling experience. I'll work with Clay if I want to work on my wrestling game.
"Dave -- he's real good at stand-up. We've got enough guys here to work a lot of (techniques). My thing is submissions. I'm real good at leg locks. So if a guy wants to work on leg locks they come to me," explained Jones.
Heath's victories in the UFC have come via submission (rear naked choke) and decision.
"I think we are predominantly a grappling school. These guys have me so comfortable grappling it's what I revert to if I get into any trouble. But mentally I like striking. I feel probably the most comfortable on my feet," said Heath.
At Least It's Not Boxing
To say boxing is dying a slow, painful death is a bit of hyperbole. The sweet science has been around as long as the cockroach. The corrupt nature of the sport and lack of a true heavyweight champion destroy the credibility to common fans.
"I watch boxing quite a bit. I like the technical aspect. As a fan of the sport, ah, too many rules. It can be too easily boring. The public, me included, does not want to see two heavyweights throw two punches and hug. Separate, throw two punches and hug," said Jones, and most would agree.
"You start hugging (in MMA) and you're going to get kneed. I just don't think it is nearly as exciting. I have an appreciation of the sport because I understand the technical aspect. Big picture? Not near as exciting as MMA," he continued.
Allan Green recently suffered his first loss. The Tulsa native couldn't score a title fight with a 23-0 record. What will a 23-1 mark do to his career?
One loss on a boxing record looks dreadful. A single loss on a MMA record looks fantastic.
"You see guys building up their 25, 30 fights. They are really not fighting that many guys who could beat them," said Jones.
Recently, 43-year-old Randy Couture captured the heavyweight championship of the UFC. He did so against all odds. Only he and his wife thought he had a realistic chance. Two more epic upsets took place inside the octagon this April.
When is the last time an upset of this magnitude occurred in boxing? James 'Buster' Douglas vs. Mike Tyson? That's almost 20 years ago.
"I grew up watching boxing a lot since my family boxed. Tyson was coming up. You had guys that would get in there and fight with a lot more heart. They were in there to finish the fight," reminisces Heath.
No need to look back any further than the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. The USA's Roy Jones Jr. pummeled a Korean boxer from post to post. He lost a decision. I've been soured on the sport ever since.
"I hate winning a fight by decision. As an art, I am a huge fan of boxing. It's predominately what my game relies on. I watch it a lot just to try and learn," proclaimed Heath.
All fighters agree a decision either way is like kissing your sister. Combatants typically obtain monetary bonuses for victory. Boxers get paid a flat rate to show. Who is going to put more on the line?
The fact of the matter is Don King's involvement in boxing is good for one person. Nuff said. Boxers get deals on Showtime or HBO. Their deals are exclusive and prohibit them from landing many bouts against top-level opponents. The public is tiring of the act.
"I think MMA is more of a thinking man's sport, which gives you more of a thinking man's athlete. There are a lot of fighters with management but a lot less than boxing.
"I think the guys in MMA with management are more actively involved with (contracts). When it comes to boxing, you may have a guy who never talks to a promoter and never even knows what he is offered but his manager comes and says 'hey, this is what I've done for you,'" Heath said.
It's true. Why else does Oscar De Le Hoya garner such attention for self-promoting? It's not commonplace in his sport. Oscar De La Hoya versus Floyd Mayweather Jr. should set the record for PPV buys this May. Outside of this match up -- what boxing bouts are must haves?
"I think MMA is a little bit more of a show-me type sport," said Heath. In other words -- if guy A beats guy B -- then he should fight guy C. Period. "It's a lot harder to ignore (winning) in MMA because I don't think it is quite as diluted yet as boxing," he continued.
This simply isn't the same old street fighting that took place at the Expo Square Pavilion over 12 years ago. John McCain, R-Ariz., once called extreme fighting "human cockfighting" and tried to ban the fights in 1997. Much like his 2000 presidential campaign, he came up short.
MMA is being sanctioned in more and more states. They see the money to be made and the precautions that have taken place over the years. The show has hit the road.
Attention newly appointed BOK Center/Convention Center manager John Bolton. If you are looking for a way to pack the BOK Center to the rafters -- call Dana White, president of the UFC. Columbus, Ohio just set a state record with over 19,000 extreme fans at UFC 68.
Extreme fighting isn't readily accepted by older generations. It's hard to change someone's mind if they are unwilling to listen. In case you are still on the fence and not sure whether to give the combat sport of the future a try -- think about it like this.
"I'd give them the analogy of if you were a computer programmer in 1994 you wouldn't come tell a computer programmer in 2007 how to do his job or say that you are educated about it. The sport has changed so much. If you watched UFC 1-10 then you don't know what MMA is," said David Heath.
Ton Jones added, "I stopped trying to convince people a long time ago." The sport continues to evolve and local casinos and arenas continually sell out. The numbers don't lie.
The fighters get paid to fight. They get paid more to win. Perhaps this is another reason why they go all out rather than slug and hug.
You never know when a fight will end. You never know how a fight will be decided.
You never know -- and that's the beauty of MMA.
Share this article: