In 1996, Senator John McCain called Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) “human cockfighting.”
In 2016, The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world’s premier MMA promotion, was sold for $4 billion.
In that two-decade span, the MMA went from being viewed as brutal, gladiatorial combat to being the only sport that can boast a woman as one of its top three stars and an openly gay world champion.
Quite the transformation to the general public, but not nearly as shocking to anyone who’s stepped foot in a local MMA gym. As Eddie Bravo once put it, this sport is, “a filter for douchebags. A sport that is great for fitness, fixing shitty people, and is the only sport where females get treated fairly.”
Just under a decade ago, I walked into an MMA gym for the first time. My partner was Justin “Fast Eddy” Edwards—a name that may sounds familiar, since he was recently on the on Fox Sports reality show Ultimate Fighter: Redemption. I was 6’1”, about 270 pounds, and had just earned a varsity letter in wrestling. So I was pleasantly surprised when I found I had about three inches and 100 pounds on my partner, and we would be drilling wrestling.
I was even more surprised when about three seconds into the drill, I was experiencing weightlessness for a split second, before all 270 pounds of me went crashing into the mat. I got up, Justin and I slapped hands, and we went at it again. And then I went flying—again. For two hours, I was thrown around like a rag doll—punched, kicked, and choked out more times than I could count.
And I walked out of the gym that day like I would walk out of the gym for the next six years: with a smile on my face, knowing I was a better person leaving than I was when I walked in.
In MMA, you learn or you die. Alright, that’s a touch dramatic, but one of the very unique parts of MMA is the intense, instant, negative reinforcement.
Forget to leave your hands up while while boxing, and you’ll get punched in the face.
Keep your chin too high while you’re grappling and you’ll get choked.
It creates an atmosphere where people become sponges for information—mostly out of self-preservation.
The fighter who made me realize this was Luke Zachrich.
When we met he was training for a UFC fight, and I was a gym body—someone who is an alright fighter, but mainly gets beat up by fighters with actual futures in the sport. It was a big day for me, because when I was in high school I was watching Luke fight for the UFC, and now I was getting warmed up to try to punch him in the face. At the same time, he was sparring against a friend of mine, and I remember yelling out, “Luke, keep pumping out the jab, and move your head more.” He nodded and did just as I suggested. After the round was over, I jumped into the ring and we touched gloves. The first thing he did was ask me questions about the advice I had given him. I was floored. Ten minutes ago I was star struck, now a UFC vet was asking a pudgy 24-year-old nobody how to improve his striking.
I can’t think of too many other gyms where an exchange like that would go down.
Luke now owns Ronin Training Center, which not only provides Columbus an alternative fitness option, but also an opportunity for locals to chase their dreams of becoming pro fighters. Luke created a gym with the same mindset he used when he was training—“no ego,” as he put it.
“I wanted to build a place with a competitive team, but also a place for everyone,” he said. “We have an 80-year-old cancer survivor, who boxes to stay in shape. He will never compete… [but] you don’t have to get punched to get in shape here.”
Like anyone operating in the MMA arena, figuratively and literally, Luke is aware of the sport’s remaining stigma. Though it’s been 20 years since getting to called to the mat by a U.S. Senator, MMA is still fighting its early image—the sense that the sport is barbaric, filled with savages with who just like beating other people up.
“The people that have been in the sport the longest are the some of the best people I know. They’re the nicest, humblest human beings,” Luke said. “You get some people who will call in to the gym drunk at three o’clock in the morning talking about how they are going to be UFC champions, without any training or combat sport experience. Then they come in and get picked apart by a 20-year-old girl, and they leave humbled. The learning curve is intense.”
Woody Hayes once said, “Nothing cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you,” which is something that all MMA fighters can attest to. It’s what makes it my favorite sport, and my favorite way to work out. It’s what makes it my favorite sport, and my favorite way to work out. And in Luke and Ronin’s hands, it will continue to be alive and well in Columbus.
“Every day you push yourself to your physical and mental breaking point, and when you come back the next day you do it again,” Luke said. “But now that breaking point is further away.”