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Welcome to the gym: Michael La Duke and Alan Condon at Empire Martial Arts in Colonie.

The Hard Knock Life

Is the growing popularity of mixed martial arts the rebirth of an ancient sport, or just a violent fad?

By David King

Photos by Joe Putrock

Michael La Duke is punching Vincent Beurrier in the face. Having just slammed him to the ground by taking both his feet out from under him, La Duke now sits atop Beurrier’s chest, pinning him to the mat as he rains down fists atop Beurrier’s skull with full force. “Ground and pound, submit him!” someone shouts. Beurrier wrenches his body away from La Duke in desperation. La Duke rides Beurrier as if Beurrier were a wild animal. Beurrier squirms, leaving his neck and back exposed. La Duke moves his arm as he has practiced many times at the gym, placing it under the chin and around Beurrier’s neck, and then he cinches it in, cutting off air to Beurrier’s brain. Beurrier’s hand flutters indicating that he has given up. The sinewy, bald-headed, goateed, 145-pound La Duke springs to his feet, raises his hands and lets out a triumphant “Wheeeew!” It is Dec. 12, 2005, and the 22-year-old Rotterdam resident, La Duke, has just won his first professional mixed martial arts fight.

La Duke’s body is a weapon, but not in that Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal sort of way. No, La Duke actually knows how to dismantle his opponents. On the mat of Empire Martial Arts in Colonie, La Duke trains to attack like an anaconda, using his knowledge of jujitsu to wrap his limbs around his opponents’ arms, their legs, their necks, restricting blood flow, manipulating joints, choking, stretching muscles, until finally his opponent can take no more. He practices Muay Thai so that on his feet he can fight like a rattlesnake—poised, agitated, his arms, feet and knees as his fangs, knocking his opponents into unconsciousness.

Today, a wintry Tuesday night in January at Alan Condon’s Empire Martial Arts, La Duke, who works full-time as a trainer at the gym, is thinking about his next fight. A registered professional fighter with a card from the New Jersey Athletic Commission to prove it, La Duke fights for Sportfighting, a New Jersey-based MMA organization.

For La Duke, being in a fight is becoming like just another day at the office. “When you get hit once, you totally change. These gloves aren’t boxing gloves; they are four ounces. There is not much protection. Once you get hit you are like, ‘Oh, wow!’ But I’m used to it now. I can take some punishment,” he says as he watches his mentor, Condon, lead a group of students through Muay Thai drills. The group, adorned in gis, raise their knees up in a striking motion, moving forward from one side of the stark blue mat to the other. Each raised knee, if delivered correctly, could leave an opponent broken, their nose on the wrong side of their face, their teeth on the wrong side of their mouth.

“If they paid me the right money, I would fight right now,” La Duke says. “I don’t care. I just love to fight,”

La Duke is generally calm and soft-spoken, but with a manic current running underneath; and when talking about the sport he loves, that current rapidly takes over.

He says he was drawn to competition by his experience as a high-school wrestler. Watching the Ultimate Fighting Championship and other fighting programs on TV made him want to pursue professional MMA fighting. As La Duke describes his motivation, Condon demonstrates a new move to his jujitsu class. A student stands poised above him, as though he had just thrown Condon to the ground. Condon raises his leg. “Now here is something not a lot of people do in this situation. But it can take the air right out of your opponent.” The student flinches. “Oh, he knows this one,” Condon says, laughing. Then, lying on his back, Condon delivers a simulated kick to the midsection of the attacker who is coming down on top of him.

Condon has been teaching martial arts for 30 years, but he says that seeing the Ultimate Fighting Championship on TV got him interested in learning jujitsu. “My base was a Kem-Po base, but we always sparred full-contact, and I think that opened my eyes to the fact that we didn’t have a grappling base. What happens when you go to the ground? I saw the UFC for the first time and bam! That’s when I became hooked on Brazilian jujitsu.”

While MMA today is a combination of martial arts all thrown together and practiced and mastered by one fighter, in truth, the practice of MMA began thanks to a family obsessed by the superiority of their single martial art—Brazilian jujitsu (commonly referred to as BJJ). A Brazilian family called Gracie engineered the creation of the first UFC event as a way to show off the superiority of BJJ to other martial arts in real-life fighting situations. In the first few UFC events, a mix of burly martial artists competed in a tournament to determine the “ultimate fighter.” The first ultimate fighter turned out not to be a burly tough guy, but instead Royce Gracie, one of the scrawniest members of the family. Gracie awed the spectators by beating fighters by pulling them down on top of him into his “guard” position, so that their legs stayed below his hips. While his opponents went for punches, Gracie would grab a loose limb and apply a lock, making the larger fighters submit to him.

The story of how the Gracies helped shape MMA into what it is today goes back generations, to Mitsuyo Maeda, a Japanese judo master whose task was to spread judo around the world. Maeda, who had competed in many no-holds-barred matches to the displeasure of the judo community, arrived in Brazil in 1910 and began teaching his craft to the Gracie family. Over generations, the Gracies developed the technique into a real-life fighting style, stripping the judo of its showier form and focusing on ground fighting—chokes, holds, submissions. During this time, the Gracies competed heavily in value tudo (no-holds-barred) tournaments throughout Brazil. Eventually, the Gracies established schools in America and began touting their Gracie jujitsu by competing in—and generally winning—a lot of the early MMA events.

On the Mat: Carlos Machado practices jujitsu with Michael La Duke.

Still confused about what MMA actually is? Well, you have probably encountered a piece of it somewhere. The muscular men in long shorts who fight in cages on Spike TV and Fox Sports Net. Those pay-per-view advertisements that run on the sides of buses and in newspapers, ads with two chiseled, angry men staring deep into oblivion. You’ve likely heard of boxing, jujitsu, wrestling, and assorted martial-arts styles that are all utilized as part of the sport; heck, you might even remember the crusade Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led against the UFC in the late ’90s and how he described it as “human cockfighting.”

At its base, MMA is two men in a cage or a ring. They are dressed in shorts, their hands wrapped in small, lightly padded gloves. A referee announces the beginning of a fight, and then, for generally three rounds that last about five minutes apiece, the fighters try to either submit, knock out, or simply outmaneuver their opponents. Judges score each round. Yes, there’s sometimes blood, sometimes broken bones. But things have changed since the inception of the sport. Gone is the idea UFC introduced in the early ’90s of a no-holds-barred battle where practitioners of one martial art fight in a tournament to determine which discipline is superior. Today’s MMA events are free of head butting, biting, strikes to the back of the head, and groin strikes, and are regulated by athletic commissions.

UFC pay-per-views have sold millions of buys at $40 a pop; mainstream actors and athletes flock to MMA events, and arenas have sold out and done record gates. MMA draws a lucrative advertising audience: males 19-35. But Condon points out, “I am amazed at the sheer number of women and older people who follow the sport.” Condon says the mothers and wives of some of his students have fighter statistics and match wins memorized and can recite them at the drop of a hat.

You may even have heard some of the language of MMA being bandied about by coworkers or relatives in everyday conversation, something like, “I’m gonna ground and pound that guy until he taps.”

“Ground and pound” is a term for a style used by some MMA fighters, in which they use wrestling takedowns to put an opponent on their back and then rain down punches. A “tap out” is what happens when a fighter gives up—they tap their hand on the canvas or on their opponent three times to signal they don’t want to continue. There are a whole slew of other terms, too, such as “stand-up fighter” (someone who likes to throw punches) and “lay-and-pray artist” (a fighter who likes to take his opponent down, control him and not work for a win by submission or knockout).

As strange as it may sound, these terms are becoming ingrained in the vocabulary of a good portion of teens and 20-something males across the country, who are internalizing not only the terminology of the sport but also the amped-up attitude and skill set.

La Duke is not a participant in the glitzy world of the UFC, although he certainly would like to be there one day. His matches are not televised, although they are available on DVD. Unlike the fighters on TV, La Duke is not paid particularly well; he receives around $500 to $800 per fight, and the company he fights for does not provide health care. So whatever injuries he might suffer during a fight—broken nose, dislocated disk, or something worse—he will have to take care of on his own. In comparison, UFC fighters generally receive at least a few thousand dollars per fight, and their larger stars now receive hundreds of thousands. A select few event headliners make millions.

Unfortunately for La Duke, MMA is not legal in a number of states, including New York. As a result, his first three professional fights have taken place in New Jersey, in the Sportfighting organization. “I’ll fight whenever,” he says. “It doesn’t matter to me not knowing when the fight is. I mean, that is fine. I don’t have to rush something. I am only 22 years old. It’s not like I’m gonna make it to the UFC only in the next year.”

The fighting life is not an easy one. “The individual really has to want to do it,” he says. “They have to be willing to put the hours of training in. Spend hours traveling, stay overnight at the place, pay for medicals, pay for the hotel. And then you are going in there, and you are going in there to fight for 400, 500 bucks maybe—sometimes not even—not knowing if you’re going to get hurt or not.”

And yet, Condon has had to move his gym from a small storefront in Albany to a larger gym in Colonie to accommodate all the increased interest in MMA. “There is the simple fact a lot of these guys maybe don’t have ambition to be a full-time fighter,” says Condon, “but they want to make sure the martial art they study is street-effective.”

It is April 22, 2006, and Michael La Duke is driving his knee hard into the core of opponent Bill Pounds’ skull. Pounds quivers. A shock wave washes down his spine from the top of his neck to the tip of his toes. He stumbles backward, and La Duke advances, his fists leading the way. The fans rise from the bleachers, squealing. If this were taking place in an alleyway on a street corner, the sound of sirens would be ringing in the distance and there would be screams of horror instead of joy.

Pounds collapses to the mat as La Duke’s fists bounce off his opponent’s skull until the referee comes between the two, granting mercy to Pounds, who has been drained of consciousness by La Duke’s flurry of blows. La Duke has just won his second professional fight and is now Sportfighting’s 145-pound champion.

“In my first fight I went into wrestling mode: I came in, threw a couple punches, just took him down immediately,” says La Duke. In his second fight, La Duke found himself facing a more skilled opponent and one who likely outweighed him. But La Duke avoided his wrestling instincts and utilized his striking abilities. “I kept that fight on the feet, and I knocked him out. I kneed him in the head and then finished him off with punches on the ground.”

While the sport has evolved to make a balanced knowledge of all disciplines necessary for success, for some, the popularity of MMA represents an opportunity to pass down their knowledge and mastery of their chosen martial art.

For Gracie family member Carlos Machado, a world-renowned jujitsu instructor and the mentor of Alan Condon, the explosion of MMA has been a way to expose the discipline his family has developed for generations to a larger audience. Machado, whose main gym is in Dallas, has a number of affiliate schools across the nation, including Condon’s Empire Marshall Arts. While Machado says he has seen more interest thanks to the popularity of MMA, there is not a high percentage of his students who are actually planning to become professional fighters.

“I can tell from my own experience in an academy with 200 students, probably only five do MMA, because it is a Spartan lifestyle,” Machado says. “You have to stop everything you are doing because when you go into those competitions, despite the rules and safety measures they take, there still is a risk. So they have to really make sure they are top-notch, because it’s a tough career.”

But it is not only practitioners of the martial arts who have a vested interest in the success of MMA. Gareb Shamus, a graduate from University at Albany and publisher of comic- book/collectibles magazine Wizard, got turned on to MMA by a friend and quickly decided he wanted to create his own MMA promotion, not only because MMA draws the very lucrative 18-to-34-year-old demographic, but also out of respect for the fighters who, he says, are not given the best treatment in other organizations.

“I think a lot of people have become disenchanted with boxing,” says Shamus. “A lot of stuff that’s happened in that sport has driven them away. You typically find guys in our sport having incredible mutual respect for each other, thanks to their years of discipline and growing up in martial arts.” The success of MMA has come as boxing has slipped further from mainstream interest. And both Shamus and Condon point out that MMA has a much safer track record than boxing, a sport in which there have been a number of deaths. There have been no reported deaths in American MMA.

Shamus’ organization, the International Fight League, is based on a team format unique in the MMA world. In Shamus’ version, veteran mixed-martial artists coach teams of younger fighters in seasonlong competitions. The IFL is also unique in that it offers health care and takes a more active interest in its fighters’ longevity. “There really was no set-up support system,” says Shamus. “Their guys were really fighting from paycheck to paycheck. We wanted to create stability for these guys. We wanted to allow them to be full-time fighters and train like true professional athletes in the sport, and not have another occupation. So for us a lot of it was treating these guys with respect. In other organizations, they lost a fight—that was it, they were done, it was over because of a simple mistake they made. What we wanted to do was create an opportunity for them to have a long-term fighting career with a support system that keeps them healthy.”

The IFL has gone to lengths to give their version of MMA the glow of a full-fledged professional sport. They have banned elbow strikes that generally cut fighters and leave blood-stained rings and created the team format to ensure that each fight had ramifications for a home team.

Maurice Smith knows what it’s like to suffer the slings and arrows of the struggling professional fighter. He has been fighting for nearly 30 years. He began in the ’80s as a kickboxer and held a number of championships. In the early ’90s, Smith began fighting in Pancrase, a Japanese MMA organization, and eventually he began a stint with the UFC, during which he became heavyweight champion. Now an extremely respected veteran of the sport, Smith has watched from the sidelines as fighters’ salaries have skyrocketed and the sport has wedged its way closer to the mainstream. While Smith enjoys being a coach for the IFL, he says things should not get any easier for up-and-coming fighters like La Duke. “It shouldn’t change. Any athlete has to pay his dues. No one is given anything. That kind of suffering, that is the norm for any athlete.”

And the point Smith really wants to make clear is that the people you see on the UFC, Pride FC, IFL, or any other fight organization, are not just fighters. “Football players are athletes, baseball players are athletes, and so are these guys who fight. They are professional athletes.”

And Shamus agrees. “For us, it’s a lot less about blood and gore and more about competition and sportsmanship. When you look like these guys. . . . They train as hard, if not harder, than the pro athletes out there.”

The next few years will determine whether MMA is simply a fad. What will define the sport’s success outside of TV ratings and arena gates will be whether MMA can overcome the lingering stigma of its blood-sport label and eventually become sanctioned in all 50 states. “There is no question about it that even in states not sanctioned, underground fighting is going on,” says Shamus. “States we may not go to fight in want sanctioning. They don’t want accidents to happen, and when it is regulated, it’s pretty safe. We definitely want sanctioning in all 50 states. The UFC is pretty proactive, too, so I think eventually it will open up almost everywhere. States with big arenas are really just missing out on revenue because the fights are just going to take place elsewhere.”

Regardless of how many states sanction MMA, the truth is the sport is adapting more quickly than any legislative body can. The fighters are becoming more balanced and the rules and safety measures are constantly being tweaked.

For Machado, the answer for bringing MMA (and with it his beloved jujitsu) into the mainstream is to make the disciplines of martial arts part of the average Joe’s understanding. “MMA is still trying to break in with the regular moms, the kids, the average Joe. A lot of times they have these conceptions that it is just for tough guys and they are gonna get hurt. But martial arts are a tool for self improvement, personal growth, self-defense. They allow you to become healthier, in better shape, and to become more flexible. It relieves stress. You have to be relaxed to focus on what you’re doing. If you don’t think about what you are doing the next day, you will get caught in a submission. You have to be fully aware 100 percent of the time, and that allows you to get your mind off everything else. While you are at the gym, there are no problems, and when you finish and walk out of there, you will be refreshed.”

La Duke’s last fight didn’t end in spectacular fashion, with one finishing move delivered to his opponent. Instead, it ended in a decision. This time, facing a more evenly matched opponent, La Duke experienced his first real challenge. “My first two fights both ended in the first round. The third fight was 15 minutes of me and him in an all-out war,” says La Duke.

For the first time in his short career, his opponent’s hand was raised in victory instead of his own. But according to La Duke, his first loss may have been more valuable to him than his first two wins. “This fight really taught me what a real fight took. It was a real competition back and forth, and it changed me a lot. I’m going to be a lot better prepared mentally for a longer fight. I wasn’t cocky, but I might have been a little too focused on ‘I’m gonna knock him out. I’m gonna knock him out.’ Everyone was telling me ‘You’re knocking him out!’ and I was just convinced, telling myself, ‘I’m knocking him out! I’m knocking him out!’ But now I will pay attention to everything. I will pay attention to the whole fight.”

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