Rural Cage Fighters Grapple to the Big Time

[imgbelt img=cagefightertzwithbelt320.jpg]Full-contact combat, low-priced production, and instant broadcasting give rural athletes a fighting chance at national recognition.

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Blur Radial

Cage fighters competed in Green Bay, Wisconsin, August 2007. The sport has caught on across the U.S., in venues big and small.

For cage fighters, the path from backwater battles in small towns to high-profile venues can be greased with quicksilver.

The sport, full contact combat in an octagonal cage, has exploded in popularity, buoyed by the success of The Ultimate Fighting Championship and Bellator Fighting. Mixed-martial-arts (MMA) organizations with multi-million-dollar marketing pull and high TV ratings with twenty-something men have advertisers like beer companies panting. Across the U.S. a variety of professional and amateur circuits have sprung up and are grappling with intensity.

The caged opponents incorporate many martial arts disciplines, boxing and wrestling. If you attend a fight around Iowa, for example, you’ll likely find many former high school wrestlers watching — and fighting.

Unlike baseball with its top-down hierarchy, cage-fighting allows a competitor with the right stuff to leapfrog from local or regional events to national ones, says Bjorn Rebney, CEO and founder of Chicago-based Bellator Fighting Championships. “You’re not talking about spending three years in the minors,” Rebney said in a phone interview. “That’s not a pretty story for a movie. That’s the honest to goodness truth.”

Rebney has reached out to more rural parts of the nation in scheduling fights. What’s more, he has a team of six people who scour the Net and review YouTube videos and other sources looking for potential fighters.

Joe Soto, a California native and one the world’s top featherweights, took this route, rising from smaller events in Lamoore,  CA, to ranked status. Soto wrestled for Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge before returning to his native state to launch a successful MMA career.
“Last year, nobody knew his name,” Rebney said. “Joe Soto is out of the middle of nowhere.” Now, he’s fighting before massive audiences.

With camera phones and videos of fights popping up on the Net daily, there are more Joe Sotos out there — fighters in rural reaches who before the advent of today’s technology might never have been discovered.

Bellator’s MMA fighting will be broadcast for 24 weeks in 2010 to 112 millions homes through NBC, to 82 million homes through FOX Sports Net, and to 62 million with the Spanish-language giant Telemundo.

Rebney said that his organization’s reach is international: he’s considering a potential fighter from rural France right now. “It can happen in Iowa. It can happen in Lemoore, California. It can happen in a little community I can’t pronounce outside of Paris,” Rebney said.

Rebeny said the sport of MMA cage fighting has taken off in both urban and rural America. “It’s just monstrously popular across the board,” he said.

One reason the sport has been such a success in rural areas is that smaller scale competitions are fairly simple to arrange. “The elements that are required to carry out an event are straightforward,” Rebney said. “It’s not that expensive to put an event together.”

In rural Iowa, where cage fighting is developing fast, not all competitors expect to make careers from the sport.

If you’re the drunken-brawling sort, the type given to aiming Jack Daniels-inspired barroom haymakers in the direction of cops, Madrid, Iowa, is a city you’ll want to skip. The police chief there, a former farm boy with a gift of gab that would rival the seed-hatted old boys at the grain elevators, would much rather talk you down than fight you.

[imgcontainer left] [img:cagefightertzwithbelt320.jpg] [source]Courtesy of Rick Tasler

Rick Tasler, a.k.a. “The Lawman,” won the Iowa 145 Budweiser belt in August 2009, beating Adam Tecshu of Mankato, MN, “in 38 seconds of the first round by choke.” Tasler will defend his championship Saturday, December 19, in Perry, Iowa.

But if the donnybrook breaks, Rick Tasler, 32, is ready to throw. In addition to leading a team of six law enforcement officers as Madrid’s chief of police, Tasler is a cage-fighting enthusiast, a mixed-martial-arts expert who spends spare time and weekends battling inside the octagon. With a tattoo of a police badge on his chest (visible because fighters battle sans shirts), Tasler goes by the cage name of “The Lawman.”

“That’s stuck since very early in my career just because a lot of people want a shot to beat up the cop,” he said.

A 1995 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School where he was a “pretty decent wrestler,” Tasler (friends call him “Taz”) earned his two-year degree in law enforcement at Iowa Central Community College in 1998. He was hired right away as a police officer in Gowrie, worked as a patrol officer in Boone, and then as chief of police in Scranton, Greene County.

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