Full-contact combat, low-priced production, and instant broadcasting give rural athletes a fighting chance at national recognition.
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.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.
“I’m born and bred to be a cop,” Tasler said. “That’s my love in life — law enforcement. God gave me two things. I can B.S. with anybody, and I can fight with anybody.”
As a teenager, Tasler trained in martial arts. He wrestled in high school and college. Seeing televised cage fighting, Tasler thought he had the mettle to compete at a regional level, and he started doing so in 2006. “I’ve been in martial arts my whole life, and that’s where I learned most of my work ethic and respect, besides [from] my mom and dad,” he said.
Tasler’s fought in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota in amateur and professional events. Since so many organizations and promoters are involved, there’s no third-party clearinghouse with data on all his fights. But Tasler says he’s fought 16 amateur fights in the cage and nine for pay ($300 to $500 to show and a similar amount when he wins).
The sport is not without its detractors. Tasler says he’s fielded questions from people in Madrid about being a cage fighter and police chief. He calmly shoots a question back at the challengers.
“What kind of cop do you want coming to your house when someone’s breaking in your house?” Tasler said. “Do you want an in-shape officer that can protect you and himself when he comes there or do you want the doughnut-eating, out-of-shape cop coming to your house to help you when you need me?”
The fights and the training prepare Tasler to deal with a variety of scenarios in law enforcement.
“It keeps me mentally prepared for any battle I have at work,” Tasler said. “That first punch in a fight can come as such a surprise to you. When I get punched by a guy I’m arresting for OWI (operating while intoxicated), it’s not a shock to me because I get punched so many times during the week during training and stuff like that. I can react so much quicker than someone with no training because I’m trained.”
Veteran Madrid City Councilman Steve Burich, 58, said Tasler’s been a standout police chief since the city hired him in July 2008, though Burich emphasizes Tasler’s organizational muscle. “He’s done wonders for keeping his budget in line,” said Burich.
Burich, who works in manufacturing for John Deere in Ankeny, says that he and many people in Madrid are well aware that Tasler is a devoted cage fighter.
“I think there’s probably part of the town that’s proud of his accomplishments,” Burich said. “He’s been a real asset.”
Madrid, of course, is hardly “New Jack City” when it comes to crime. According to Burich, the community has “the usual small town stuff.”
And Tasler is quick to say that perpetrators aren’t looking to slug him on a daily basis in Madrid, a city of 2,400 people northwest of Des Moines. “But it happens more than you expect,” he said.With administrative duties as chief, Tasler isn’t on the streets as much as he was earlier in his career. “I still scrap with people since I’ve been here,” Tasler said. “But in Boone, there for a while, it was a weekly occurrence we were fighting people.”
He added, “Boone was a real rowdy town with the bar fights and domestics (abuse calls).”
The fact that he’s trained in mixed martial arts, with punches flying past him in competitions and practice, means that Tasler is less likely to pull a gun than some other law enforcement officials might be, he said.
“You know, definitely, I go to hands-on right away,” Tasler said. “Because of that less people get hurt that I’m dealing with, and I get hurt less because I know my abilities. I know what to do and what not do.” Success in law enforcement comes down to reacting the right way quickly.
Some people know they’re facing “The Lawman” when they see Rick Tasler in uniform. They may have even paid $20 to watch him fight at a caged event.
“There’s been people that tell me that when I arrest them that have fought with officers in the past, that have said, ‘Oh, you’re Tasler, I’m not going to fight you,’” Tasler recounted.
He acknowledges that at 5’6’ and about 160 pounds, he doesn’t exactly cut an imposing figure. He doesn’t drink caffeine or smoke and rarely drinks alcohol, maintaining a regular workout regimen. Tasler even cuts his weight to 145 pounds for fights. As of press time, he was planning to open a facility — Madrid Mixed Martial Arts & Fitness — to train other fighters along with people just interested in exercise and self defense. Tasler said he’s trained both men and women in mixed martial arts.
As promoters worked on the lights between fights one recent evening in Carroll, Iowa, Tasler, who was refereeing the contests, emphasized that the sport requires purpose-driven training and showcases artistry, too. “People don’t understand the work we put into this,” said Tasler. “This isn’t gladiators.”
But the town of Carroll has been wrestling itself with whether cage fighting should be limited. Weeks ago, Carroll City Councilman Jeff Scharfenkamp raised concerns about the events, suggesting that they send the wrong message to young people — and that the presence of alcohol at the fights invited all sorts of problems.
The Carroll city council passed the first of three necessary readings to ban venues with liquor licenses, either temporary or permanent, from holding amateur fights. (The state regulates professional fights.)
A new plan, presented by Carroll Police Chief Jeff Cayler, would require that amateur fights in Carroll provide proof that a sanctioning body is overseeing the events — although just what organizations would be vested with such authority is unclear.
Pete Peterson, the founder of Roundkick gym spoke at length to the council about fighting events. He says the city should require that amateur fights be sanctioned, and suggested a number of possible governing bodies that could do this. But he said the availability of alcohol is vital to attendance at the events.
Both Peterson and Cayler say they have not seen alcohol-related problems among fans of cage-fighting in Carroll. “Alcohol is not the problem,” Peterson said. “The promoter and how he promotes the show is the problem.” Some fight promoters, he says, are looking to make money at the expense of safety and so will set up fights that just aren’t fair.
Yet Peterson contends that, overall, mixed martial arts are safer than boxing and many other sports. Fighters in the cage use smaller gloves and are in combat for a shorter time than boxers are: they get can get knocked out more quickly but don’t take repeated blows to the head.
City Attorney David Bruner has warned elected officials and city staff that developing any kind of ordinance that would contain local regulations of fights might expose the city to liabilities, should someone be killed or injured. “We don’t want any liability here,” said Carroll Councilman Bob Eich.
Carroll Councilwoman Carolyn Siemann says the city shouldn’t be involved in regulating cage fighting at all — other than voting on individual requests for temporary liquor licenses associated with the fights. She says that licenses should be approved until an organization shows it can’t manage its venue.
Since there have been no alcohol-related incidents reported by police at the events held in Carroll, it makes no sense to target drinking at cage fighting, Siemann said: “We want to be the least intrusive as possible.”