Brandon Farris has decided to play the heel, which isn’t such a bad strategy considering the circumstances. He’s an amateur fighter at a Houston mixed martial arts event called the Lonestar Beatdown, which isn’t all that different from a cattle call: 18 fights, 36 fighters, and little opportunity to make a name for yourself. Clever men realize they have to find a way to set themselves apart. So Farris is strutting around the cage flexing his muscles and cheering for himself, and when his opponent—Houston’s Corey Allmand—is introduced, Farris glares across the ring and gives him the old “slit throat” gesture—one thumb raked across his own windpipe. Allmand is 17, and he seems like a nice, all-American kid with his cowboy boots and crew cut and the way he struts around the cage to country music. It doesn’t seem like anyone in the crowd wants to see him get hurt.
He won’t. Allmand is a far better fighter than Farris. Within 20 seconds of the opening round, Allmand catches Farris in an arm bar, a joint lock that puts pressure on an opponent’s elbow, forcing him to forfeit, or “tap out,” in mixed martial arts parlance. Farris won’t tap. When the referee finally stops the match, 37 seconds in, Farris’ arm is broken. The crowd cheers for the kid; Allmand’s cornermen lift him onto their shoulders. Meanwhile, Farris has to push his way gingerly through a crowd waiting to buy hot dogs to get to his dressing room and medical attention.
Welcome to mixed martial arts, Texas-style.
If you’re not familiar with mixed martial arts, or MMA, you probably know it by “ultimate fighting” or “cage fighting” or “no-holds-barred fighting.” Then there’s “human cockfighting,” which Sen. John McCain came up with in the 1990s, when the sport was unregulated by gaming commissions and was known for throwing men of wildly different shapes, sizes and fighting styles into a cage and letting them have at each other.
These days, MMA is regulated and profitable. Competitors, once merely bar-bruisers or one-trick ponies, are now considered among the finest athletes in the world, with black belts and championship trophies in three, sometimes four, fighting styles with exotic names like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muy Thai boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling. MMA stars appear in movies and commercials for sports drinks. Pay-per-view events regularly take in tens of millions of dollars, and a popular fighter can earn hundreds of thousands for a few minutes’ work. Fans no longer have to hide their faces in decent company.
In the wake of this newfound cultural acceptance, innumerable amateur leagues have sprung up around the country—humble, shoestring events like the Lonestar Beatdown. What these promotions lack in money, sponsorship deals and celebrity endorsements, they make up for in enthusiasm and cockeyed optimism. And lots and lots of blood.
At the Arena Theatre in Houston, there are reminders everywhere that this is a true minor-league sporting event. The ring girls are moonlighting dancers from a local gentleman’s club; the cocktail waitresses are borrowed from Hooter’s. A man behind me stands for the entire three-hour event, mumbling, “Kidney shots, kidney shots, kidney shots,” like some solemn, unacknowledged mantra. One fan wears a Michael Vick T-shirt.
Then there are the fighters: muscled, untested, striving young men pounding their chests to heavy metal music. Men with big-time nicknames like “The Gentleman Mauler” and “The Black Beast,” but small-time records: 1-0, 2-1, 0-1. Men with dreams of professional glory, with more guts, perhaps, than sense.
There is light-heavyweight Edgar Verdin, who looks terrifying strutting to the cage in his Mexican-flag headband, right up until the moment when he can’t get his jeans jacket off and his coaches have to come to his rescue. There’s 170-pounder Craig Gardener, who wins the welterweight belt after walking to the cage to the theme song from the movie Beverly Hills Cop, perhaps the least intimidating music ever written.
The man everyone had come to see was Jason David Frank, the 36-year-old former star of the children’s martial arts television show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. He retired from showbiz and opened a couple of martial arts studios in East Texas. This is his first match. Leading up to the fight, many had mocked Frank for wanting to step into the cage—a children’s TV star in a blood sport. Even those who hadn’t, who respected his skills and his moxie, surely still worried about his age and the possibility that he might get hurt.
Frank wasn’t worried. He’d been training in martial arts for 20 years. He’d been a karate black belt since he was 12 and had run his own karate school since he was 18. Besides, he had a higher power on his side. “Man, I pray every day,” he tells me. “I wouldn’t be in the ring if it wasn’t for God.”
Frank turned to God when his older brother Eric died in 2001. The cage has become Frank’s ministry. For him, MMA isn’t just a way to achieve second-act glory; it’s his path for singing the glory of God. Mixed martial arts is his missionary work, his choir solo, his David. In 2008, Frank and Patrick Hutton, Christian cage fighters, started a clothing line called “Jesus Didn’t Tap.” They want to spread the word that Jesus never quit, not even on the cross, that he went all the way to the final bell.
“What I’m doing is taking that violence that’s in the MMA game and putting it right back to what Jesus has suffered,” Frank says. “All Jesus said was, ‘You know what? I forgive you for your sins.’ So really, the blood, the broken bones, the sweat, the tears mean nothing in the cage because look what Jesus endured for all of us.”
Frank is not alone. These days many churches are using mixed martial arts to broaden their ministries, seeing the ultraviolent sport as a way to tap into a stubbornly secular market: the angry, aggressive teenage male. Pastors are talking about Jesus’ fighting spirit, his indomitable will rather than his all-consuming love or unbending mercy. There’s a small church-MMA academy in Nashville whose motto is “Where Feet, Fist, and Faith Collide.”
When Jason David Frank makes his way to the ring for the headlining match, the crowd erupts in cheers as if he’d never fallen out of the spotlight. They are here to watch him win one for the Lord. Dozens of people in the audience wear “Jesus Didn’t Tap” T-shirts, buttons and hats, some covered in Bible verses about striking down one’s enemies and grinding them into dust, and other more modern sentiments like “Jesus Loves Me and My New Tattoos,” “Fear Me in My Physical Form” and “Putting the Jew Back in Jiu-Jitsu.”
For months, Frank’s been doing nothing but training for this moment. Here he is, walking toward the cage for the main event, and there are 2,000 people howling for him, all those cheering fans, the flashing cameras, the friends and family members in the crowd, the screaming girls, two documentary camera crews and hundreds of kids in “Jesus Didn’t Tap” attire. “All these people were wearing my shirts, and I’m trying to stay focused,” Frank says later. “But all of a sudden, you walk out and you see someone you know and you start to lose your edge a little. You start to get nervous. You realize that they’re all there for you.”
One person is here to beat him into the mat: opponent Jonathan Mack, or “Mack Truck.” (“I never fought a man who fought a dinosaur,” he tells reporters with a smirk.) Now the cage door is clanging shut, and there’s Mack, all 235 angry pounds, barreling toward Frank. Frank says later his first strategy was to bob and weave, and use his speed. “When a guy is charging at you,” he says, “your instinct kicks in, your street instincts, and you forget about your game plan.”
Frank forgets to weave and instead throws a kick. Mack throws a punch. Frank throws a few Thai kicks and lands a left cross. But then—bang!—Mack connects with a hard left hook that hits Frank on the chin, and Frank’s legs look like overcooked pasta. “When you get hit on the button,” he says later, “I don’t care who you are, your nervous system shuts down.”
For five seconds Frank stumbles around the ring like a cartoon. For whatever reason, Mack doesn’t jump on his opponent. MMA fighters are trained to attack when they see an opening, but Mack lays back and waits, inexplicably, while Frank wobbles. Everyone around me is screaming at Mack to attack, attack, attack! Now’s the time! Put him away! Mack just stands there, a truck with its brakes on. Gradually Frank regains his composure and his footing, so when Mack scoops him up five seconds later, throws him to the ground, and lands with a great crash on top of him, Frank has him just where he wants him.
Mack doesn’t know how to fight on the ground. Despite his size and his strength, he’s slow and cumbersome, and he doesn’t know anything about Brazilian jiu-jitsu or submission wrestling. When Frank flips him over and locks him into an arm bar, Mack flattens out, leaving himself open to an arm stretch that will force him face down on the mat.
Within seconds, Frank has Mack crying for mercy. He taps out at about the 1:30 mark of the first round. All around me people are screaming and crying and jumping up and down as if they had witnessed not just a low-level amateur mixed marital arts fight between a former TV celebrity and a guy named after a truck, but a triumph of decency over brutishness, of light over dark. There is a feeling of deliverance.
Now Frank is leaving the cage, the conquering hero. It took him longer to get to the cage than it took to win the fight. It will take him even longer to get back to the dressing room. There are just too many fans waiting for an autograph. Leaving the cage, he dissolves into them like a man plunging into purifying waters, into a sea of acolytes in T-shirts he made for them, each one, it seems, hoping to connect for a moment to one man’s victory over the darkness. They are reaching out to touch the hem of his garment.