Finish Strong

Enterprise & Features

Originally published July 20, 2008 in The Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah)

OGDEN — "I want you to keep your hands up," says Pat Reeves. "Keep your hands up! Go!"

Reeves is one of a handful of experienced mixed martial arts fighters who informally coach fellow students at West Side Jiu-Jitsu Academy.

He is pacing the edge of the wrestling mat, stopwatch in hand, relentless, peppering Jason Thompson with directives.

"Don't back up — you need to circle the whole time, Jason.

"Time it. Don't just keep escaping — you've got to attack, too."

After an hour of arduous drills, Thompson, 23, begins the first of three five-minute rounds of sparring with Jerome Isaacs, an experienced fighter who looks to have at least 30 pounds on Thompson.

The two trade jabs for about a minute-and-a-half before Isaacs catches Thompson off balance and sends him to the mat.

"Getupgetupgetupgetupgetup! Get up!" Reeves yells.

Thompson struggles back to his feet, but the upright game is short-lived. Even training at what looks like three-fourths speed, months from what will be Thompson's first professional fight, the two men blur into a confusing mass of limbs, scrambling for advantage.

Whatever Thompson or anyone else learns from the evening's training, one thing becomes crystal clear: Five minutes can be a long damned time.

***

The learning curve in jiu-jitsu — typically the core art in an MMA fighter's arsenal — is steep. From Day 1, you learn the feeling of your opponent's elbows separating the muscles of your thighs, the pressure of half his body weight pouring into your rib cage through his hands.

You do your best, but you inevitably find yourself balled up and wrangled into some sort of submission hold, and you're not sure how you got there. If you can deal with it, you're welcome to come back for Day 2.

"The first day you walk in there, you're like, 'I'm gonna kick somebody's ass,' " Thompson says. "But then you just get owned, and it's instant humility. You get humbled real quick."

"Jiu-jitsu is very hands-on," says Mark Johnson, owner of West Side and one of the school's jiu-jitsu instructors. "Brazilian jiu-jitsu prides itself on actually training with another body, and because you're not punching and kicking a lot in jiu-jitsu specifically, you can go pretty hard, daily, without hurting anybody.

"You train not to hurt your guy — to submit him, not to hurt him. That's a big difference. You don't put on a move to maim them.

"The fighters and the refs know it's not a malicious thing. It's violent — punching people in the face, bending their arms back the way they're not supposed to go — but it's not malicious."

***

Jason Thompson grew up in Hawaii, and moved to Utah in 2007 with his mother and a younger brother when his parents separated temporarily. Shortly after his arrival, Thompson began practicing jiu-jitsu at West Side.

When their mother returned to Hawaii, Thompson and his brother stayed in North Ogden, and Thompson decided to start training for competitive MMA matches. Most people never cross that last boundary.

Whether jiu-jitsu or another form of self-defense, the proportion of people who actually plan to engage in a sanctioned fight is small. There's a qualitative difference between conditioning yourself to deal with an unknown assailant and propelling yourself toward a definite collision with several hundred people watching.

"It's that part that wants to release that aggression inside," says Thompson, reflecting on why he decided to fight competitively. "And there's a part that wants to test all these things you've been training for so hard — does it work?

"I just thought the next thing was to get in the ring and test my spirit."

Over the course of six months, the training gradually takes over Thompson's life, as serious athletic pursuits tend to do.

Because MMA is exactly what it says it is — mixed martial arts — competitors often train at a number of different facilities.

Besides West Side, Thompson begins traveling to Salt Lake City several days a week to focus on kickboxing technique at the Muay Thai Institute of Kunponli.

Often, a workout at one school is immediately followed by a workout at another, alternating with weightlifting sessions and uphill sprints.

"You've got to do something every day," Thompson says. "Running, getting your ass kicked — something."

At two to four hours a day, six days a week, you're looking at a time commitment that approaches what the average American devotes to watching television each week.

It's one thing for a professional athlete to maintain this schedule when a sponsor or a recent cash prize is paying the rent. But Thompson is a working stiff, getting up at

4 a.m. most days for his job, driving a semi, delivering commercial plumbing supplies.

While the intense training builds you up, it can also tear you down.

Broken toes. Strained joints. Lingering aches in the shins that may or may not be hairline fractures. Petty colds that infect a body worn down from too many 70-hour weeks.

It adds up. But if you want it, it's just another obstacle. Thompson says he wants to "see how far I can go before I say I want to quit. Because I don't see that."

Disappointment is also a matter of endurance. On the way to his first fight, Thompson gets canceled four times, each engagement nixed at the last minute.

The arrangements are often cloudy to begin with — various promoters promise Thompson a match with "someone in his weight class, somewhere in the Western states, sometime in the next month." But the rug is continuously pulled out from under him after an actual date is confirmed.

It's the kind of thing that can take the fire out of a man's belly.

"When they first told me about (a fight date), I was nervous the first night — I couldn't sleep," Thompson says. "Now I don't even care. I don't even think about it anymore. I just focus on the training.

"But ask me that the day before — I'll probably be different."

***

In late April, Thompson signs to fight on an eight-bout card marketed as "Total Mayhem" on May 31 at the Eccles Conference Center in Ogden.

Despite his previous disappointments, Thompson has a good feeling about this fight.

Isaiah Salazar is an experienced promoter, seems organized and does the legwork to coordinate with local organizers as well as the Pete Suazo Utah State Athletic Commission, the sanctioning body for MMA in Utah.

"It's my hometown, right down the street from where I train," Thompson says. "It's got a good energy."

Through May, Thompson amps up the training until four or five days before the fight when he tapers down both his training and calorie intake.

Thompson spends most of the day before the weigh-in wandering around his home in North Ogden, strumming the ukulele he brought with him from Hawaii and trying to decompress.

"Right now, I just want to test myself and see — what do I have? Am I at least decent-tough — or am I just a big pussy who thinks he's tough, you know? We'll find out Saturday."

***

The weigh-in for Total Mayhem is held around 6:30 p.m. the day before the fight. It is at Rumors, a nightclub in downtown Ogden. Like Thompson, most of the fighters waiting their turn to step on the scales have not eaten or consumed beverages all day. Many have spent hours in a sauna in an effort to come in under weight. Thompson himself spent several hours in the hot-box today — the night before, he weighed himself at 151, six pounds over the featherweight limit. The physical stress of mild dehydration, hunger and hours of dark steam gives everyone a slightly delirious demeanor, leaning against the walls, quietly staring into nothing, sucking on ice cubes if absolutely necessary.

Once the fight commission officials arrive, the bar becomes a confusing round-robin of paperwork, license inspections and abbreviated medical tests.

After Thompson makes it through the administrative maze, he strips down to shorts for the weigh-in. When the official calls out "143.5," he breathes a sigh of relief.

A few minutes later, another fighter isn't so lucky. He leaves the bar for a nearby sauna with the warning that he has exactly two hours to lose two pounds.

***

The night of the fight, fighters and their corners — individuals who provide moral support, advice and maintenance during the fight — pack into the Eccles Conference Center two or three hours before show time.

Fighters stretch, spar, go over wrestling maneuvers and submission holds for the millionth time, and finally settle down for the time-consuming process of taping wrists and hands. While the prep rooms buzz with a quiet, internal energy, the broad space of the main conference area begins filling with boisterous, excited fans, filling the seats around the regulation-size boxing ring in the center.

About half an hour before the first fight, the referee calls everyone into the blue corner dressing room to go over the rules of MMA fighting in Utah.

Certain technical issues vary from state to state, but most primarily stick to the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.

A few things have been modified. "Up-kicks" to the face are permissible, so long as the recipient doesn't happen to have three points (two knees and a hand, for example) touching the ground.

Also, there are the elbows. "Just be careful that you're hitting the forehead as your target, not here," says the referee, patting the back of his skull.

"This is the back of the head. Remember — it's your responsibility to hit the guy in the face."

***

About two hours after the first fight, Thompson and his opponent, Jonathan Arguello, are called out of the prep room.

With Thompson and Arguello in the ring and their corners behind the ropes, the ref calls the fighters to the center of the ring. They bump gloves, back into their corners and wait for the bell.

When it rings, the men engage almost immediately. There's little pacing before they exchange a flurry of punches and the two become entangled.

While Thompson tries to find a way to gain an advantage out of the clinch the two are locked in, Arguello hooks his right arm under Thompson's left, reverses his stance and hurls Thompson onto the mat with a hip toss. The two fighters collide as they land together, Thompson on his back.

Later, Thompson and Arguello, locked in a clench on the mat, find themselves underneath one of the ropes, dangerously near the edge of the mat. The referee orders them to freeze, and the crowd laughs as he pulls the entire 290-pound mass back toward the center of the ring before resuming the fight.

Before the end of the first round, Thompson is cut over the right eyebrow and rivulets of blood stream across his cheek. The blood vessels on the face are close to the skin and even a small cut can produce a lot of blood quickly.

After the round ends, a physician mops the blood from Thompson's face, applies a liquid coagulant to the cut above the eye and determines that Thompson can continue fighting.

Although Thompson gets hip-tossed again in the second round, he fares somewhat better.

By this point, the corner men for both fighters are screaming at full capacity, doing their best to overpower the crowd, which grows more vocal with each thud. The fact that blood has already been spilled doesn't do anything to calm things down.

"Finish this!" yells Reeves. "Get that knee between there, Jason! Put the knee between his arm and you!"

Even into the third round, Thompson and Arguello attack each other in measured, but rapid movements. Neither is prone to panic or foolish errors, and there are moments when it seems either one can gain the key advantage.

The two are torso-to-torso for most of the match, so a knockout seems unlikely, but submission holds can come out of nowhere in MMA. But as the clock winds down to the final seconds of the round, neither is able to capitalize on a superior position or a stray limb.

"Finish strong!" yells Reeves, seconds before the bell rings three times. "Finish strong."

The men untangle and go to their corners. After a moment, the two fighters return to the center of the ring, the referee grasping Thompson's wrist in his right hand, Arguello's in his left.

"Let's give these warriors a hand tonight," says promoter Isaiah Salazar, microphone in hand. "What an amazing fight."

Moments pass as Salazar shuffles the scorecards in his hand. Thompson and Arguello both stand perfectly still, staring into the space before them.

Finally, Salazar raps through the scores: 28-29, 27-30, and 27-30. As Salazar booms out the victor's name, the referee raises Arguello's arm over his head.

***

Back in the dressing room, the fight physician injects a local anesthetic before suturing the cut over Thompson's eye. The doctor works fast because the remaining fights cannot proceed until he returns to the ring. After he knots the final stitch, he has Thompson sign a document that suspends him from sanctioned fighting for the next 30 days, so the cut can heal.

Johnson, the owner of West Side, and Thompson joke about what Thompson can remember about the fight, which right now isn't much.

"It's probably all a blur right now," says Johnson. "Tonight, little pieces will start coming into your head."

"You did good, Jason," says Reeves. "You didn't give up. You give up on me, that'll piss me off. You didn't give up. So hold your head up high."

***

The week after the fight, Thompson rests for a few days before easing back into his training cycle.

Relaxing in his garage with the door open to the early summer weather, indulging in a handful of Oreo cookies and milk, Thompson recounts the fight, now reassembled in his memory.

"During the fight, you pick out random things," says Thompson, describing the flurry of sounds and the surreal feeling of hearing a broadcaster describe his actions as he performed them.

Much of it is dreamlike. Some of it is bothersome.

"The whole time, I felt like I was catching up with my mind. I wasn't executing things I know I can do," he says.

"Even though it went to decision, it was pretty definite I lost the fight. I just survived."

But Thompson's frankness shouldn't be confused with self-pity or disillusionment. Asked when he might want to fight again, he responds immediately: "As soon as possible. I'm hooked. Especially after a loss — you don't want to hide under a rock."

Thompson is now training for the IFC Mixed Martial Arts Extreme Fighting tournament in Sturgis, S.D., at the beginning of August.

###

The Standard-Examiner 
(Ogden, Utah)
Pub: July 20, 2008

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