MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. --
After being banned in 1995, the competitive sport of Mixed Martial Arts returned to the state of North Carolina in December 2007 after a two-year legal battle headed by Carolina Fight Promotions, the leading MMA event organizer in the Carolinas.
The biggest event was yet to come when CFP brought together all the best fighters in the region aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune during the long-awaited Sacred Ground MMA fight, the third event of the Bud Light Summer Fight Series, which pitted the best in national and Marine Corps amateur and professional fighters against each other in Goettge Memorial Field House aboard the base, July 31.
The tension built in the hours before the event as spectators filled the wall-to-wall bleachers and chairs, surrounding the ominous steel cage sitting like a sleeping beast. Everyone was anxiously awaiting what was about to take place within the cold, chainlink cell, and it couldn’t start soon enough.
“I’ve been watching MMA for a while now, especially Gina Carano [number three-ranked, 145-pound female MMA fighter in the world per the Unified Women's MMA Rankings],” said Tiffany Mason, a Marine spouse and attendant of Sacred Ground. “It’s great that an event this big has finally come to the area.”
Finally, the lights dimmed low and a roar from the crowd raised as the lights above the cage switched on, the official party coming together inside the six-sided ring. Paul Muhle, president and founder of CFP, and Tommy and Abbi from Rock 105.5’s T&A Morning Show radio program were among the notable attendees.
“It took me two years to get MMA legalized in North and South Carolina to be able to host this Sacred Ground event here on base,” said Muhle. “Camp Lejeune truly is sacred ground, because it’s the land of the free and the home of the brave because of what these men and women do.”
The event featured eight amateur fights and five professional ones, two of which were title bouts, as well as one amateur female fight. There were six Marines representing Team Corps out of the 26 fighters, and every single fighter gave it all as sweat and blood splattered the floor.
Regular amateur and professional fights consist of three five-minute rounds, which can be won by knockout, technical knockout, submission or judge ruling, if the fights last the duration of all three rounds. The fights ranged from the full three minutes to a bloody knockout in the first 18 seconds.
“When you get in there, you have to stay relaxed and focused,” said Cpl. Josh Plato, a parachute rigger with U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, 2nd Marine Special Operations Battalion, and winner of the 170-pound amateur bout. “I didn’t focus on the crowd and took advantage of every opportunity I got. I went in planning for a little standup, a few jabs, leg kicks, and see where it went from there.”
The determination in the eyes and the speed of the fists of all the fighters that night mirrored that philosophy. It wasn’t about the crowd, the fame or the glory, but about each individual’s dedication in fighting for themselves.
After hours of cheering and beating, the main events took to the ring. The most anticipated bout of the night was the professional debut of Paul Wright and his fight against Jake Whitfield, with Team Triangle Jiu-Jitsu for the CFP Welterweight World Title.
In the first two rounds, both fighters mixed it up evenly, trading their share of punches and kicks, both upbeat and focused.
In the second round, Wright took a few blows to the face and applauded Whitfield for getting past his defense, showing that he wasn’t in the fight just to win, but for the fight itself.
In the third round, Whitfield trapped Wright with a submission choke to which he eventually tapped out.
“Before you start booing me, please let me say something,” said Whitfield to the Marines in the crowd as he was being presented with the Welterweight belt. “Let’s bring all the soldiers, sailors and Marines home as quickly as we can. Thank you for everything you do.”
The last and final battle of the night pitted Preston Marks of Team Joe Hurst Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu against the reigning CFP Featherweight world title holder Cesar Llamas of Team Elite Combat. While the majority of the night’s fights consisted mostly of ground fighting, both fighters immediately started with strong standup combination, exchanging a flurry of punches and spinning kicks to the awe of the crowd. However, Llamas caught Marks in a submission choke in the fourth round, lauding Llamas with his Featherweight title once again and a 4-0 winning streak.
With the memorable MMA event drawn to a close, spectators were invited to Sharp Shooters Sports Bar and Grill for the “ultimate after party,” where fighters and VIPs interacted with the enthusiastic fans and families.
“I was in Afghanistan one day and picked up an (Ultimate Fighting Championships) DVD out of boredom, and after watching it, I said, ‘Hey, why can’t I do this?’” said Plato. “And now to be here after winning in this event … that’s why it’s so special to us – that we got this far. I’m going to take this as far as I can, and I’ll stop only when my body breaks down.”
Some may argue that MMA is nothing but a human dogfight – a brutal and pointless beating of another person. However, as long as watchers feel the strong pump of adrenaline and see the intensity in the fighters’ eyes, MMA will continue to be a way of life for avid fans and an eternal ethos for the fighters. It’s not about winning, but about the competition – a competition locked within an unforgiving six sides of steel.