Unlocking the Cage: Exploring the Motivations of MMA Fighters

Unlocking the Cage: Exploring the Motivations of MMA Fighters


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The cage door clangs shut. The lock slides into place. The voice in my head drowns out everything else. What the hell is wrong with me?

Follow the journey of Mark Tullius, former cage fighter and boxer turned author and stay-at-home dad as he puts his love of fighting and his sociology degree from prestigious Brown University to use. What began as a personal exploration to unlock his reasons for continuing to train and pursue a fight career evolved into an in-depth sociological study of why competing in mixed martial arts (MMA) appeals to fighters. Why do these men and women subject themselves to the endless hours of grueling training required for the full-contact sport? In MMA a fighter’s goal is to punch, kick, and choke an opponent into submission, and if there is blood and injury along the way, so be it. What compels these individuals to develop the necessary strength, endurance, discipline, and skill despite the risks involved?

Over the course of 3 years, Tullius traveled to 23 states and visited 100 gyms where he interviewed 340 fighters. Although it wasn’t necessary, Tullius trained with the fighters and soon came to realize how valuable that time was, cultivating mental strength by surrounding himself with positive and inspiring individuals. It encouraged him to continue his project when he still had doubts about seeing it to its completion. Finally, Tullius believed that his willingness to get on the mat and demonstrate his trust in the fighters encouraged them to trust him and open up to a stranger about their fears and mistakes, dreams and accomplishments.

MMA is one of the fastest growing sports in the country, and the popularity of MMA training facilities is also on the rise. Unlocking the Cage takes readers into the gyms and into the minds of the fighters. It celebrates the unique qualities of each individual while highlighting themes that appear and reappear. It looks past the stigma of violence and embraces the resilience and strength that are the foundation of the fighting culture.

Have you ever considered what it would be like to punch or be punched, to choke or be choked? Or wondered why anyone would enter the cage at all? Get your copy of Unlocking the Cage and prepare to be intrigued by what you find.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781938475269
Publisher: Vincere Press, LLC
Publication date: 12/05/2017
Pages: 324
Product dimensions: 5.98(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.88(d)

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January 14, 2012

A lot had changed in the 13 years since the Lajcik fight. I got married, divorced, married again, and became a stay-at-home dad about to launch my career as an author. In August I would turn 40, an age I never imagined I'd reach. Overall, I was content with how life had played out and considered myself very fortunate.

That one-bedroom apartment had transformed into a house filled with toys. The PlayStation got upgraded to an Xbox 360 with Kinect so I could jump around with my 3-year-old daughter, Olivia. That was practically the only exercise I was getting since I'd ruptured my Achilles tendon 6 years before.

I never accomplished anything as a fighter and ended both my short boxing and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) careers with losing records. My last fight was in 2004 when I suffered a concussion severe enough to scare me.

Although a lot of my friends were huge MMA fans, I didn't follow the sport and rarely watched fights. When we went to my buddy's house to watch Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 142, I spent most of the time playing with the kids until my friend asked me why I wasn't hanging out with the adults. I grabbed a beer and plopped down on the couch. There were some good fights and part of me enjoyed it, but another part wanted to change the channel. I wrote it off as regret that I never made it as a fighter. Or maybe I'd gone soft from being surrounded by women. Could have been that I hated to hear fans screaming for blood. Whatever it was, I no longer cared to watch two people hurt each other.

One of the wives turned to me and said, "I can't believe you ever did this stuff."

"Never on a big stage like this."

"You don't seem like a fighter." Like she really wanted to know, she asked, "Why'd you do it?"

That was the question everyone always asked, the one I could never answer. I fell back to my usual response and said, "Don't know, guess there's something wrong with me."

We headed home, but the question kept nagging. What had been the draw back then? What led me to fight, and why'd I stick with it as long as I did? I had spent most of my life steering clear of fights and breaking them up. Why would I pour so much time and energy into a sport I was unsuccessful at? A punishing sport with so little reward.

I'd spent 7 years rattling my brain playing high school and college football. Between that and fighting, it wasn't surprising that my memory sucked. I racked my brain trying to remember who I had been back then. I had a good childhood, my parents were still married, and somehow I managed to earn an Ivy League degree. Fighting didn't make sense.

I would have let the question slide, but I was a little concerned about my daughter. She loved to punch and kick and trap me in triangle chokes. Was she going to follow my path and wind up in a cage? Is the urge to fight hereditary? Did the games we play push her in that direction?

My wife, Jen, met me after my fighting days so she couldn't offer much insight. I told her about the study I had devised back when I first began fighting. Developing a survey to find out why guys fight was the only time I used what I had learned in my sociology classes. I figured that if I could discover why others fought maybe I'd understand my own reasons. Unfortunately, I never got around to handing the survey out at events.

"So do it now," Jen said. "MMA is only getting bigger and there'll be no shortages of fighters for a survey. You could write a book on it. Why do they fight and what do they have in common?"

All my friends agreed with Jen and pushed me to do it. If I trained with the fighters it would be a great opportunity to get back in shape, but I was comfortable where I was. I didn't want to take a break from writing fiction, and this would require a huge commitment to do the project the way I'd want to. Also, how could I commit to a sport I didn't even care to watch?

The self-doubt was overwhelming. What a dumb idea. I hadn't been a good fighter. I'd never written nonfiction or conducted an interview. Anything I might have learned about sociology was long forgotten. I was a painfully shy introvert, who preferred to remain inside the house all day. Plus, who really cared to discover why people fight? It seemed most fans only appreciated the violence.

I spent a few weeks watching fights and thinking that maybe the study wasn't a bad idea. I checked what else had been written on the subject and ordered Sam Sheridan's books, A Fighter's Heart and The Fighter's Mind. Sam's a Harvard grad who found his way into fighting. I hoped that reading his books would answer my questions and put this project to rest.

I devoured both books within the week, but they led to more questions. I emailed Sam and he was nice enough to meet for lunch. He told me not to worry about the similarities between our projects and gave me some great advice.

The next day I signed up at a local MMA gym and quickly discovered how out of shape I really was. Also how unmotivated; one or two workouts a week was all I could manage.

Still on the fence about committing to the project, I called Brown University's Sociology department for advice. I was prepared to explain what MMA was and then get laughed off the phone and told to stop wasting their time, but Karl Dominey, the academic coordinator who answered the phone, is a huge MMA fan and thought my project sounded incredible. He put me in touch with two professors, one who researches professional wrestlers, and the other who teaches a course on the sociology of martial arts.

I was all out of excuses. I made a modified commitment, at least for one trip to the East Coast so I could stop by Brown. My wife was incredibly supportive and gave me a 17-day travel pass. My daughter begged me not to leave. I lined up a handful of gyms in the New England area, hoping I'd find others while I was there. I had no idea who I'd talk with, how they'd react to me, or what I'd discover.

It was time to find out.


May 1, 2012

The red-eye to Boston was rough. I landed anxious and exhausted, having had only about an hour of sleep. It was a miserable morning outside and I hoped the downpour wasn't a warning of what lay ahead.

I trudged through the airport, the ridiculous weight of my luggage reminding me of my first move to Brown, all my belongings stuffed in 2 duffle bags. I'd felt like a fraud back then, out of my league. Crazy how little had changed in 20 years.

The rain stayed with me the whole drive to Providence, RI, and continued to pour as I settled in. I was running on fumes, ready to crash when I reached Black Diamond Mixed Martial Arts. The guys there were friendly and helpful, but the school emphasized Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and only had two fighters available with any experience. One gave up MMA after suffering a severe concussion in his first fight, the other dreamed of competing in the UFC despite only having won half of his fights.

Although they were interesting, both interviews lacked depth and were more of a learning experience. In addition to getting a quick tutorial from a student on how to use my camera, I picked up some valuable lessons: Never do interviews on one hour of sleep. Always ask if the radio can be turned down. Don't ask a question if I don't care about the answer.

The next night I headed to an industrial area of Pawtucket, RI. I double-checked the address and spotted the tiny sign on the massive brick building, the type of place where people aren't afraid to get a little dirty. I rolled up the windows and locked my rental, checking it twice before heading upstairs. Tri-Force MMA was located at the back of an old-school boxing gym. This was a place to put in work, not to look pretty. And they had a cage. This was what I wanted.

The co-owners, brothers Pete and Keith Jeffrey, both professional fighters and coaches, made me feel very welcome and said I could jump in with the dozen fighters already training. Although I was terribly out of shape, it felt good to get on the mat, practice some techniques, and pretend I knew what I was doing. After a few light rounds, Pete called out it was time to spar.

I took a few deep breaths, walked over to my bags, camera in one, training gear in the other. I considered gearing up, even though I promised my wife I wouldn't be that stupid. The following night I was scheduled to do a reading at Brown and I really didn't want to do it with a black eye or slurred words.

So I bowed out and felt like the biggest coward. I grabbed my camera so at least I had an excuse not to spar. That turned out to be a great decision because now I was no longer just thinking of myself and the person in front of me. I took in the entire scene, felt an intensity that I hadn't been around in quite some time. From behind the camera I could watch how people worked with one another. Which guys backed off after hurting their partner, which ones attacked? Who was aware of the camera, turning it up a notch if it zoomed on them? Who was so focused that the camera didn't exist?

There was so much to take in. A guy half my size, always moving forward. The only woman in the group, firing back just as hard as her male partners. Keith and a heavyweight trading leather in the boxing ring, while another heavyweight rotated through partners in the cage. A middleweight in a green shirt getting fired up when his nose became bloodied.

It was late when practice ended and I figured everyone would want to hurry home for food and a shower. I was pleasantly surprised when 5 of the fighters lined up to do interviews, but now the challenge was fitting them all in an hour. A mere 10 minutes to discover why each of them fought.

I brought out my notepad and questions, and video recorded each interview so I wouldn't forget what was said. The heavyweight was an experienced pro who'd grown up poor and began fighting to make money to get his brother out of jail. The clean-cut finance manager fought at the amateur level because he loved the challenge and missed his competitive days of college football. The 135-pound childcare worker who'd been wrestling since eighth grade, stressed how MMA made him a better person. The carpenter described being in the cage as a perfect moment of peace.

Then there was Andre Soukhamthath, the Asian Sensation, who had replaced his drenched and blood-spattered green shirt with a clean yellow one. The calm, soft-spoken 23-year-old was not what I had expected. Immediately I was interested in Andre because, even though he came from a family of Muay Lao fighters and enjoyed watching fights, he didn't train in the martial arts until after high school. His father, William, Tri-Force's striking coach, wanted more for his son and pushed him away from training, encouraging Andre to focus on basketball and soccer, the sports Andre enjoyed.

Andre was a very good athlete and was offered a scholarship as a soccer goalie. Before he began college, however, Andre's girlfriend became pregnant. Andre gave up his dream and began working full time to provide for his new family.

The lack of physical activity made Andre feel like he was missing something. At the suggestion of a friend, he tried out an MMA class and enjoyed it. Shortly after, his son, LeAndre, was born and they discovered the boy had a severe form of a rare skin disease. Working at a job he didn't like while caring for his sick son took its toll on Andre, and he poured more of himself into MMA, using it as outlet for his emotions.

Andre paused a moment before continuing his story. LeAndre passed away at 9 months.

I was at a loss for words, imagining how devastating it would be to lose my daughter.

Andre said that MMA played a huge role in helping him work through the grief. The outlet became his sanctuary and developed into a passion. The competitive urge he'd always had to be the best and test his skills landed him in the cage. He had a "real" job working at a Boys and Girls Club to pay his bills, but he was determined to improve his 11 record and become a full-time, successful fighter.

After the interview, Andre and his fiancée, Jamie, locked up Tri-Force and walked me to my car. As difficult as it'd been hearing about their loss, it was inspiring to learn that they were expecting another boy in a few months. Both of them were fighters.

The next day I returned to Brown, once again the dumb jock bumbling about campus, this time there for fighting instead of football. The rush of memories caught me off guard. Not ready to deal with them, I concentrated on the task at hand and headed for the Sociology department, considering what questions I would ask the professor.

Although I must have walked by the enormous inscription on the side of the library hundreds of times as a student, this was the first time it meant anything to me: "Speak to the past and it will teach thee."

Was this the real reason I started my project in Rhode Island instead of back home where there was always an MMA gym within throwing distance? If I was going to understand why I fought I'd have to look at my college years because it was that angry, insecure young man who'd fallen into the sport a few years after graduating.

I kept walking to my meeting, but instead of blocking out the memories and denying the nostalgia, I welcomed the flood. There was the Ratty where I ate nearly every meal because that's all I could afford. The dorms I'd blacked out in countless times. The classrooms I avoided whenever possible.

The bar I'd been banned from was no longer standing. Same went for the place I said a final goodbye to a dear friend who died a year later. But the memories were still there and that's what I needed.

I reached Maxcy Hall and pulled myself out of the pity party. After a fantastic talk with Karl, the academic coordinator/MMA fan, I met with Professor R. Tyson Smith, who was wrapping up his research on professional wrestlers. I explained what I hoped to accomplish with my study and how I planned to do it. Inspired by my experience at Tri-Force, I shared my new goal. If I asked enough people the right questions in a well-thought-out survey, in addition to conducting one-on-one interviews, I could discover not only why they fight, but also who they are as individuals. Professor Smith's questions and insight helped me see both the limitations and potential of the study. Most importantly, the talk reassured me the project would be a worthwhile endeavor. MMA is a growing part of our culture that warrants a close examination. Showing how it impacts our society is beyond the scope of this book, but perhaps it might help with the discussion.

It would have been great to have more time with the professor, but it was time to do a reading from my novel, Brightside, at Brown's bookstore. At least one thing had changed; my deathly fear of public speaking was a thing of the past.

Friday morning I returned to Tri-Force for the no-gi jiu jitsu class taught by middleweight Keith Jeffrey. The muscular 30-year-old impressed me as he took us through a dynamic warm-up. These weren't just a couple of random stretches Keith threw together. He had more than a decade of training in jiu jitsu, Muay Thai, boxing, and wrestling. He had studied the body and the most efficient and safest ways to put it through a hard workout. By the end of 5 minutes, I was ready to bow out and Keith hadn't even broken a sweat.

Keith was very thorough, demonstrating techniques and walking us through them. I enjoyed the way he taught and would have learned a lot more if I hadn't been completely exhausted. After I cooled down, I set up the tripod to interview Keith, grateful to have more time to hear his story.

It seemed that the best way to understand someone is to see who they were and where they came from. Keith took me back to his early years and what it was like being the youngest of 3 brothers. For him, and everyone he was close to, it was always about being the toughest, being the strongest, and who could take out whom. He constantly roughhoused with his 2 older brothers, and was usually on the losing end as the little kid. The desire to be just as tough and strong as them pushed Keith to become very competitive, and at a very young age, he vowed he'd be a champion one day.

In his quest to become the toughest, Keith practiced Tae Kwon Do for a few years before focusing on strength and conditioning and then boxing. He found his true love in BJJ and hadn't thought about fighting MMA until he was 23 and a coach asked if he was interested. Although he had limited training and didn't know much about the sport, his coach's confidence was enough to get Keith to commit. He talked about how addicting the experience was and what it felt like to perform in front of an audience. "It's the biggest thrill ride, and I wanted that feeling again."

Fighting to him is competition. Instead of viewing it as violence, Keith sees only the beauty. When he's in the cage, he's fighting for honor, and not out of a desire to injure his opponent. He said, "It's just business. It's no different from any other sport."

Although Keith still dreamed of being a champion, he completely understood how difficult it would be to make that happen. Because of injuries and having to find time to train while running a business and being a coach, Keith only had 10 fights in 7 years.


Excerpted from "Unlocking The Cage"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Mark Tullius.
Excerpted by permission of Vincere Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue January 10, 1999, 1,
1. January 14, 2012, 5,
2. May 1, 2012, 8,
3. May 6, 2012, 16,
4. May 9, 2012, 27,
5. June 9, 2012, 40,
6. June 13, 2012, 49,
7. June 22, 2012, 61,
8. July 13, 2012, 73,
9. July 23, 2012, 82,
10. August 15, 2012, 94,
11. September 16, 2012, 108,
12. November 19, 2012, 117,
13. December 12, 2012, 129,
14. January 8, 2013, 143,
15. July 2, 2013, 156,
16. July 29, 2013, 167,
17. August 1, 2013, 165,
18. August 3, 2013, 185,
19. October 14, 2013, 196,
20. November 7, 2013, 209,
21. December 29, 2013, 223,
22. April 28, 2014, 235,
23. October 15, 2014, 246,
24. September 25, 2015, 263,
25. December 18, 2016, 282,

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