COLUMBIA — In the steel-cage battle ground, Will Burns once struck a man in the head so hard, he caused one of his opponent’s retinas to detach.
Roy Babcock used an ankle lock so powerfully that he snapped tendon and bone in his opponent’s foot.
In a cage fight between the two on Friday night, Burns defeated Babcock by split decision in three rounds.
The fierce sport of cage fighting, with moves like the guillotine choke and the neck crank, is growing in popularity. Babcock (10-3) and Burns (7-2) competed for the welterweight title at Battle at The Blue Note III, presented by the Midwest Fight League. Fans were to witness 12 match-ups, four of which were title fights. Some competitors were to be in the cage for the first time.
Also known as mixed martial arts, cage fighting combines several different styles, such as boxing, wrestling and jujitsu. A title fight consists of three rounds — four minutes each — while non-title rounds are three minutes. Competitors fight barefoot, and all fighters must wear a mouth guard and light gloves. Cups are mandatory for males.
Fighters come from all backgrounds. Steve DeVenney found cage fighting through a friend, Amy Bishop. Bishop was training and needed help cutting weight, so the pair worked out together at Key Largo Fitness and Training under the tutelage of Robert Hulett. That was eight months ago, and DeVenney, a former college wrestler, is now undefeated after two fights. The 31-year-old is a 5-foot-8, 145-pound featherweight who loves cage fighting for the workout and the challenge.
“A lot of it is to be able to push yourself past that point of physical pain and mental pain,” DeVenney said. “To overcome all that and to feel completely exhausted at the end of your workout and know that you can do it.”
Friday was the third time The Blue Note had hosted cage fighting.
“At first I was skeptical to say the least, somewhat scared,” owner Richard King said. “Honestly, it’s turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.”
But league founder, fight promoter and competitor, Robert Hulett does encounter some resistance when he tries to book a show.
“Some places still think it’s too brutal,” he said.
Missouri banned mixed martial arts competitions in 1996 as a result of deaths associated with unregulated fights known as the Toughman Competition.
Tim Lueckenhoff, president of the Association of Boxing Commissions, said competitions without rules were banned.
Hulett and other supporters of mixed martial arts developed uniform policies and hired certified referees.
“They developed strict guidelines on what’s legal and illegal in the ring,” Lueckenhoff said.
That made the difference and helped amateur competitions comply with the law.
Professional mixed martial arts were legalized on Aug. 28, he said.
Hulett, at just over 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, competes three or four times a year as a heavyweight. He says that cage fighting in the Midwest Fight League is safer than fighting in the Toughman competitions because a medical doctor is in house and an ambulance is always at the ready.
“What the ref is usually looking for is watching the guy’s eyes and if he’s actively defending,” he said. “If he’s actively defending and making some kind of defense, he’ll let that go on a little bit longer. If the guy’s arms are dropping or he’s stunned or knocked out, they’ll stop it.”
Fighters in the Midwest Fight League can’t survive on fight money alone. Burns bartends at The Coliseum Bistro, and Babcock is a bouncer and teacher at the Lone Wolf Martial Arts Gym in his hometown of St. Joseph, where he trains.
Hulett founded the league a year ago and sees the sport and the league expanding, but he still isn’t making a profit.
The rules are similar to leagues like the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The main difference, Hulett said, is that fighters are not allowed to strike the head with a knee.
Battling For Business
“Breaking even is our goal at this point,” Hulett said. “A lot of other leagues are popping up and dying real fast because they don’t realize how much it takes.”
To garner attention for shows, the Midwest Fight League advertises on local radio and television and distributes fliers.
A typical amateur fight costs anywhere from $8,000 to $15,000 to put on. The money comes from ticket sales and sponsorships. Hooters, Dalena’s, Athena Night Club and Midwest Audio Vision supported Friday’s event.
According to Hulett, sponsorship can be hard to come by.
“Columbia is saturated with people getting sponsorship,” he said.
Hulett does most of the work himself, from booking the venue to renting hotel rooms for the fighters.
He’s currently trying to persuade cable TV networks to broadcast the fights. Friday’s match-ups were to be taped at Hulett’s expense and scheduled to air in about a month. If the networks like what they see, Hulett will be able to earn money from future broadcasts.
“You wouldn’t keep going through this much work or this much pain if you didn’t love it,” Hulett said.
Love of the sport drives fighters to sacrifice as well.
Burns hasn’t even had a glass of water in 24 hours. As of 2 a.m. Thursday, Babcock, had eaten one mango popsicle and one grape popsicle to make weight Thursday night.
But the fighters know the hard work is worth it.
“There’s nothing better than winning a fight,” Burns said.