Championship belts hang from the gym walls inside the Columbia Training Academy. The belts represent the victories of mixed martial arts fighters who have trained there. Under these belts hangs a poster that reads “Success takes blood, sweat, tears: There is no easy way.”
One of the fighters who trains at the gym is Sedalia-native Darian Weeks, 27. The undefeated professional MMA fighter said the sport has led to more than success inside the cage.
“When I found mixed martial arts, it awakened something in me,” Weeks said. “Before I did MMA, I was working at McDonald’s. Now, I do mixed martial arts and I own my own barbershop.” His business allows him to pursue the difficult path of MMA.
Up-and-coming fighters like Weeks are not making as much money as household names like Conor McGregor or Brock Lesnar. The average earnings for a fighter in the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2019, the biggest MMA promotion, was less than $150,000. For comparison, the average salary of an NFL player in 2020 is more than 22 times that amount. In addition to being paid less on average, MMA fighters are also at greater physical risk than football players. According to a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, MMA poses more of a risk of brain injury than any other sport, including football.
Fighters are usually paid by the fight rather than a salary. And fights can be canceled hours before they are scheduled because of injury, meaning fighters can lose potential earnings and wasted time put into training.
“We could only get four to five fights a year,” Weeks said. But to him, the rewards are worth the high physical and financial risks. “Everyone is trying to be the alpha, regardless of what you are in. And MMA takes it to the rawest form of being the alpha.”
For teammate Dallas Jennings, 30, of Macon his initial fascination with MMA came out of a bad experience in his first fight.
“As soon as they called my name, everything was shutting down; my mouth went completely dry; my legs felt like a thousand pounds, each,” Jennings said. “It was like I was fighting for my life.”
Despite the experience, he said he fell in love with the combat sport. “I got hooked on it. I want to feel that again but be able to control it.”
Along with being a father to a 3-year-old and working as a personal trainer, Jennings recently moved from Macon to Columbia in order to be closer to the gym.
He said his daughter has become a driving force for him to make it to the UFC.
“If anybody doubts my daughter or if she gets to doubting herself, she won’t have to look far (for motivation),” Jennings said. “She can know that her dad did it.”