The defeated fighter stays down and under medical care for a full five minutes. When he finally makes it to his feet, he exhibits a bruise covering most of the left side of his face.
Asked how he feels he says, “I’m OK.” This is the code. No pain. No hurt. No explanation. Just, “I’m OK.”
Describing No Holds Barred (NHB) fighting as “extreme” is like saying Mount Everest is high. Just about anything is legal: kicks, punches, knees, elbows, head butts, chokeholds, arm and leg locks where bones can be broken and knees can be torn up. The objective is to knock the opponent out or get him to submit by “tapping out,” hopefully before something breaks—“tap or snap,” as the participants put it.
Popular in Brazil for 70 years, NHB is now gaining in popularity in local clubs and event centers. With virtually no rules, there are dues to pay, and they are high. Pain is present in victory and in defeat. It is a different way to be physical, to test your skills. If you’re not nervous before a fight, you’re not mentally prepared. It’s a chess match of controlled fear.
Fighters use only NHB gloves for protection. Unlike boxing gloves, they are a minimal hand covering that allow one to grab and hold. They are there to protect the hand, not the opponent’s face or body.
Dave, the loser of another fight, stands nearby. His face is also smashed, and he stands keeled over holding the area where his liver and spleen would be. “We need to take my boy to the ER,” says Ben Moore, Dave’s trainer. “I think he caught some bad.”
Later, Moore says that Dave was only treated for a broken nose and three stitches in the chin. “Not even a badly broken nose,” he adds. By that, he means it doesn’t wiggle.
Moore explains that he entered martial arts to learn some core self-defense moves. “Then I caught the bug,” he recalls. “Now I’ve got it. I want to fight and fight. I want to test my skills. Even if I’m hurt.”
Moore is also training Lauren Merrill for her first fight. As a child, Merrill studied ballet for six years. Now she wants to fight—real bad.
“I can’t wait for my first fight, but Ben says I’m not ready yet,” Merrill says. “He says I need more defense. During the day I wear high heels and skirts at my job. But at night, when I put on the gloves, I get The Fury!”
Andrew “Dru Man” Ellisor, a local kickboxing instructor, is trying to win a tournament under unusual circumstances. After losing his initial fight, he takes the open slot of a fighter who was unable to compete. In his second fight, an opponent with a spectacular ripped physique uses a “shoot”--a rushing tackle--to heft Dru Man like balsa wood and body slam him to the back of his already bleeding head. Dru tightens his abs, takes the slam and keeps his hands together and his limbs inside, ready to grapple. In a jujitsu move, he reverses his opponent, getting him in a chokehold. The helpless opponent is forced to tap out. Now, to win the tournament, Dru just has to beat the guy who pummeled him in his first fight.
His corner man, Rhett Bullen, has adjusted their game plan in the locker room. Bullen gives him a wide-footed, active dancing style that prevents a shoot and take down. That gives Dru a chance to grab his man behind the head and deliver a series of hard knees to the torso. This, plus an opening right to the chin, has taken the starch out of his opponent, who can’t fight with the intensity of their bout 10 minutes ago. Dru wins the decision and the tournament.
“Training is harder than the fight,” says Bullen, himself a jujitsu black belt. “Fighters get hurt more often in training than in actual fights.” Bullen wants to fight NHB too: “I need to test my skills to make sure they’ll all function at that level of competition.”
At a Club Axis NHB event, a special guest is in the house. Tito Ortiz has been NHB world champion, but lately he has been hanging out in Salt Lake City during time off from shooting a movie Ogden. He plays a tough guy. No kidding.
The main event features Scotty Wilberger against Brain Garlick. As the referee starts the fight, the crowd starts to show itself as pro-Wilberger with rhythmic chants of “Scotty, Scotty.” Such tame encouragement quickly escalates to bloodlust: “Bring the pain!” “Show him!” “Punish him!”
Initially, Wilberger gets the better of the action, but Garlick is fighting smart. He stays covered up, and the punches don’t do much damage. He keeps his arms, legs and hands inside so they won’t be isolated and locked.
Suddenly he gets a good chokehold on Wilberger and keeps increasing the leverage. Wilberger is a gamer. He won’t tap out. But this time, the chokehold has him beat. Ringside medic Scott Haskell is screaming at the referee to do an arm check. He lifts Scotty’s arm; it drops lifelessly. The fight is stopped.
Haskell jumps into the ring but can’t get the mouthpiece out. Scotty’s jaw is clenched too tightly. Finally it comes out, but his breathing is too shallow, and his eyes are closed. Scotty is turning gray.
Tito Ortiz understands what’s going on and jumps into the ring to begin a chest massage. Wilberger’s breathing comes back to normal. When his eyes open, he says--not surprisingly--“I’m OK.”
Later, when asked if he’ll fight again, Wilberger forcefully offers, “Of course.” He realizes that he probably should have tapped out during the fight with Garlick but adds, “I’m stubborn.” Wilberger’s trainer Mike Stidham adds, “Scotty has been bugging me all week for a fight.” No one at his level wants to go out a loser.
Want to fight? If you want to, they’ll let you. According to Haskell, there is no way to tell what your skills are until you try. There’s no shame in tapping out. In the end, there seem to be rewards, even in defeat. Fighters almost always embrace at the end of a match.
You may get the glory—or maybe not.