Fight Club 

With a fighting woman behind him, fighting man Jeremy Horn heads for the top of the heap in Mixed Martial Arts.

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There’s a sense of trepidation when visiting an environment known to hold dangerous inhabitants. That much is true upon entering Salt Lake City’s Elite Performance Gym, the premier business endeavor of Jeremy Horn'cage fighter, mixed martial arts maestro and Ultimate Fighting Championship 54 Light Heavyweight contender.

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A solid, warehouse-style brick façade houses Horn’s gym deep in the industrial part of Salt Lake City'not exactly the picture of kindness corner. The gym opened officially this January, then in June traded up to a spot at 990 S. 700 West, across the parking lot from its former locale.

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Pass through the hard exterior and you’ll find an exceptional grade athletic haven scented by new Fairtex leather equipment and boxing gear. The unyielding concrete floor and exposed rafters hurl the slapping thump of fists and the grunting of grappling men echoing throughout the hall. Like many fighting gyms, there is a sprawling wrestling mat, treadmills, punching bags, medicine balls and weight set. The pièce de résistance is the small electric stovetop and washing machine in the far corner, revealing just how much time Elite Performance patrons spend in training. But all attention rests on the massive octagon steel cage in the corner of the auditorium. Cornered by two traditional boxing rings constructed by Horn, this is a replication of where Horn battles it out for a living.

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Like a good Spaghetti Western film, in the world of mixed martial arts telling the difference between the good, the bad and the just plain intimidating is difficult. Horn’s is a friendly fight club, and that’s no mistake. Horn leads by example, and attracts folks that walk the genial walk as well. Kind, helpful, outgoing and genuine Horn’s universal greeting is a handshake, along with the introductory question, “So, you training today?nn

As a result of the extraordinary experience Horn had in Iowa with his former coach, Pat Miletich, and training partners at the Team Miletich gym, he will not settle for anything less. The Miletich gym was a real tight-knit environment. Horn recalls that everybody was as much family as they were training partners – eating together, hanging out together and supporting one another. All an uncommon occurrence in a testosterone-tainted setting.

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“I think everybody benefits when you’re friends outside of the gym, as well as inside the gym; it brings a lot more to the training,” Horn says. “When you actually care about the people you’re training with, you tend to put in a little more effort to make sure they are getting what they need.”

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So, what is there to be said about a man who has the size'6 feet 1 and 205 lbs'but not the reputation of a badass?

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“I don’t think it’s about being tough, I fight because I like the competition,” Horn explains. “It is a sport like any other, a career like anything else. It is the same as being a professional boxer or professional basketball player, or professional football player.nn

But Horn’s labor of love, mixed martial arts'lovingly referred to as MMA'is also a sport unlike any other. Compared with even the most brutal fighting sports of boxing and kick-boxing, MMA stands out for its sheer, naked aggressiveness, some even would say outright violence. The world of competitive mixed martial arts incorporates multiple disciplines from all over the world. Its practitioners are serious athletes'although dubbed “caged fighters” in the lingo of the sport'who utilize, delete and piece together a puzzle from various martial arts, wrestling, boxing, Muay Thai kick boxing, Russian sambo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu to form their own personal fighting technique.

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Many MMA fans consider Horn one of the most underrated fighters in the professional circuit. His record reads like a who’s who of the MMA world and Horn has held his own, if not triumphed, against them all.

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But his ultimate challenge will come this month in a televised, pay-per-view match against one of his toughest opponents ever. If he clenches the title of “Ultimate Fighter” in that match, the long road of this Omaha, Neb., native may reach its highest point yet. Even if he doesn’t make it that far, Horn knows he’s at least found love, and the admiration of many of his fighting students, in Salt Lake City.

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In the world of MMA, Horn is a well-known, well-respected “nice guy” who has reached the status of jiu jitsu extraordinaire. Elite gym is an opportunity for his students to hang out with an athletic superstar, and learn from a master.

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“Jeremy is great … he is totally disarming,” beams Benjamin Wilhelm, an officer in the U.S. Air Force and Elite student. “He is totally humble, he will corner for one of his students at the local mixed martial arts event Ultimate Combat Experience on Z24 TV; that is like Mike Tyson holding a spit bucket for an amateur boxer'unheard of.nn

It all began back in Omaha where Horn grew up. He confesses to living a very solitary childhood with few, if any, friends. “Pretty boring, average,” Horn says of his adolescence.

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At the age of 13, Horn’s older brother got him involved in local martial arts. From there it just took off. Horn felt like he had found something that he loved and was good at. Horn’s brother got into fighting a little bit early on, as well, but did not have the knack for it that Horn did. Horn started training twice a day, every day out of pure dedication.

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“It consumed my whole life,” Horn recalls. “When the fighting rolled around, it seemed natural for me to go into that.nn

In 1994, a local fight promoter stopped by the gym Horn trained at to see if anyone was interested in testing the local fight circuit. Horn took the opportunity, and succeeded beyond his expectations. “Initially,” he says, “fighting was just going to be a hobby, something fun to do.nn

At the point of his second professional fight in 1996, Horn met his current manager, Monte Cox and former coach, Pat Miletich. Making progress through a committed commute on weekends to Iowa, Horn began training with Team Miletich. In December 1998, he moved to Iowa to live and train full time.

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Soon after, Horn won a tournament and John Peretti, a matchmaker for the Ultimate Fighting Championship, invited him to the UFC as an alternate.

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“Things got mixed around and I ended up fighting [former UFC Middleweight/Lightweight Champion] Frank Shamrock instead,” Horn smiles. “Kind of a big jump, going from an alternate to a title fight.” And while Horn lost the battle to a knee bar, he didn’t go down easy. The fight for the Middleweight title lasted nearly 17 minutes and in that time Horn was able to catch the eye of Ultimate Fighting management and create a name for himself within the prominent MMA circuit.

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Horn, it appears, has always been able to put himself in the right place at the right time and with the right people. From his time with Miletich to his appearances in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Horn has given close attention to detail and taken inspiration anywhere he could.

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“Everybody I have ever trained with has influenced me in one way or another. Their mental outlook, or their drive, or their focus, or level of technical proficiency,” Horn says. “Anybody that is a hard worker that has some goals that they are going after, I admire that a lot.”

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Salt Lake City entered the picture fairly recently. Women get blamed for many a man’s abnormal behavior or unexpected repositioning. Even the most hardcore guy can be lured by a siren’s song. Horn’s tale is no different.

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“Wretched woman,” he snarls with a sparkle in his eye as he glances at Jennifer Howe: cage fighter, mixed martial arts maven and Horn’s significant other.

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A Salt Lake City resident, Howe began training with Walt Bayless Jiu Jitsu out in Holladay, soonafter an emotionally draining, long-term relationship ended in 1995.

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“I had no self esteem, none. I could not even look people in the eye,” she says. “I got sick of being afraid and not knowing how to take care of myself, having no confidence whatsoever, so I started taking jiu jitsu. It helped me mentally, physically, everywhere.”

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Howe explains that the great thing about jiu jitsu for women is that you are never too small or too weak.

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“In any other sport if you are fighting someone bigger, you are in trouble,” she says. “But with jiu jitsu it’s not about strength, it’s about technique, and moving yourself rather than the other person.nn

Howe had a knack for fighting, and began competing in the women’s circuit. Howe’s current fighting record is 13 wins, 2 losses and zero draws – undecided bouts or ties. Her professional wins are impressive, the majority by submission – managing to put her opponent in a lock or hold that causes them to submit and surrender to a loss'confirming her command of jiu jitsu. “I have a B.A. in Communications and I fight,” she chuckles.

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As a female fighter, it’s not always easy carrying yourself around in public the day after a combative brawl. “It is kind of embarrassing, you go places and people look at you funny,” she says of the professional wounds. “Jeremy and I have a pass at Blockbuster to rent movies. One week where we kept going in when I had this black eye. One of the girls said something to me about my eye, and I told her that I fight. She looked at her friend and said, ‘She’s the one we thought had a boyfriend who beat her up! We were going to tell her to get rid of the loser!’”

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When Howe and Horn met five years ago, Howe remembers not being overly impressed by him. “Jeremy calls me his angry little elf, because he always thought that I was so mean,” Howe laughs. “I was always mad-dogging him because he was always fighting my friends.”

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They first met at various fighting events and eventually struck up conversations. The relationship blossomed, and they talked more often after Howe went to Iowa to train for an upcoming fight. “I went out to Miletich to train with different people and I ended up training with Jeremy 90 percent of the time. He loves to show people stuff. The relationship just took off from there,” she remembers.

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Justin Ellison, training partner and old friend of Howe’s, recalls, “They struck up their relationship out in Iowa and then Jeremy started coming out here all the time. He just moved out here. Jennifer was the best female fighter in the world on her own and then they hooked up and … it’s soap opera-ish, I know.nn

Even couples that could kick your ass have sweet inside things they do for each other. Jennifer explains that whenever they are apart, traveling for various events and fights, they send an Incredible Hulk figurine as a reminder of the care they have for each other, and the inspiration they spark between them.

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On this particular Thursday, in Horn’s stead, Ellison is acting as substitute training coach. Horn, out in Las Vegas, is assisting as guest coach filming a second season episode of Spike TV’s reality show, The Ultimate Fighter.

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Two male students listen, watch and participate as Ellison shows them various leg locks, and escapes, in which an opponent’s joints or extremities are manipulated to the point of the adversary quitting.

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“In a real fight you’re going to be sweating and slick, so in order to break their foot you are going to have to get [the hold] just right. You don’t want your arms against his ankle, you want your whole body against it. You want to be as unfair as possible,” Ellison says, smiling. “It’s like human chess. You have to take a guy knowing very little about him'it’s almost like gathering intelligence from another country'you have to look at this guy and decide, ‘Am I better standing up? Do I want to punch with him? Do I want to take him down? Am I in better shape?’ You have to formulate a plan and change it depending on what occurs at a moment’s notice.nn

As they grapple on the ground there is no position they won’t take with each other to make sure they understand a technique or hold. Ellison’s instructions get muffled as he buries his head into a student’s abdomen.

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Ellison gives them advice about an upcoming jiu jitsu lesson. “Bring notebooks. Whatever Jeremy tells you write it down.”

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According to Horn, nearly all of his students are training to become professional fighters. “I actually thought when I first opened that we would have a few fighters and a lot of people that just trained for fun. Yet, nearly everybody that trains either fights or wants to fight soon, it is really surprising,” he says.

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In order for any of these guys to realize their dreams, there is a long road of progression ahead of most of them. All eyes are focused on the invariable goal of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the definitive affirmation that you have arrived as a fighter.

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The UFC premiered in 1993 to a pay-per-view audience. Originally it was a short-term deal, in which men from varying fighting backgrounds would enter an octagonal steel cage and vie to prove which discipline would prevail as the foremost practice. The only rules: no biting or eye gauging. Brazilian jiu jitsu to Muay Thai kick boxing, Olympic wrestling to karate, boxing to Sumo, heavyweights against featherweights'they all battled it out in a grand prix-style bout, to defend the honor of their beloved sport. There were no weight classes, no rounds and no time limits. A man won only after his opponent tapped out'visibly tapping the hand to signal to the referee that the fight must end'or the opponent’s corner would throw in the towel. This gave the UFC a brutal reputation as a modern-day gladiator event.

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In the end, a man of rather relative diminutive stature'6 feet tall and 175 pounds'from the jiu jitsu camp took all the glory. Royce Gracie, fighting out of Rio de Janeiro, had mastered a style started by his father, Helio Gracie, known as Gracie Jiu Jitsu. Not only did Gracie prove the superiority of his art, but set the standard of method for the now-flourishing UFC empire.

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As the sport progressed, so did the athletes. Hours upon hours were spent not just training, but also watching endless videos of opponents’ various fighting styles and techniques. Now, every ultimate fighting hopeful would not only have mastered their discipline, but possess an extraordinary understanding of many other martial arts. Ergo, MMA was born.

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“You should see Jeremy’s video collection. He has over 400 videos that he watches and studies,” Howe says.

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In 2001, UFC restructured itself into The New UFC. Due to being banned in nearly all of the United States and having a difficult time finding venues to host events, organization, safety, and quality standards were necessary. The redesigned UFC boasts commission approval and stringent rules: weight classes, time limits and rounds, mandatory drug testing, and commission-approved 4- to 6-ounce gloves that protect the fighter’s hands, but do not improve the striking surface or weight of the punch.

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The UFC’s latest business endeavor, The Ultimate Fighter, or TUF, has taken a cue from the popularity of reality-based TV shows. The premise consists of putting 18 men (16 in the first season) with professional, but not prominent, fighting careers into a Las Vegas home. The men are split into two teams each led by a successful UFC fighter and are required to compete against one another in various events. The winning team gets to pick two men who will enter the Octagon, one from each team. At the end of each episode the two brawl it out for a shot at two $100,000 UFC contracts, one Heavyweight and one Welterweight, in the show’s second season which airs beginning Aug. 22 on Spike TV. Catch a rerun of the first season’s finale on Aug. 21.

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Chuck Liddell, one of TUF’s coaches last season and UFC’s current Light Heavyweight champion, will be Horn’s opponent in the Octagon for the title this month. The two will be fighting for a second time. Back in March of 1999, Horn beat Liddell by a first-round arm triangle choke, giving Liddell his first career loss.

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“I tend to get overlooked because I am not a real loudmouth,” Horn says. “I don’t badmouth a lot of other fighters … squeaky wheel gets the grease I guess.nn

Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell, with his heavy brow, signature shaven Mohawk, kanji head tattoo and blue board-short trunks, is a solid image of a man who fights in a cage. As for Jeremy “Gumby” Horn, he is tall and lanky with long muscles, a practically shaven head and approachable, jovial face. The UFC 54: Boiling Point fight card almost jokingly reads, “The Iceman vs. Gumby.”

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“Honestly, that is not my nickname,” Horn disputes. “Or, it is not a nickname that I chose. That got tagged on me, early on, in one of my fights because I am pretty flexible. I have been fighting it ever since that day, it somehow keeps reappearing … it is not exactly the most intimidating nickname.”

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Horn, while always active in the professional fighting circuit, has not entered the Octagon since February 2001 in UFC 30. There is a notion that if he successfully beats Liddell for a second time, his popular standing will finally take hold.

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“A lot of people underrate my abilities, I think that beating Chuck this time will definitely open their eyes,” he says.

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That said, it’s logical that Horn takes his upcoming encounter seriously. Horn admits that in the past'for his more than 100 professional fights'he has relied on minimal training, if not simply skill alone. UFC 54: Boiling Point that will air live Aug. 20 from the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas on pay-per-view is his firm focus. “I am actually training for this fight,” he laughs.

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Horn has enlisted the talents and advice of his friend Billy Rush, a strength and conditioning personal trainer. Rush has Horn on a specialized diet of 60 percent protein, 30 percent carbohydrates, and 10 percent fat. Horn consumes small meals every three to four hours, two of which are meal replacements. He trains Monday through Thursday and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. in a regimen that combines cardio and weight-lifting exercises. He then teaches class from 10 a.m. to noon, takes a breather, teaches another session from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and then goes back to various conditioning exercises until 9:30 p.m. Horn rests Fridays and Sundays, when Elite is closed.

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“The worst part is the dieting,” says Horn, who earlier had been complaining about eating nearly a pound of ice cream over the weekend. “The reason I got into fighting, the reason I got into any of this is because it is fun. I want to eat what I want to eat. That is why I have always fought as a heavyweight or light heavyweight, when really I belong in middleweight, because I just don’t want to diet.nn

Howe adds, “People will bring a jug of water to the gym, Jeremy will bring a big bottle of Mountain Dew, and he drinks that. He won’t drink water.nn

Even with the wacky diet, Horn has the endurance of an ox. It is not uncommon to step into the gym and find him in the octagon steel cage, three others taking him on. They go in bouts of five-minute rounds, each guy taking his turn at Horn, and then getting a break. Horn fights solid for the full 20-minute round.

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Horn has always been respected for his endurance. It could be the deciding factor for his upcoming battle against Liddell. Most everyone at Elite agrees: If his fight against Liddell goes past the first round, Horn is a shoo-in for the UFC belt. After dedicating the past decade of his life to a sport just now gaining a foothold in the forefront of today’s massive athletic events, Horn is one of the few MMA athletes who’s actually been able to make a living from fighting.

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If the world of MMA had not worked out for him, he would have been fine making a career out of construction, his job before he started fighting.

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“Fighting is something that, pretty early on, I found that I was good at. I could make a career out of it, and it was something that I loved, it was a pretty easy choice,” Horn says.

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Then he adds, with a new gleam in his eyes, “It is great competition, and if I get the green light to hurt someone I am going to do it. Everybody’s got a side to them that enjoys hurting somebody, it’s just a matter of how deeply you’ve got it buried.”

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Angie Mathews

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