Knock Down, Drag Out 

Local mixed martial arts team packs a punch (and a kick).

The overwhelming smell of body odor is enough to knock a person out.

But a little sweaty funk is unavoidable in a room where 14 young guys are practicing mixed martial arts (MMA) at a recent Team Vortex training session. The mostly shirtless twentysomethings are teamed up in pairs, and to the casual onlooker, each couple might appear to be engaging in a fond embrace. But then, boom, one pushes the other to the ground, where they continue wrestling on the floor.

It quickly becomes obvious that this is no hug fest but rather a practice session for the team's upcoming "Fight Night V," a mixed martial arts cage match pitting 17 pairs of amateur fighters against each other.

The event, to be held at the Millington Naval Base, will feature three-time Ultimate Fighting Champion (UFC) and jiu-jitsu fighter Royce Gracie as an honorary guest. Gracie's family is credited with popularizing mixed martial arts in Brazil in the 1920s. The UFC hit the American mainstream in 1993 after Royce took home the organization's first championship belt.

"MMA is like pro wrestling but realistic," explains Min Kang, a barrel-chested Korean-American who founded Team Vortex in 2006. "You can fight standing up or on the ground. You can fight close in, like dirty boxing, but there are some rules."

Pop in an old UFC video from the early '90s, and it appears that mixed martial arts is a vicious blood sport where anything goes. But after establishing some rules in the late '90s, participants say the sport became safer than boxing.

"The referees will stop the fight before you get hurt," says 22-year-old Andy "The Stunner" Uhrich, one of Kang's first students. "In boxing, you're taking all blows to the head for 15 rounds. [In MMA], if you get hit one good time or get knocked down or knocked out, they stop the fight."

"Everyone thinks MMA is brutal, but it's not," adds Nomie Davidson, who helps Kang coach the 30 or so Vortex team members. "You can stop by 'tapping out' or by referee. Or a judge can stop the fight in the amateur league. It's not an out-and-out free-for-all."

In fact, Kang boasts that none of his team members have sustained serious injuries in a fight. The most common complaints are cramps, swelling, and sore joints.

"Man, if we could only get BenGay to sponsor us," says Kang with a laugh.

Mixed martial arts combines wrestling, grappling, boxing, kickboxing, jiu-jitsu, and just about every martial art out there. In the local amateur league, knees and elbows to the head aren't allowed. Fighters go at each other in three three-minute rounds.

Team Vortex trains using a method called hyper-blend, in which fighters tailor maneuvers to their own personal style. For example, Kang may demonstrate a move to his students, but the students are free to tweak it as they please.

At a recent training session, 19-year-old Zack "The Man" Hanson puts the hyper-blend method into practice. Davidson demonstrates a grappling technique on Hanson in front of the class, and the paired men begin trying it out on one another. But Zack tells Davidson he knows a better way. Hanson shows Davidson his way, and the coach agrees.

"Hey, guys. Stop for minute and watch this. Zach knows a better way," says Davidson, as the men halt practice to watch a new demonstration.

Today, Kang and Davidson train about 30 students, ranging in age from 17 to 28, four days a week at the Raleigh Community Center. But Team Vortex has humbler beginnings.

"In June 2006, we started in my two-car garage," Kang says. "I had one student and he got injured, but he brought me Andy [Uhrich]. All Andy wanted was a six-pack. He didn't want to fight, but we tried it for fun and it turned into something."

That something is Uhrich's recent move from the amateur league to pro status. Uhrich made his pro debut last month in a bout against veteran fighter Chris "2 Cruel" Gates in "The Art of War 4," a cage match held at Grand Casino in Tunica.

"When I got there, it was everything I dreamed of. Big lights and cameras and everything," Uhrich says. "Once I stepped into the ring and the cameras were in my face, I froze like a deer in the headlights. I got hit a few times and then I started fighting, but I lost to a triangle [choke]."

Now that Uhrich has gone pro, there's no going back. But in the city that bred current UFC champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Kang has hopes that his fighters could be the next big stars.

"Rampage started out in the amateurs here," Kang says. "You never know. You may see 'The Stunner' and 'The Man' out there someday."

"Fight Night V" is Saturday, November 17th, 7:30 p.m. at the Millington Naval Base's North 82 Gym (7519 Memphis Ave.). For more information, call 388-6338 or 517-6709.

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