Mixed Martial Arts is fighting for a foothold in the Lowcountry, even though it has been one of the fastest-growing sports in America for more than a decade.
Maybe that's due to the region's debonair attitude, or its populace's insistence on being polite. Maybe it's because the area's flagship city smugly boasts a restaurant called S.N.O.B., or a perusal of the streets is more likely to yield a $65 haircut than someone willing to scrap in a cage.
Perhaps it's the very setting of the Lowcountry itself. There are those serene marshes and diamond-encrusted waters, day-melting sunsets and palmetto-swaying breezes, and flocking pelicans sweeping low and nights sublimely lit by crescent moons.
At the very least, Rainbow Row doesn't inspire any sort of primal rage or set one to think of an armbar submission.
A clear summary of the situation lies in the fact that, in Charleston, the term "battery" is more likely to conjure up images of audaciously priced (and painted) homes than any sort of physical altercation.
So maybe that's why Charleston — unlike, say, Philadelphia — is bereft of Broad Street bullies.
Less than a year ago, Post and Courier columnist Gene Sapakoff decried MMA as "the sport of goofballs" and went on to say that "Mixed martial arts is too mixed and not very artsy," whatever that means.
But contrary to the somewhat popular belief, not everyone here is a cane-toting, homburg hat-wearing gentleman of Southern civility, more easily given to an afternoon of iced tea-sipping and do-declaring than stepping into a symmetrical fight chamber.
Fighting for Survival
Kirk Royster isn't the type to wear seersucker suits and pastel bow ties.
He often speaks in quiet tones, and at times, he comes across as somewhat nervous. When he talks, his shoulders even slump a bit. But that does little to suppress his lean 6-foot-3 frame.
It's a body that's been trained around the world in places such as Hong Kong, Las Vegas, and Brazil, yet Royster uses it for teaching rather than beating. In that way he's more Mr. Miyagi than John Kreese of the Cobra Kai dojo. "I'm a better coach, maybe, than fighter," Royster says. "I like to give knowledge to young people."
But the 32-year-old Royster does fight — in his way. He owns Grand Champ MMA in West Ashley, where he's also the striking and Muay Thai instructor. And Royster's got his bona fides, too. He's certified by Las Vegas-based Muay Thai luminary Master Toddy, a man who has trained big-name fighters such as Tito Ortiz and Gina Carano.
Not surprisingly, the full acceptance of a sport that combines elements of boxing, karate, jujitsu, judo, boxing, and wrestling — among other disciplines — has been slow to come in the Lowcountry.
However, MMA is embraced around the world by fans who fill arenas and spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on merchandise and pay-per-views. Royster's confident that, eventually, the sport will find its footing here.
"South Carolina is a very red state," Royster says. "There are a lot of veterans and retirees that move here, and elders that don't understand the technical aspects of MMA and the talent involved. That being said, demand today is higher than it's ever been."
But Royster has taken his share of financial body blows trying to sustain Grand Champ. The College of Charleston grad opened the gym in June 2008, just as the economy began to plummet in earnest. It was an unfortunate bit of timing that led to early struggles. "We had a terrible first year," Royster says.
The gym was eventually forced to relocate from its original digs on Belgrade Avenue to its current location, a smaller facility in a nondescript metal building on Pineview Road.
But Royster says that the gym, which now hosts between 50 and 60 students, has recovered about half of the clientele that it initially lost, and is experiencing steady growth. "We have a very loyal following," Royster says. "We're not going anywhere.
David Johnson, owner of Summerville-based Fury Fight Promotions, is well acquainted with the struggles of running a combat gym like Grand Champ. In 2005, he opened Team Fury Fight School. The operation had a cage and focused on MMA training. But at the time, demand for that type of specialization wasn't very strong, Johnson says, so he shuttered the school and transitioned into the promotional side of MMA.
"Any MMA school I've been to, unless you have a large following by UFC with your training camp, an MMA gym business isn't lucrative at all," Johnson says. "You almost have to just love the sport to think about opening one."
That sentiment jibes with what Royster and his Grand Champ crew are doing. "We definitely do this out of love," Royster says. "I get satisfaction from seeing people learn."
MMA advocates landed a blow last year when, after much cajoling, the state Legislature and the S.C. Athletic Commission finally gave MMA fights the green light. "We had been asking for it for years," Johnson says.
Johnson says that he and others had been attempting to get MMA events legalized as far back as 2005, though they were often bogged down by political machinations. When the bill finally passed it was because of — gasp! — MMA's economic implications, as opposed to a sudden moral turnaround by the powers that be. "It would be a huge economic impact monetarily for the state," state Athletic Commission Chairman Michael Tyler told The Associated Press last year.
Tyler's reasoning lay in the fact that local economies would receive a boost from visitors paying for hotel rooms, food, and other items. And the legislation stipulated that five percent of ticket revenues from fights would go to the state Revenue Department, while another five percent would go to the Athletic Commission's coffers.
Unlike actual MMA fights, which often produce bloodied winners and losers, it's a plan that actually sounds like something of a win-win. "If the bouts weren't in South Carolina, they would be in North Carolina or Georgia or somewhere," Rep. Jim Merrill (R-Daniel Island) says. "And as far as the gate proceeds go, anything we can do to stimulate the economy is beneficial."
Merrill became a proponent of sanctioning MMA after he was presented with information detailing its safety — especially in relation to head trauma — when compared to other combat sports. "You may not like it, but MMA is probably a safer sport than boxing," Merrill says.
Lawmakers and other officials also say that it would be better to regulate MMA than to let an underground fight culture persist unchecked.
Physical exams, blood tests for HIV and other diseases, and drug testing are all part of the S.C. MMA-licensing process. There are now 42 states that sanction such events.
While going through the legalization process, the Athletic Commission chose International Sport Karate Association, a well-known and respected sanctioning body, to oversee MMA events in the state, and the first fight night took place in Columbia last November. Since then, ISKA has also presided over events in Little River, Greenville, and Myrtle Beach. The latter, Bash at the Beach presented by Carolina Fight Promotions on Jan. 23, drew a crowd of about 3,000, and organizers had to turn people away at the doors of the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.
Noticeably absent from that list is Charleston, or any other Lowcountry locale. That will change on March 20, when Johnson and Fight Fury present "The Storm" at the North Charleston Coliseum.
"It's great for the industry and great for the local economy," Johnson says of the event and MMA's acceptance under the law. "I'm glad it's legalized and sanctioned by the ISKA. The fighters stay safe. Everyone has to get paid, and it has to be legit ... It makes it good for the industry, the way they did it here in South Carolina."
Johnson says that he's expecting between 6,000 and 10,000 people at the event, though, without having the card set, it's hard to predict an exact number at this point.
There's also no word yet on whether Sapakoff will be in attendance.
At the Gym
The new Grand Champ location isn't the easiest place to find. It's on a side street in West Ashley, and a small decal on a ragged door is the only outside evidence of its presence in a multi-tenant, metal-walled building.
Inside, the lobby is small and dark, and the smell of sweat is everywhere. A cage panel leans against one wall, welcoming — and warning — visitors. To the left is a receptionist window, and Grand Champ head coach Justin Proctor is sitting at a desk on the other side of it.
Proctor is the type that MMA critics might point to when looking for a stereotype. He has close-cropped hair and a beard, and he dips. He's wearing camouflage cargo shorts, a gray hoodie with the sleeves cut off, and a tattered UFC hat.
The 36-year-old former mechanic is opinionated and blunt. If Royster is the spiritual teacher-traveler, Proctor is the bulldog on the Grand Champ logo. They both, however, possess a shared passion for the sport.
At the moment Proctor, who was trained by MMA legend Dan Severn, is upset about the rules that govern amateur MMA bouts in South Carolina. While pro matches were OK'd under ISKA rules, amateurs are required to, among other things, wear shin guards, and aren't allowed to use elbows or ground-and-pound, a vicious technique that involves, well, grounding an opponent and pounding them mercilessly. "It makes no sense to me," Proctor says. "It really hinders the guys. There's no reason to train like a pro to fight like an amateur."
That's why late last month Proctor and Royster took five of their fighters to compete in an amateur event in Virginia. It's the fourth time that the Grand Champ team has made the nine-hour trip to fight on a card presented by Virginia-based promotion Onslaught Fights. But the gym's biggest opponent — as it has been since its inception — was financial, not physical. "A McDonald's employee makes more than we do," says Proctor, who regularly puts in 12-hour days.
Low on cash heading into the show, Grand Champ held a fundraiser at Halligan's in West Ashley on Jan. 27. The evening featured a silent auction and a performance by a local troupe of white rappers. At the end of the night, Royster says that he had about half of the $1,400 dollars the team needed for a van, hotel, and food, and that guys from the gym would have to make up the difference. But Royster also says he was fine with that total, because he had just 10 days to plan the event, and it was a first step in what he hopes is a fruitful partnership with Halligan's and other local businesses. "It's all about building awareness and relationships in the community," Royster says.
Though Grand Champ only had five fighters compete in Virginia (they finished with a record of 3-2), 13 people, including Royster and Proctor, made the two-state trip in a rented 15-passenger van. Proctor attributed the turnout to the solidarity born out of the hours they spend training together in the gym's Spartan conditions. "Some of the fighters just went up there for support," Proctor says. "It makes the team tighter. It makes for a tighter family."
Back at Grand Champ, Royster and Proctor are chatting up students as they stretch before an evening class.
The gym's training area is compact. The floor is covered with padded mats, wood beams traverse the ceilings, and an odd mixture of instruments running the gamut from sledge hammers to kettle bells line the walls. It wouldn't be a total surprise if someone ran into the middle of the room and yelled, "Drago!"
Not everyone who trains at places like Grand Champ is looking to make a career in the cage. But others are.
Those who aren't, according to the coaches, come for self-defense training and discipline, or for a recreational activity that will keep them busy. The minority that have their sights set on the bright lights of UFC or other well-known MMA promotions come to train, sculpt their bodies, and transform themselves into ultimate fighters.
Andy McWilliams is one of the latter. He made his in-ring debut last month in Virginia and won by TKO after knocking his opponent's tooth out 20 seconds into the second round. (Royster jokes that McWilliams is wearing the bicuspid on a chain around his neck, but quickly adds, "We don't do that.")
MMA proponents looking for the embodiment of the sport's positives — focus, dedication, fitness, etc. — could do worse than 26-year-old McWilliams. Six months ago, the six-foot-plus bruiser weighed 268 pounds. In Virginia, he competed in the 205-pound weight class.
"I didn't even like MMA until I learned more about it," says McWilliams, who spends about 20 hours training at the gym each week. "I did martial arts for five or six years and didn't really understand all that went into it."
McWilliams, who has two young children and another on the way, says that training at Grand Champ gives him an outlet, provides structure, and keeps him out of trouble. And he's effusive in his praise of Royster and Proctor.
"I did the work," McWilliams says, as Proctor applies an armbar to a squirming student in the background. "But Kirk and Justin got me where I am."
Royster, in turn, says that's why he's there. "We're a stepping-stone organization, and we go to stepping-stone events," Royster says.
McWilliams hopes to one day go pro as an MMA fighter, though he says he's already reaped many benefits even if he doesn't make it to a larger stage. He also disagrees with those who disparage MMA as the sport of goons.
"People might look down on it as Podunk rednecks, but it's not a cockfight," McWilliams says, "It's a chess match."
That sentiment is at the heart of the disconnect between MMA supporters who continually herald the sport's technical demands and the detractors who see nothing but blood-splattered gladiators administering unmitigated beat-downs.
Let's not kid ourselves. MMA is violent and — at times — brutal. But it's also not an unchecked cauldron of rage, full of menaces looking to pillage their way through the idyllic acreage of Lowcountry high society.
The truth is that MMA lies somewhere between barbaric and black-tie; it's neither a mob scene nor modern dance. Whether everyone in the mainstream wants to accept it or not, the sport continues to gain momentum on the strength of the public's desire for its brand of visceral action and the devoted efforts of MMA teachers and practitioners.
And, really, who would want to fight those guys?