In the anything-goes sport of no-holds-barred fighting, combatants find their own fight club camaraderie.
by Mike Gibson
Brian Lekines is in trouble.
Stretched prone across the carpet upstairs at Court South Fitness Center, he's breathing heavily, a condition not exacerbated in the least by the fact that Josh Cates, all 186 pounds of him, is bearing down from the top, the points of his beefy elbows digging furrows into Lekines' solar plexus. Cates' powerful legs, meanwhile, describe a circle around the lower portion of Lekines' body, meeting at a point just beneath his thighs in order to limit any potential position shifts.
In the language of no-holds-barred fighting, a sport practiced by both Cates and Lekines, it's called the "mount" position, and it bodes ill for the man on bottom unless he can find some way to turn the tables on his somewhat better-stationed aggressor.
Which, sure enough, Lekines eventually does, in an explosive flurry of activity, a series of pretzel-like entanglements of limbs and torsos that eventually see Lekines regain the upper hand, albeit briefly, from his stockier opponent. Says onlooker Doug Powell, another NHB practitioner awaiting his turn in the grappling rotation, "It's strategy combined with effort, like a physical chess game."
NHB fighting is a sport still in its infancy, both internationally and especially here in Knoxville. Sprung into the national consciousness only a few years ago with the advent of pay-per-view contests such as the Ultimate Fighting Championships, it ups the ante on more traditional fighting arts by permitting contestants more-or-less free rein in their mode of attack.
"What happened is that a lot of people who were into martial arts or whatever discovered that though they had trained for years, they couldn't defend themselves in a real fight," says Jack Butturini, standing in his own airy karate studio on the outskirts of Farragut. On the cushioned mat in front of him, a handful of hale young men in their twenties make the rounds at various bags and pads, practicing kicks and strikes. It's here that many of Knoxville's NHB participants come to practice every Monday and Wednesday night.
Butturini was instrumental in fomenting NHB interest locally with his "discovery" several years ago of Brazil's Gracie family and their lethal brand of jiu-jitsu, a grappling art that emphasizes dispatching opponents by means of submission holds. NHB tournaments had just begun to gain a foothold on the pay-per-view landscape, and the Gracies dominated the events, their clever, subversive methods exposing gaping holes in the methodologies of fighters with boxing or karate backgrounds.
"I told my staff and black belts, 'This is what we're going to start doing,'" says Butturini. After attending a Gracie seminar in Chicago, he joined the family's Brazilian-American Jiu-Jitsu Association and began sponsoring jiu-jitsu tourneys locally. And three years ago, he gathered up a vanful of students and visited a NHB event in Tunica, Miss.
Today, somewhere close to 40 men train NHB-style in Knoxville, with perhaps half of that number having participated competitively. Most aficionados, like 21-year-old Cate, are long-time students of karate who saw NHB events as a means of expanding their martial capabilities.
"I just like to fight," says Cate, who took up Tae Kwon Do at age 11, and later wrestled in high school. "It's the ultimate way to test yourself, just you and the other guy. You learn a lot about who you are."
"It's a way to prove something to myself," says 23-year-old Ben Harrison, an instructor at Butturini's school. A handsome, muscular Loudon native, Harrison earned a quick rep as an adept NHB competitor when he faced an experienced regional champion at a tournament in Orlando. Avoiding his jiu-jitsu-trained opponent's powerful grasp, he pounded away with foot and hand strikes and earned a championship belt.
"You get in here and trade sweat and blood," says Harrison. "It's the next logical step, to bring it together in the intensity of the event itself."
Currently, NHB tournaments are few and far between; local fighters must travel to states like Indiana and Iowa, where no-holds-barred is legal as a competitive sport, to enter tournaments. And given the piecemeal nature of the still-young sport, most competitors seem to view participation as an end unto itself, focusing on personal betterment rather than reaching some distant championship pinnacle.
Now 30, local UPS driver Doug Powell took up NHB only last year, having given up rugby as his primary physical outlet when mounting injuries took an inevitable toll. A former karate student, Powell watched Cate compete, trained for six months, and entered a fight in Evansville, Ind. With some pride, he recalls winning his inaugural effort when he caught his opponent in a reverse triangle, a choking maneuver wherein the legs are wrapped around the "victim's" head and neck.
"It would take too much beating and banging for me to get anywhere in this sport," Powell admits. "I just love the physical outlet."
Despite the anything-goes aesthetic of NHB, the sport does have rules; groin strikes, eye gouges, head butts, bites, and strikes to the throat or back of the head are disallowed. And while punches and kicks are fair game, fights more often end when one contestant catches the other in a submission hold, permitting the trapped fighter to "tap out" when he realizes he's been had.
"You're not trying to kill anyone," Powell explains. "When you get someone in a hold, you apply just enough pressure to let them know they're caught."
"I've seen hundreds of fights and never seen one serious injury," says Butturini, although he admits to having witnessed an occasional broken arm. He notes that the physical punishment absorbed is generally far below that received in boxing. To date, there is only one recorded death associated with NHB, that having occurred at a tournament in Europe.
According to Powell, the remarkable thing about this sport that has as its goal the physical subjugation of an opponent is the sense of camaraderie it ultimately fosters. "There's lot of camaraderie; it's a lot like rugby in that sense," says Powell. "You go out and have a beer after the fight. Everything stays in the ring."
"You've got to leave your ego off the mat," says Butturini. "Everyone eventually gets tapped out; everyone loses. When you understand that, you can let go of any animosities."
There are a few local fighters who have set their sights on loftier NHB goals; at 21, Cate is young enough to expect years of improvement before his steps slow and his hands falter. In 10 fights, he has compiled a five and three record (with two 'no contests,' the equivalent of a draw), and his training partners give him high marks for his seemingly boundless stamina and bulldog tenacity. "I'd like to fight in a foreign country, and I'd like to win a championship for one of the sport's sanctioning bodies," says Cate. "Those are two very big goals."
He may be hampered by his sport's current lack of acceptance, however; most states, including Tennessee, will not permit NHB fighting, and politicians such as Senator John McCain and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have gone so far as to rail against it in public discourse.
"I'd like to get a show here, but we can't get sponsorship," says Cate, noting that all combat-style events must be sanctioned by the state boxing commission. "I don't know what steps we'd have to take to get it legalized. I just know it's a lot safer and quicker than boxing; those guys take a lot more punishment than we do."
Asked if he ever pauses to question the sanity of participating in a sport as virulently titled as No-Holds-Barred Fighting, Cates pauses and answers, "Usually before every fight, I ask myself why I'm doing this. Once I get into the ring, I realize how much I love it."