LIMA, Ohio - The fenced-in octagon stood stark and mesmerizing in the middle of a dingy United Auto Workers hall next to I-75 on the edge of town. Mixed martial arts fighters speak of the cage in religious tones, referring to it as a magnet pulling them into a primal arena where confronting pain and fear provides simple answers.
LIMA, Ohio - The fenced-in octagon stood stark and mesmerizing in the middle of a dingy United Auto Workers hall next to I-75 on the edge of town.
Mixed martial arts fighters speak of the cage in religious tones, referring to it as a magnet pulling them into a primal arena where confronting pain and fear provides simple answers.
Days earlier, Mark McVicker pondered that unique place and said, "I'm searching for something."
Now, he stared at the cage, dead ahead, a looming destination where the landscaper and former Navy air-traffic controller would become the latest of Ohio's more than 5,500 registered MMA fighters.
McVicker walked slowly forward, passing a baby being fed a bottle by a ring girl in a black bikini. Hard rock music blared, practically shaking beer from hundreds of plastic cups. Cameras clicked.
McVicker, 33, had traveled from Columbus to make his debut as an amateur welterweight against fellow rookie fighter Matt Dunahay, 32, of nearby Elida.
The crowd of about 800 glared at McVicker as offertory meat. Many fans wore black T-shirts in support of Dunahay's gym, Lima Combat Sports. They looked hungry.
McVicker's mother, Judy Chaney, stood in the back of the hall, biting her lip, trying to muster the courage to watch her son trade punches, kicks and body-slams for three, three-minute rounds inside a cage.
"I am a wreck," she said. "I'll have my hands over my eyes. As a mom, you have to be here, but I told him I was going to have a white towel in my purse and if I saw blood I'd throw it in."
Mixed martial arts - a combination of boxing, wrestling and jujitsu - has evolved in numbers and nature since becoming regulated by 47 states, including Ohio, in the past decade.
The burgeoning popularity of Ultimate Fighting Championship, the 20-year-old professional organization, has seeped into the mainstream sports world, powered by surging TV ratings, especially among younger generations.
Ohio has produced past UFC champions such as Hilliard resident Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman - both former Ohio State wrestlers - and Rich Franklin of Cincinnati. Galloway resident Matt Brown, a rising star in the UFC welterweight class, fights Mike Pyle on Aug. 17 in Boston.
The Ultimate Fighter, a popular UFC reality television show since 2005, has helped fuel record MMA participation in Ohio, which in recent years has had the most registered fighters and most annual shows (230 since 2011) of any state.
"Ohio is one of the hotbeds of MMA, especially at the amateur level," said Marc Ratner, the UFC's vice president of regulatory affairs. "It has really, really taken off."
There are 4,709 amateurs and 799 professionals registered by the state's athletic commission to fight MMA in Ohio. That total is nearly seven times the number of boxers.
The popularity of MMA is especially keen in northeastern Ohio, where the North American Allied Fight Series - the state's largest regional promotion, based in Uniontown - broadcasts its fights on SportsTime Ohio.
Central Ohio shows aren't televised and typically draw as many as 1,000 fans. Still, there is enough demand for MMA in central Ohio that Columbus hosted two fight shows in May and an amateur show last night at the Courtyard Columbus West.
Increased interest has caused organized gyms to sprout. About a dozen around Columbus now offer MMA training taught by veteran fighters, who a decade ago were scrambling to learn the highly technical sport on their own.
"The quality of fighters today is incredible," said Luke Zachrich, a 31-year-old pro fighter who participated in Ultimate Fighter 7 and is co-owner of the Ronin Training Center in Columbus. "There are amateurs with two fights these days who would beat the hell out of the guy I made my pro debut against eight years ago."
UFC and Bellator Fighting Championships, the second-biggest pro brand, enjoy their greatest popularity among males aged18 to 34. However, a surprising number of families, women and children attend Columbus shows.
Although easily stereotyped, those willing to get into the cage possess diverse backgrounds, evident in a sampling of the local fight scene.
There is Jake Kuhner, 28, of Pickerington, a special-education elementary teacher and Whitehall High School football coach who considers cage fighting to be "the ultimate test of yourself."
There is Vanessa Demopoulos, 24, who moved from Cleveland to train at Ronin and has a stock answer when asked if she's afraid of injuring her face: "Bruises and bumps heal. The experience will last forever."
And then there is the fighting pastor.
David Bever, 34, not only has a wife and three children in Hilliard, he's also an ordained minister who lost his amateur MMA debut last year. He trains daily before dawn at the Old School Gym in Pataskala and plans to fight again in September.
"There's no difference between me in the pulpit and me in the cage," Bever said. "I don't need everybody else to understand. We all bloom where we are planted."
So it was that Mark McVicker found himself in Lima last month, moving silently through the crowd toward the cage.
Just as he had dreamed, McVicker put on 6-ounce gloves, headed up four metal steps, and entered the black fenced-in octagon.
Behind him, a man shut and locked the cage door.State regulation adopted
Bernie Profato had never heard of MMA when he became executive director of the Ohio Athletic Commission in September 2004. He was dumbfounded when told it involved fighting inside a cage.
"I said, 'You're kidding me,'??" said Profato, 67, a retired police officer and Marine with an extensive career in sports officiating.
At that time, the OAC - an 11-member state agency appointed by the governor - was leaning toward banning MMA in Ohio, where unsanctioned events had been held since the late 1990s.
Profato, however, convened a summit of Ohioans involved in MMA three months into his tenure. After that meeting, he convinced the athletic commission that it should regulate MMA instead of outlaw it; otherwise, he argued, illegal shows would be held and someone could get seriously injured or killed.
"Bernie stuck his neck out and made this what it is today," said Mark Matheny, a longtime MMA referee and a former promoter from Newark. "He almost single-handedly put Ohio MMA on the map."
Ohio began regulating MMA in the spring of 2005 after Profato authored state-approved rules based largely on the 28 (up from the original three) adopted by UFC. Weight classes and a rounds system were established.
The athletic commission, empowered by law, makes certain that fighters and promoters are licensed and that all MMA events are sanctioned with medical personnel and state officials in attendance. Suspensions are doled out from Profato's office in Youngstown.
"The job here is to see that we do everything that we can medically, physically and recordwise to put these fighters in the safest environment that we can put them in," Profato said.
The UFC's Ratner said Ohio is among the nation's best states in regulating MMA, particularly at the amateur level. Local promoters, trainers and fighters with experiences in other states concurred in several interviews.
"The Ohio Athletic Commission is one of the most solid commissions in the whole country," Coleman said. "They run a tight ship. They don't bend the rules. They run things the way they should be run."
Across the nation, state regulation isn't uniform. Michigan, for example, doesn't regulate amateur MMA, although it legalized the sport six years ago. On April 6, a Canadian fighter died following his amateur bout in Port Huron, Mich.
"The commission is why the sport is as big and great at it is in the state of Ohio," said Troy Speakman, an MMA and boxing promoter from Grove City. "If we didn't have the commission, it would be like the Wild West with no sheriff around."
Regulation, however, hasn't stripped away the sport's essence.
"What it comes down to is two guys in a cage, scrapping it out," Galloway's Brown said. "It's still a raw fight."
And that's what Mark McVicker found himself in last month in Lima.Battle royal
Sweat flew through the fence as McVicker and his opponent slammed into the side of the cage. They were tangled in pain, both bleeding from the face.
An air-horn blast ended the first round, and a doctor checked a cut near McVicker's left eye. He was deemed fit to continue.
McVicker, a veteran of combat zones during nine years in the Navy, had a dazed look, as if adrenaline were squeezing his shaved head in a massive vice grip. This was no longer something he fantasized about or watched on TV.
"The fear of every fighter is to get in there and find out this ain't for me," he said before the fight. "The real truth is in the cage."
Confronting that truth means first facing up to fear, something that churns even in top-line UFC fighters.
"Anybody who says they're not afraid when they get in there is either stupid or lying," Brown said.
For some rookies, the fear is too much to conquer. They like selecting a nickname, choosing a walk-up theme song, wearing the MMA apparel. Then reality roars as the cage beckons.
"Thirty percent want to post on Facebook that they're going to fight, then the week of their fight their grandma dies for a fifth time or their house burns down for a third time," said Scott Sheeley, a trainer, promoter and former fighter from Bellefontaine.
Matheny knows a certain look from having refereed more than 4,000 bouts. "I see guys who get in there and can't wait to get out," he said.
Many fighters, however, are comfortable in the cage once the action begins. They're accustomed to pain after spending prior years in another fierce sport, one especially popular in Ohio.
"You get a lot of wrestlers," said Adam DiSabato, a former Ohio State wrestler who now trains local MMA fighters. "This is the only way for them to compete after they're done with high school or college. They fight. They're used to grinding workouts."
For some young people wandering through their existence, nights in a hot gym are a welcome change.
"It's given me life," said Jordan Schembri, 19, of Columbus. "It's given me a little identity and something to work for."
Training on a regular basis as part of a fight team offers much-needed structure and discipline to some, and fraternity to all.
"Every person wants to be part of something," Demopoulos said, "whether it's a chess club or an online social group or a book club. This is our family. You become part of something bigger than yourself."
Shared community spirit is evident at shows. The black T-shirts and tattoos suggest a soothing uniformity in a subculture that sees a sport defined by respect where outside critics might see only brutality.
At some point, however, the fighter is alone in a cage with another fighter oozing bad intentions.
"Everything else stops," Pastor Bever said.
And within the ensuing violence, some find a sense of peace.
"It's a complex world we live in, with technology and social media," Brown said. "You get into the cage and it strips all that away. There's no lying in there, no faking it. It's just me and you, and who is better?"
Brown has achieved an element of national pay-per-view fame in UFC and earns enough money fighting to support his wife and two children. McVicker, on the other hand, went to Lima last month with an amateur contract that paid his $50 in national ID and Ohio licensing fees to fight before 800 fans.
Yet both men were bonded by the cage experience.
"It takes a lot of guts to do that," Coleman said. "They can be proud for the rest of their life."
So there was more to the night than what the official record showed: Dunahay defeated McVicker with a rear naked choke submission, 2 minutes, 33 seconds into the second round.
McVicker's chest still heaved 10 minutes after exiting the cage. Sweat poured from his body, marked by welts.
"Hell of a fight," DiSabato said to him.
The trainer applied an ice pack to McVicker's eye. At their feet lay a bloody towel.
"I feel great," McVicker said. "It's a release. It's a goal reached. A long time ago, I told myself and everybody that I'd do it, and I did it. That's a win."