What Makes Us Different

By FIGHT! contributor Marshal D. Carper

The man next to me drops a plastic cup full of beer. The frothy brew spills on to my right shoe. I feel it soak into my sock. He looks away from the cage and puts both hands into his gelled brown hair.

“Dude, I am so sorry.”

I flick off the beer pooling on the toe of my shoe and tell him not to worry. He looks at my press pass and my notebook and my pen.

“Are you a writer or something?”

I tell him that I am. I think beer splashed into my mouth. I wonder if he backwashes and if that technically means we’ve kissed.

“What are you writing about?”

I’m not sure how to explain it. “Would you ever get into the cage?” I ask.

“Hell, no.”

I point to Joe Reihner, one of the fighters I interviewed before the fights began. Reihner is just stepping into the cage. “I want to find out what makes him different from you.”

Reihner jogs to the blue corner. He bounces and shakes his arms. He runs his gloved fingers through his shaggy black hair. He breathes deeply. This is his second amateur fight. He’s nervous. Reihner’s opponent is more muscular. A phoenix tattoo spans his opponent’s back. It ripples as he paces and shadowboxes, the oranges and reds and yellow seeming to burn in the bright cage lights.

The referee chops his hand and moves away from the middle of the cage.

Reihner closes the distance. He circles. He jabs. He lobs an overhand right and follows up with a shot. He clings to a double leg while his opponent sprawls and punches his ribs. After a few stutter steps, Reihner turns the corner and gets the takedown. He moves to side control and swings his leg over to mount. For the last two minutes of the first round, he leans his head into the chain link and drops punches, his arms moving like steam engine pistons. His eyes don’t blink. His face is tensed. Punch. Punch. Punch. Reihner looks primal, a man possessed by the fury of combat.

I keep looking to the referee, craning my neck to see around the two middle-aged blondes standing in front me, the beers in their hands slosh and spill as they cheer. Reihner’s opponent is active, bridging and covering up to avoid serious punishment. The referee lets the fight continue. The buzzer sounds. The fight is heading into the second round.

I scribble on my notepad. I look over my shoulder, back toward the staging area, and see Drew “the Juggernaut” Shields, the hood of his sweatshirt up, his headphones in.

I met Shields six hours ago at Subway. I was ordering a 12” chicken teriyaki on Italian herb and cheese and was about to pick my vegetables when Shields, already wearing his red and black Sprawl shorts, stepped in front of me. He set a flatbread sandwich with tomatoes, provolone, and mayonnaise on the counter.

“There’s no meat on my sandwich,” Shields said.

The woman making my sandwich looked up. Her face was weathered and her hair grey. She spoke with a West Virginia twang. “Honey,” she said, “You have to ask for meat.” She started to grin. “You asked for a veggie sandwich, so I gave you a veggie sandwich.”

The dining room, which was filled with fighters of various camps, each wearing their team’s fight wear and colors, erupted in laughter.

Shields is not a small man. He wrestled in high school, and before starting to train MMA, he did bodybuilding. He’s competed in Mr. Pittsburgh, Mr. Pennsylvania, Mr. Westmoreland, and Mr. Keystone. He fights at 170 and is huge for the weight class.

His shoulders drooped. His eyes looked at his feet. He didn’t say anything.

“Hun,” the woman said, beginning to feel pity for Shields, “What would you like?”

“Steak, please.”

I waited for Shields to finish eating before I approached his table, pushing past his entourage from the Mad Dog Gym.

Shields told me that after wrestling in high school, he still needed to compete. Bodybuilding was competitive, but it didn’t give him the same satisfaction, so he looked to the cage.

“I like being the best. I enjoy the competitive edge,” Shields said. “Only a certain type of person can do [mixed martial arts].”

I asked Shields what type of person that is.

“Someone very competitive.”

That night, Shields won a unanimous decision after physically dominating his opponent for three rounds. He opened each round with a double leg, hoisting his opponent into the air before slamming him on to his back. Each takedown thundered. The audience cheered.

I left Subway and drove a few minutes down the road to the James E. Carnes Event Center, built on the Fairmont County Fair Grounds in St. Clairsville, Ohio, the home of Cage of Chaos. Round bales and dairy cows dot the pastures surrounding the venue. Inside, I found Paul Reihner in the red locker room, which doubled as a kitchen.

Paul Reihner is 31 and is Joe’s older brother. The elder Reihner has a receding hairline and cauliflower ears. He teaches Special Education at a local high school and coaches the middle school wrestling team. Like Shields, Paul wanted to keep competing long after wrestling season ended. Talking about MMA made him smile.

“The attention is nice, but it’s not about that,” Paul said. “It’s about challenging yourself. There’s just nothing like it.”

Paul overwhelmed his opponent with wrestling later that night and used ground and pound to set up a rear naked choke. It was his second fight and his second victory.

Outside of the red locker room, in the still empty stands, Nathan Bryant was sitting with friends and family. Bryant is 23-year-old heavyweight with a shaved head and scruffy face. Bryant wrestled in high school, and he went to Fairmont State College on a partial football scholarship.

“With wrestling as with cage fighting, it’s yourself,” Bryant said, leaning in so I could hear him over the music. “You don’t rely on other people. Whenever you win, it’s your victory, not a team victory… when you lose, there’s no one to blame but yourself. It’s kind of a way to reflect on yourself as a person and a way to reflect on your life.

“This comes from Fight Club–you can’t really tell much about yourself as a person until you’ve actually been in a fight… you get in tough situations in the cage and you just give up, when things get tough in life you’re just going to give up. That’s the way I look at it.”

Bryant’s opponent didn’t get up to fight the second round. Bryant spent the first round circling away from telegraphed take downs, landing jabs and crosses with a sniper’s precision. His opponent was bloodied, exhausted, and hurt.

Reihner’s corner man exits the cage. The referee steps forward and starts round two.

Reihner closes the distance and immediately shoots for a takedown. He lands in his opponent’s guard. His posture is broken down. He tries a small slam to break free. It fails. His opponent starts to swivel his hips and climb his legs up. Reihner steps over to defend the arm bar, but his opponent hangs on. Reihner is in trouble.

I remember what Reihner told me before the fight in the locker room.

When I asked him why he fights, he told me that women love fighters, and he told me to write it down twice. I underlined it too.

Then he said, “We’re the gladiators—the modern day gladiators. This is what we do. I don’t care if I get beat up. I want to go out there and lay a beating on somebody, but I’ll heal up [if I lose].”

Reihner can’t escape the arm bar. He begins to panic and struggle but executes a sloppy escape. His opponent takes his back. A few moves later, Reihner taps to a rear naked choke. He curls up on the mat, his head in his hands, his face on the mat. He gets up and shakes his opponent’s hand.

He lost, but he’ll heal up and fight again. That’s what makes him different.

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