MMA Life

MMA Life

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San Francisco 49ers Kassim Osgood uses capoeira to help find his edge on the field.

San Francisco 49ers special team standout Kassim Osgood has one of the most physically grueling jobs in football. The three-time Pro Bowler is a “gunner,” who charges down the field on kickoffs and punts and tries to wreak havoc on the ball carrier. To do so, he has to fight through multiple defensive backs that are trying to knock his head off.

Despite Osgood’s obvious toughness, the longtime MMA fan still isn’t inclined to step into the Octagon.

“Become a fighter? Hell no,” says Osgood. “That’s something you have to have the instinct for from day one. It’s kind of like somebody who’s been a basketball player all their life, then deciding they want to go play football. You’re going to be off. But in the case of MMA, if you’re off one second, you’ll get knocked out. I like the way I look. I don’t want my face all beat up.”

It’s not as if Osgood didn’t have an early introduction to MMA. As an All-American football player at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California, Osgood became friends with former Cal Poly wrestler Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell.
“I’ve known Chuck Liddell since I was 18 years old,” Osgood says. “I met him around town and went into his gym and found out who he was and what MMA was. Watching him and watching the old-school guys like Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock, that’s how I got into it MMA, and I’ve been following it ever since.”

While he never actually trained with Liddell, Osgood has been training forms of martial arts most of his life. He started kung fu as a teen, but the Brazilian dance-fighting art capoeira captivated him in 2005 while playing for the San Diego Chargers.

“One of the guys who has a capoeira class in San Diego came down and did a demonstration at one of our camps for the kids in our foundation,” Osgood says. “I kind of remembered it from a movie a long time ago. It was intriguing. It looked like it was a lot of fun. He was explaining that it was good for cardiovascular health. At the time, I had a shoulder injury, so it was a great way to strengthen my shoulder. There are a lot of flips and handstands and stuff that you’ve got to do, and little positions and that help utilize your shoulders a lot. It was good rehab.”

Osgood hasn’t been able to practice the Brazilian martial art over the past few years while playing in Jacksonville and Detroit, but now that he’s back on the West Coast playing for the Niners, he plans on getting back into capoeira.

“Capoeira helps with speed, quickness with your hands, getting off the jam, and getting off blocks,” says Osgood. “Being able to block people and using your overall weight distribution is a huge benefit. It’s just one more thing that will give me an edge to keep playing in the NFL.”

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Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds has the MMA vibe.

Imagine Dragons lead singer Dan Reynolds is a longtime mixed martial arts fan who always wanted to meet his MMA hero. Earlier this summer, he got his chance, but it wasn’t the impression he wanted to leave.

“I was at a gas station,” says the 26-year-old singer. “Someone had been in the men’s bathroom for a very long time, so I went into the women’s bathroom. When I walked out, guess who’s standing there? Chuck Liddell, with this disapproving look on his face. I tried to clumsily explain myself, but to no avail. It was pretty embarrassing.”

Although the musician chuckles in disbelief, it’s a memory that he’ll never forget. Reynolds has always been a Liddell fan, but he began to follow the sport of MMA more intently in 2006 when he got hooked on The Ultimate Fighter 3, featuring coaches Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz.

“Honestly, I don’t think there’s a season of TUF that I haven’t been excited about,” says Reynolds. “It really opens up your eyes when you get to know the fighters on a more personal level and get to see their passion and love for the sport. For instance, on TUF 17, I was just blown away by Jon Jones’ character. He seemed like such a leader and down to earth. It gave me this appreciation for a fighter I didn’t really care for before. I became a huge fan of Jones. So every season, you get to see these fighters at a deeper level.”

Reynolds, who is a proud Las Vegas resident, has an even deeper appreciation for the sport’s athletes, having witnessed firsthand the athleticism and work ethic involved in becoming a mixed martial artist.

“Some of my buddies have started getting into jiu-jitsu, and I have really gotten to see the discipline behind that and the real art behind it,” Reynolds says. “MMA is not just dudes throwing punches. There is art and technique to it. It’s going to keep growing in popularity because there’s so much depth to it and so much heart in the sport.”

Despite his “Iceman” bathroom incident, Reynolds is having the time of his life, as he and the rest of his bandmates from Imagine Dragons have embarked on a world tour in support of their platinum-selling debut album Night Visions. Released in September 2012, Night Visions is an 11-track indie rock collection packed with commanding instrumentation and an atmospheric flare.

The LP has produced an assortment of breakout singles, including “It’s Time,” “Hear Me,” “On Top of the World,” and “Demons.” But it’s their hypnotic mega hit “Radioactive” that has made history. The track topped the Billboard Hot Rock Songs chart for 23 consecutive weeks and the Billboard Rock Airplay for 24 weeks.
Although indie rock isn’t normally associated with MMA, Night Visions complements the sport well.

“A lot of the songs on our album are pretty powerful, so I would like to think it lends well to the sport,” Reynolds says. “It’s pretty hard-hitting, but I think there is something to be said for all different genres. There are hip-hop songs I feel are perfect for the sport, and I’m sure there are country songs and heavier songs that complement MMA. I don’t think there is any one genre that’s perfect for the sport. I think it’s whatever gets you in the zone, and if that’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding or “Radioactive” or some song by Tool, whatever it is that gets you in the zone, that’s right.”

Reynolds’ next goal is to find the time to attend a UFC event. Las Vegas is his home, and it’s the city that helped put him and Imagine Dragons on the map.

“I’ve been invited to go, but I’ve been on the road nonstop for the past two years,” he says. “The second I get any time off in Vegas, I’m definitely gonna roll over to one of the events and see a live UFC fight. I love Vegas. I have so much pride for that city. I know most people think of it as just a tourist place, but there is a lot of culture to Vegas and a lot of pride in the people. Being around the fight community there is awesome.”

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Imagine Dragons’ debut album, Night Visions featuring the #1 hit, Radioactive, is available now on iTunes.

Online:
imaginedragonsmusic.com
facebook.com/ImagineDragons

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Belinda Strange

Age: 26
Height: 5’7”
Hometown: Wichita Fall, TX
Online: @Belinda_Strange
Facebook.com/Belinda.strange.9
belindastrange.com

What is your favorite thing about MMA?
The rush you get while watching a fight. These fighters train so hard and as soon as they are in the cage it’s all put to the test. It’s amazing the strength they have.

Who is your favorite fighter?
Hands down Tony Lopes. I’ve met him and his wife at several fights I’ve worked and they are great people.

What do you look for in a guy?
I look for a guy who will take control. I’m very independent and usually make all the decisions so it’s nice to have someone who will step up and be in charge once in a while.

Do you have any hobbies?
I love helping with charities, crafting, cooking, and most of all, I love to sew. I’m actually very old fashioned at heart.

What’s one funny thing that most people don’t know about you?
I’m obsessed with superhero movies.

Why do you want to be a FIGHT! girl?
I love MMA and have a ton of respect for the sport. I want to help represent the sport anyway I can. I love being a ring girl and going to fights is always my favorite night out.

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Bellator’s maiden voyage into the world of PPV is intriguing, if also a little doomed.

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There’s a great divide between the acronyms of MMA and PPV. It’s what sets the game’s greatest acronym—the UFC—apart from lesser organizations. The UFC is a pay-per-view driven business that has expanded into such things as broadcast television in its unyielding quest to take over the globe. Today, the UFC is a key cog on FOX and flagshipped on FOX Sports 1, a crowning achievement for a “fringe” sport that was still referred to as “human cockfighting” when Everlast’s “What It’s Like” was atop the rock charts (or, to cut the math out of it, as recently as 1998).

Even with the network advancements, it’s the PPVs that drive the promotion.

Bellator, on the other hand, is going in for the opposite tact. The tournament-based company that started out on the cable network ESPN Deportes—yet has since segued to the Viacom networks MTV2 and now the MMA propeller blade Spike TV—is hosting its very first PPV show on November 2 in Long Beach, California. The principals are familiar names: Quinton Jackson and Tito Ortiz, both former champions who helped push the UFC’s business model forward in their day. They are past glories, yes, but the hope is they’ve got enough “it factor” to move the PPV needle. They did not emerge from a tournament, which is Bellator’s structure.

They were brought in as attractions.

This feels like a lesson about to be learned. There are certain factors in play that make PPV complicated. It takes time and consistency to make your way into people’s disposable income. The UFC started with PPVs, so by now we expect to spend. We accept this, and it’s now part of our hardwiring. Bellator didn’t, so we don’t. To add an extra “payment” to the already pricey schedule is like getting hit with an unforeseen tax—only it’s an unforeseen tax we have the option of paying or not.
It doesn’t hurt that the UFC markets the hell out of most PPV cards. UFC cards feel like “events,” even on sadder ones where Randy Couture is fighting Mark Coleman in a headlining spot (UFC 109). The “past champions collide” motif has legs, so long as you create them. Whether or not Bellator will (or even can) create them is the question.

Bellator’s maiden voyage into the world of PPV is intriguing, if also a little doomed.

Everybody knows that the coattail factor in play for Bellator’s first PPV event is the elephant in the room. By having “Rampage” and the erstwhile “Huntington Beach Bad Boy” tangle long after they lost their steam, the old “UFC retread” hurdle might just be too much for some to try and clear. The UFC commands your dollar for the privilege of watching two dramas collide. Bellator is commanding your dollar to determine what’s left of those dramas. These are two very different premises from which to approach a fight.

The biggest challenge, though, is that the UFC has established itself as the pro league, like the NBA or NFL, and Bellator right now is still the USFL. That’s why, just as the USFL brought up its own stars like Herschel Walker and Steve Young back in the day, the real main event should be—and is in some people’s minds—the rematch between Eddie Alvarez and Bellator Lightweight Champion Michael Chandler.

Alvarez is fresh off of litigation in a tug-of-war between Bellator and the UFC for his rights—and it’s possible that this inaugural PPV is all about Alvarez and the verbiage in his UFC-dictated contract. Not that people care about that so much as the general history between the two. Alvarez has a loss to avenge. Chandler has a victory to back up, and he’s right now a legitimate top lightweight in any promotion. Alvarez and Chandler put on one of the best fights of 2011, and there’s nothing to say they won’t do it again. Each man gets hit more than is safe, which means more than plenty of fun.

This fight is, of course, PPV worthy. The Pat Curran-Daniel Strauss fight also showcases Bellator’s best. Just as Chandler is a top 155-pounder, Curran is one of the top featherweights in the world. Then there’s Muhammad Lawal, who gets a chance to avenge his promotional debut loss to Emanuel Newton. That’s compelling, too. Lawal is still a mountain of untapped potential. All of these are Bellator fights that would be coveted by the UFC. These are fights that could conceivably compete for the UFC dollar.

Will any of that translate into success on November 2? That’s the question. The Jackson-Ortiz fight is interesting in that it breaks an important barrier here. We are used to those names being associated with PPV. There’s a lingering perception that Ortiz and Jackson “cost money.” As for everyone else, since we’re being asked to pay for something that we normally get for free, these better pieces are the toughest to sell.

And, in a nutshell, that is just how complicated the world of PPV is.

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If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

A small rubber bracelet with a hologram sticker can enhance your performance in the gym, in life, and in competition. It boosts power and agility, making it a critical training asset for every athlete. Or so say the marketers of Power Balance Performance Technology®, who promise a broad range of performance-improving characteristics through their product line of $29.99 wristbands.

NBA All-Stars and NFL Super Bowl MVPs have publicly endorsed these bracelets. But after a commanding presence at the UFC Fan Expo in years past, Power Balance was notably absent at this summer’s expo. Carl Sagan popularized the rule that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” so let’s dig deeper into Power Balance’s magic.

Part of the sales pitch is that Power Balance taps into invisible energy fields flowing through all living things. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Obi Wan Kenobi offered the exact same explanation for “The Force” to Luke Skywalker in the movie Star Wars. This should make this pitch ridiculous to everyone except aspiring Jedi Knights, but it gets worse.

The company’s explanation for how an invisible, undetectable, and immeasurable force can possibly be real and affect human athletic performance is that the technology is based on the same principles behind acupuncture and Feng Shui. This particular lapse in logic is called the “Argument From Antiquity.” Just because a practice or idea is old, doesn’t mean there’s evidence to support it. Ancient superstitions come in all flavors, but only a sucker assumes that tradition equates to efficacy (see also: human sacrifice).

And those examples of corroboration should sound fishy for another reason. The claims of acupuncture and Feng Shui are both modern residuals of superstitious attempts to explain how the world and the human body work. The existence of an energy field called “Qi” sounded like a reasonable explanation before modern physics, chemistry, and biology, but it never holds up under close inspection. While rearranging your furniture to be in balance with the universe may sound like harmless fun, acupuncture has been proven to be an expensive and occasionally dangerous placebo effect. And the placebo effect is the real Power Balance conduit.

Magic jewelry aficionados may believe that they feel different just because they think they’re supposed to. But our human tendency to conform to expectations and even self-delude are not evidence for technological claims. The placebo effect is strong, and also predictably and clearly limited. “Ionic” bracelets don’t have a power source or any other design characteristics that would enable them to impact human physiology in any meaningful way. It literally can’t do anything other than sit there. Any perceived effect is just in our heads.

Snake oil cure-alls of the 19th century have been pushed aside by modern science and improving pharmacology. But when it comes to unquantifiable “performance enhancement,” the 21st century has resurrected the smooth talking salesmen of yesteryear. They’ve replaced exotic herbs and animal products with technical jargon that fraudulently insinuates cutting-edge innovations. The marketing bells, whistles, and even parlor tricks are all the same. In the case of Power Balance, an in-person demonstration at sports expositions can be quite a production. But it’s just a trick.

Demonstrations are always the same: a salesman pulls your arm at various angles with and without a bracelet, and you’ll feel stronger with the product. But note how sometimes the salesmen will pull your arm down but also slightly out to the side, as opposed to straight down and inward. That subtle difference is all it takes to pull you off balance or make you feel suddenly stronger. It’s just physics and biomechanics, not bracelets. But without knowing the trick, the show can be impressive. It’s also easily debunked via simply controlled experiments.

At the 2010 UFC Fan Expo, Power Balance made a concerted effort to capture the MMA market demographic with UFC-branded products. But executives within Zuffa pushed back, suggesting their products were bunk, and UFC-branded bracelets never made it to market. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the more influential NBA or MLB.
But just because Power Balance is no longer an official sponsor of UFC fighters, that hasn’t stopped other new-age scam artists from pursuing the MMA audience. This year’s UFC Fan Expo featured a booth selling $60 “Quantum Necklaces” that make similar claims. Their necklaces allegedly vibrate at special frequencies (not true) that instantly interact with your blood (not even possible) to align your aura (which doesn’t exist) to “enhance strength and balance” (sound familiar?). Like energy bracelets, the phrase “a sucker born every minute” should be painted in invisible homeopathic ink on the lining.

Because jewelry can’t be worn during MMA competition, the quantum necklace salesmen created oil that can be applied to the skin to replicate the benefits. Just a drop of oil is all it takes to go from Average Joe to MMA Champ in seconds, and the salesmen confided that many UFC fighters and trainers were “interested in the product.” Modern day scam artists have brought us full circle back to the days of magical snake oil.
As for Power Balance, despite lawsuits and admission of their false claims, they’re still allowed to sell their product in the United States. It’s harder down in Australia, where proactive citizens applied pressure, and Power Balance was forced to admit to fraud and issue a public apology for lying. But they’re laughing all the way to the bank. All in all, they grossed nearly $100 million in sales just by selling toy stickers that do nothing at all.

Remember, there’s a large marketplace out there chasing your hard-earned dollar, and it’s okay to be skeptical. Critical thinking and a little bit of science are all you need to keep you from colorfully showcasing your gullibility and getting ripped off by an expensive, not-so-magical bracelet.

Scam, Bam, Thank You, Ma’am
Here’s how to spot sports scams before they steal your dollars. If a company can’t answer “Yes” to all these questions, they don’t deserve your time or money.

– Is there a plausible cause and effect for the product and its claims?

– Are the claims reasonable, clearly defined, and easily measured?

– Do they use accepted performance measurements, avoiding scam jargon like “ionic, quantum, and energy fields?”

– Does the product emphasize research published in established scientific literature with numerous, corroborating studies, rather than rely on celebrity endorsements?

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Army Combatives turns soldiers into fighters on the battlefield and in the cage.

When Tim Kennedy found out he’d be making his Octagon debut against jiu-jitsu ace Roger Gracie, he asked himself who was best suited to help him get ready. Without question, his longtime coaches Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn would train and corner him at UFC 162, giving him advice for which they’re so renowned. His friend Nick Palmisciano from Ranger Up and his wife would be providing moral support. But who would guide him when he wasn’t in Albuquerque, NM, getting in rounds? Who should help him at home in Austin, TX, when he began the slog toward peak fight condition?

Should he choose a striking guru so that he could KO the Brazilian before they hit the mat? Should he fly in a Division-I wrestler so his sprawl might be invincible? Should he just call Steven Seagal? Many of his eventual picks were what you’d expect, but he also chose one you might not—Army combatives instructor Kristopher Perkins, who’d never before been a part of a UFC fight camp.

Just about everyone knows Kennedy is a soldier first and foremost—an Army Ranger, Green Beret, and sniper. As an MMA fighter, he’s aligned himself closely with Jackson and Winkeljohn’s squad. Perhaps that’s why Perkins was surprised to get an invitation from Kennedy, although it made sense once his friend and colleague explained the decision.

“In Army combatives, our soldiers’ hand-to-hand incidents were happening inside small rooms,” says Perkins. “This requires the soldier to know how to take someone down where a wall is involved in the scenario. This is why our wall takedowns have advanced. We have been evaluating and training this portion of the fight for a long time. It naturally crosses into MMA takedowns against the cage, and Tim wanted to utilize that idea.”

Perkins is an expert in the hand-to-hand combat taught in modern combatives, which was founded in 2001 by Army sergeant Matt Larsen. The combatives school Larsen founded at Fort Benning, Ga., swapped old-school Judo and karate techniques for modern arts that include jiu-jitsu, wrestling, Muay Thai and boxing. It provided a blueprint for stripping away ineffective fighting tools for ones who work in the field.

Perkins teaches takedowns, but they’re not the variety done by guys sporting mohawks and Hayabusa shorts. When his soldiers put an opponent on the ground, they’re often in fatigues, a Kevlar vest, and a helmet. They might have an M-4 assault rifle slung over their shoulder. And they’re fighting for their lives.

When not drilling in close-quarters combat, Perkins’ students are training in the cage at a huge facility in Fort Hood, TX. For the past three years, his combatives team has won the All-Army Combatives Tournament, which combines submission wrestling, Pancrase-style fighting, and MMA.

“If you teach a guy how to be an MMA fighter, even if he’s just mediocre, he’s going to destroy people in combat,” says Perkins. “He’s mentally tougher, he’s physically fit, and if it goes to a hand-to-hand fight, he’s just so advanced.”

Graduates of the combatives school carry accolades far from mediocre. Kennedy won the Combatives Tournament three times and is a Silver Star recipient. Army Ranger Colton Smith won The Ultimate Fighter 16. Watching opponents try in vain to escape Smith’s takedowns on the reality show, it’s easy to see why Kennedy requested Perkins to acclimate himself to the type of pressure that Gracie could bring.

“I attribute quite a bit of my success in MMA to the Army combatives program,” Smith says.

image descIf you watched UFC 162, you know Kennedy didn’t exactly dominate the grappling savant in his native territory. But he certainly wasn’t chaff in the tank, and he defended takedowns while landing his own and scoring points on the mat. It was far from a barnburner, but it did get him his first UFC win.

Kennedy and Smith, of course, are finished products. Years before the soldiers ever got their hands raised in the Octagon, however, they had to triumph over their own nervous systems. As soldiers, they trained for the field by turning fear into action, so that when a threat came around the corner, they would never be unprepared.

While Perkins might be a good guy to know when you’re looking to stay upright or ground someone, his main job is to bridge the gap between those responses.

Back in the day, the Army’s idea of hand-to-hand combat instruction was a two-hour block where you tossed a buddy over your back with a judo throw. As Perkins remembers, “That was it. God go with you.”

While serving as a drill sergeant at Oklahoma’s Fort Sill, Perkins found combatives. A former wrestler who once tried to walk on to Oklahoma State University’s team, he understood the necessity of practical ground fighting. By 2006, he was working out in a cage that the program called “The Laboratory.”
Then, he went to Iraq, where he ran into “a lot of bad situations.”

“I found that I started reacting just like I did in the cage,” Perkins says. “When you get blown up by an IED, it feels like when you almost get knocked out. You know if this guy hits you one more time, the next thing you’re going to see is the fight doc. So you start reacting. I have to achieve the clinch, I have to fight back, I have to continue.”

He tried to take that mindset home when he was enlisted in 2007 to run a combatives training program at Fort Hood. The Army invested $3 million in converting an old basketball court into a modern facility with MMA equipment and a “kill room” for scenario training. The program was divided into four levels that started with basic fighting techniques and expanded to tactical applications, which address how to subdue opponents or get back to a gun.

“If we became an MMA gym, the Army was only going to keep us around about 18 months,” says Perkins, who became a government services employee when he retired from active duty in 2010. “We still have to keep pushing the tactical training, and that’s how the place stays in business.”

Soldiers in levels three and four train to become certified instructors, but they get an added twist: a fight every Friday. They also fight in full gear and practice clearing the kill room.

“When they get into the cage for their first sparring, the guys are tagging them up,” Perkins says. “They keep backing up, they keep getting tagged. But if they close the gap or counterpunch, they start learning that the way to make this stop is to fight back. Then we notice that they become very mentally resilient, and also physically resistant.”

Perkins might take students on a five-mile run and interrupt them midway to fight. He says his goal is not only to physically prepare soldiers for the rigors of combat, but hone their instincts so they make the right choices under duress.
“Let’s say you’re driving down the street, and someone starts shooting at you from the stores on the side of the street,” he says. “The only way to survive that is to turn and fight into it. You don’t have a lot of time to think, ‘I have option A, run and get shot at.’ You’re going to do what’s instinctual. That’s why we train and train.”

There’s apparently another side effect of that preparation. It turns soldiers into great MMA fighters.

“I used to take guys to pro/am fights in a casino,” says Perkins. “We’d end up taking six guys in a night and just crush everybody. It got to the point where we’d have to travel out of state because people were like, ‘It’s not fair to fight you guys. You train all the time.’”

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With soldiers still deploying to Afghanistan and hot spots around the world, combatives remain an essential part of the military’s training. Domestically, however, the program is fighting a more insidious battle. Budget cutbacks, which came earlier this year as the result of the government’s sequester, have eliminated much of the funding for competitions such as the All-Army Combatives Tournament. That’s prompted Perkins to take his team on the civilian circuit.
“We still have to convince the Army that fighting is something that soldiers should be doing,” says the coach, who’s contract with the government expires this month.

Command Sergeant Major Dan O’Brien, the senior enlisted advisor for combatives at Fort Hood, says the program isn’t being pulled any time soon. But with fewer resources to go around, soldiers won’t be able to test their skills against the best of the best when it requires the military to ship them to competitions.
“When money is tight in the military, then it’s up to an installation to conduct tournaments,” he says. “There are other priorities in the military right now, which makes it hard to send everybody to one central location. I personally feel that the program is only as good as the people who support it, and as a senior leader, I support the program. Combatives runs very strong in my unit. But I can’t speak for all the other units across the Army.”

Like Kennedy, Smith considers himself a soldier first and fighter second. It still irks him to hear other fighters talk about going to war in the cage. Having seen what war actually looks like, he makes a point to pay his respects to the people he considers to be the purest warriors, because no MMA camp will ever truly compare to preparing for battle.

“The intestinal fortitude you get in the combatives program—it’s for possible life-or-death situations,” he says. “I’m sorry, but the cage, it’s not life or death. Obviously, people can pass away, but chances are, worst-case scenario is that you’re going to be single-legging Herb Dean in the cage. What we do in the cage is easy. What soldiers do overseas, that’s hard.”

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Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang trains with MMA’s best so he can beat the NHL’s best.

Prior to Rory MacDonald’s December 2012 matchup with B.J. Penn, the UFC trekked to Montreal to film MacDonald’s preparation in a “Road to the Octagon” episode. The camera crew documented MacDonald’s time at the Adrenaline Performance Center, where the welterweight trained with Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang.

The 26-year-old Letang wasn’t always a fan of mixed martial arts. His focus, like many young Canadians, was hockey. “I was just a typical hockey guy, playing hockey 12 months a year,” says Letang. “I had no time for anything else.” That focus clearly paid off for Letang, who signed an NHL contract in 2006.

Letang may not have had time to practice martial arts as a youth, but that didn’t prevent him from finding an admiration for MMA later in life. Letang’s appreciation for the sport originated from a more cerebral angle. “What got me interested in the sport was that they have to be careful about every opponent,” he says. “There are so many variables that could arise during a fight. I think it’s pretty impressive that they have to train for a lot of things just to prepare for one guy.”

Some of that preparation is time spent on strength and conditioning, and that’s how Letang came to work with UFC fighters Georges St-Pierre, Rory MacDonald, Mike Ricci, and Ivan Menjivar. While those fighters spend a great deal of their time with Firas Zahabi at the Tristar Gym working on their MMA techniques, they also spend time strength and conditioning training with Jonathan Chaimberg at Adrenaline Performance Center.

“I had the chance to wrestle with some of the guys, but that’s about it,” Letang says. “It’s mostly strength and conditioning training for me. When these guys fight—to go five-minute rounds—they need to be well conditioned, so that’s what I focus on with them.”

That training has enhanced Letang’s appreciation for MMA, but it’s also made him a force on the ice. This year, Letang was a finalist for the Norris Trophy, an award presented annually to the best defenseman in the NHL, and he earned an eight-year, $58-million contract extension with the Penguins in July. The training has also allowed Letang to average more that 27 minutes on the ice per game, which is the fourth most in the league.

“When I train with Mike or Rory, it’s the explosion and quickness of the way they do drills that impresses me the most. They’re super-light on their feet because they need to move pretty quickly to avoid their opponents. I think for my part, as a defenseman, it helps me to be powerful and stay strong on the ice for an extended amount of time.”
Letang is currently training for the 2014 NHL season, as well as a coveted spot on the 2013 Canadian Olympic Hockey Team, but he still finds time to attend UFC events and cheer on his countrymen.

“Growing up in Montreal, I’d been watching Georges, but once I had the chance to train next to him and appreciate what he has to go through to get better, it’s amazing. When Georges fights in Montreal, it’s always special. Our favorite sport is hockey, but when you have a guy like Georges—who’s kind of an ambassador for the sport—it brings everybody out, and that’s what happens in Montreal. It gets crazy. Everybody wants him to do well. It’s really special, it gives you chills when you see those guys step in and try to beat the shit out of each other.”

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Metal band DeathThrob spreads MMA awareness one note and lyric at a time.

DeathThrob isn’t a group of individuals moonlighting as professional mixed martial artists, but the four musicians do practice in various fighting disciplines and have decided to dedicate their band’s livelihood to the advancement of the sport. The New Jersey metal quartet is so consumed with their mission that they test out their new records by bringing the music to lead singer Ryan Healy’s garage and sparring to it with the sound system cranked to the max.

“We all belong to different fight clubs in the area—professional gyms to learn jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, and other martial arts,” Healy says. “But then we all get together and train, blasting our jams and making sure the songs feel good to train to. We don’t release anything until we spar to it and make sure it will get you psyched up.”

Something finally passed their ultimate test—their self-titled debut album. The 12-track collection, which was independently released in July and self-produced at guitarist Mike Morello’s Daywrecker Studios, features motivational lyricism pertaining to the societal acceptance of mixed martial arts over a pulsating array of adrenaline-induced metal melodicism.

“There are a lot of metal bands that talk about negative stuff—we’re all about inspiring. We’re yelling and we’re screaming, but it’s all to inspire,” Healy says. “We’re not trying to talk about anything negative, we’re trying to get average people to want to train and to support mixed martial arts. That’s the whole idea, so when it comes to songwriting, we’re trying to keep it upbeat and write lyrics that are gonna make you wanna participate.”

That is echoed on highlights like “Believe,” “One Swing,” and the uplifting banger “Smashed Up,” the latter of which resonates the idea that gender doesn’t matter and everyone has the right to fight.

Although the group members previously played in different bands, DeathThrob (also comprised of bassist Matthew Menafro and drummer Brendan Healy) formed in August 2012 after UFC 150. The Healy boys, both longtime fans of the sport, were with some of their music buddies watching the fights when they heard something that sparked their creative juices.

“Frankie Edgar was fighting, and he is a big draw because he is from Jersey,” Healy says. “But some of our friends didn’t even know who he was. So we were like, ‘You know what? We’re gonna do this MMA vibe. We’re gonna write all these songs about training.’ It became an outlet for us to watch it more and try to be a part of it.”

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Not only did they continue to watch the events and pen songs about the sport, but they also sought out gyms to train at so they could better understand what the athletes go through. Ryan Healy initially worked with Andy Main from TUF 12, and later practiced at Alex Wilkie’s Martial Arts Academy in Bridgewater, New Jersey.

“It just came to the point where we were so obsessed with watching it—that’s all we were doing,” Healy says. “When we weren’t playing, we were following MMA. When it comes to heavy metal music, no one is gonna be able to put songs together like we do because we’re that into it.”

So far, it’s catching on. The Garden State troupe has had their music featured in interviews and video blogs with UFC stars Jeremy Stephens and Mike Pyle. The group also sponsors up-and-coming pro and amateur fighters, many of whom use their songs as walkout themes.

“When you start to see and hear heavy metal in MMA, I want people to connect that to DeathThrob,” Healy says. “I want the songs to create a vibe so that when you think of metal MMA, you think of DeathThrob.”

In addition to their song placements in the fight world, DeathThrob has taken massive leaps forward in the music industry and rocked stages that most one-year metal bands could only dream about. The quartet performed on The All Stars Tour 2013 alongside Every Time I Die, Iwrestledabearonce, and Veil of Maya. They also played at The Summer Slaughter Tour 2013 with Dillinger Escape Plan, Norma Jean, and Animals as Leaders.

image descDeathThrob plans to build off that momentum by touring in support of their self-titled release, while spreading the word about MMA. “In the next couple of months, we’re gonna try to play at these MMA events because we think we bring a good live show,” Healy says. “The main thing is making sure we bring some entertainment, and the thing about metal is the energy. We want to write music that pushes people to new levels.”

DeathThrob’s self titled debut album is available for download on amazon.com

Online: facebook.com/DeathThrob
youtube.com/DeathThrob

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Swayze Valentine sits by the cage door as two amateur fighters throw punches. The bout progresses before a fighter with what appears to be a broken nose submits to a rear naked choke; when he stands and the oxygen comes back to his brain his nose releases a geyser of blood. Valentine runs into the cage, ice pack in hand, to check on him.

She will repeat this drill several times during the Tuff-N-Uff Memorial Day event in Las Vegas. There are multiple knockouts in this casino equestrian center on Sunday night and a fair amount of blood. Valentine has been here before, including the time she mended a cut above an eyelid so deep that an entire epinephrine swab fit in the wound. She isn’t fazed by the injuries. “This is a fighter’s livelihood and we want them to provide for their families,” she says. “We try to give them one more round.”

During a fight, the cutman is the only person who provides a moment of compassion. There is intimacy in a fight, but it is the intimacy of violence: the arm around the neck, the punch that snaps the head out of place, the commingled blood and sweat. The coach is there to counsel and motivate, detect flaws in strategy and dissect the other fighter’s weaknesses. The cutman mends wounds, mops blood with a towel and holds an ice pack on swelling. There’s a paradoxical nature to their work. While the doctor works to heal and mend, a successful cutman works to ensure a fighter can confront another three to five minutes of violence and uncertainty.

In the sometimes-atavistic world of the cage, Valentine is one of the few friendly faces. After years of hard work, the 27-year-old mother of two is establishing herself as a cageside presence. UFC cutman Jacob “Stitch” Duran has dubbed her “The Queen Of Cuts.” She is finally getting paid for better gigs. But her seat at cage side – and the personal support from Stitch this evening in Vegas – wasn’t guaranteed. She’s still struggling to achieve her dream of becoming the first female cutwoman in the UFC. “This is a huge burden for my family,” Valentine says. “I am living on bare minimum to hopefully achieve this dream. We’re all chasing dreams. Some of us make it and some of us don’t.”

image descFinding your way into the trade is in some ways more challenging than climbing the ladder in the sport, even if it doesn’t pose any physical challenges. Any MMA gym will accept membership and teach an arm bar; Darwinian logic ensures that the best, most committed athletes will rise. Becoming a cutman requires a mentor, and there aren’t many of them. True, there are costly workshops that claim to teach you the tricks. But an apprenticeship where you truly learn the craft is like finding a shaman to instruct you on a hidden spiritual path. Valentine’s search for a mentor was even more difficult because of her gender. “When I started there was no future for a cutwoman in fighting,” Valentine says. “Learning this art isn’t just about cuts or swelling. It’s a package deal and it takes a journey.”

****

Valentine didn’t always want to work in MMA. In her early 20s, she worked as an animal specialist at a Petco in Anchorage, Alaska. She removed dead fish from tanks and was rebuffed in her multiple attempts to get a managerial position. “I believed I was one of the best workers in there,” she says. “At one point, I sat down with my manager and asked ‘what’s wrong?’ and he couldn’t give me an answer.” She realized that she had to find another path.

Like many who join the fighting family, she was wooed the first time she watched amateur MMA in person. Her first fight was an event put on by Alaska Fighting Championship in 2006. “I’d always been interested and would watch things on television. But the first time I went to an event, that’s really what captured me,” she says. “The atmosphere was incredible. It’s just one of the most honest and true sports out there. But I didn’t see any opportunities because I didn’t want to fight.”

She called a local promoter and asked if there was any way to help. She was told there was an opportunity —as a ring girl. She spent an evening parading around in a black string bikini top and booty shorts. “It was next to almost nothing,” Valentine says, laughing. She had nothing against the job. But she didn’t want to be a prop. She saw the coaches wrapping the hands of fighters that weekend and it caught her attention. “There seemed to be no greater honor than to take care of a fighter’s hands, which are registered weapons,” she says. “That’s when I started doing my research.”

Valentine worked for free. She went into schools and wrapped fighters’ hands for sparring. She wrapped the hands of relatives and friends. In order for her to pursue her dream she knew she needed to devote all of her attention to the craft. A divorce left her broke, however, and forced her and her sons to move in with her parents. Her vocational choice made things tougher. An apprentice cutman is paid small honorariums, if at all. Like fighters, the payoff comes when they make it big.

She broadened her net and started to work shows in Las Vegas and elsewhere. She called gyms and offered to work for free. At a charity fight in Vegas in 2011 she met cutman Adrian Rosenbusch, who was mentored by Stitch. Rosenbusch noticed something special about his future protégé—an emotional maturity and attention to the smallest details.

“One of the things that impressed me about Swayze is that she was willing to spend her own money just to be here,” says Rosenbusch. “From the beginning, she was very professional and very hungry. I was wary because I’ve had a lot of people approach me to do this, but very few can. It takes a very special person. There are some intangible qualities.

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The art of wrapping is the art of applying pressure. Too much and a fighter’s hands constrict. Too little and bones break. A fighter’s hands may bludgeon but are treated with the same care as china. With the proliferation of fighting styles, wrapping has become even more of an art. Each fighter might want their wraps customized for their fighting style. A grappler, for instance, might want slightly less pressure to allow them to use their hands for takedowns and clinching.

Before she wraps a hand, Valentine massages the hands. Then, she reinforces the wrist – an area that needs extra care because it is jarred when punching. She weaves the gauze around, expertly looping between the fingers. She later adds just the right amount of tape. When she is finished the wrap feels as solid as a cast yet it’s strangely pliable, almost an extension of your skin. “I got the repetition down pretty quick,” she says. “But the biggest thing was definitely pressure. It’s a true art to find the pressure. You don’t want their hands to fall asleep.”

“You always have to look at someone’s intentions,” Rosenbusch says. “There are humbling beginnings. Can you get excited about bringing someone a drink of water? You have to want to be here for the right reasons and Swayze does.”

The wrapping of hands is the symbolic moment when a fighter puts aside the world to attend to the difficult task ahead. Few have mastered the art, which is why you see the same faces backstage and during round breaks. If Valentine continues on her path, she could become one of the masters, one that elite fighters call on to wrap their hands and mend their wounds.
At the end of the fight card Valentine packs her kit: gauze, enswell and swabs. It’s been a long day. She’ll return to Washington State tomorrow. When she gets back, her sons will probably be asleep. They don’t know about the broken faces their mother fixes. It’s still a fun game to them, albeit one with fists. “I tell them Mommy is going to go away to take care of the fighters. And they say, ‘Are you going to go take care of the fighters when they play knuckles?’”

She’ll kiss them both and get some sleep. The next day they won’t talk much about the fights. She’ll soon be flying somewhere else, and for time being, they are happy to have her home.

image descTHE CUTMAN’S KIT

Here’s what an expert cutman carries:
Gloves: Protects against blood and pathogens. Vaseline: Greases a figher’s face and controls bleeding. Swabs, dipped in epinephrine: Stops bleeding. Iced Enswell: Controls swelling. Towel: Cleans/dries a fighter before treatment.

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Turkish oil wrestlers are supposed to have triangular backs, somewhat-fleshy midsections, and bulging biceps. Ali Gurbuz has 10 percent body fat, stands 6-feet-5-inches tall, and has comparatively thin arms. In terms of tradition, the two-time Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Champion should have the physique of Dan Henderson. Instead, he looks more like an olive-skinned Alexander Gustafsson.

Gurbuz is in the middle of the oil-soaked green grass of Kirkpinar’s competition field in eastern Turkey wearing a pair of black, leather lederhosen (called “kispets”) and a confident smile. In the stands, 15,000 fans wait for the wrestling to start, many hoping for Gurbuz’s third consecutive winning of the 14-karat Gold Championship Belt worth more than $250,000. Gurbuz is the biggest star in a sport more popular internationally for it’s unique rules, oily traditions, and BuzzFeed-worthy photos than champion athletes on a quest for historical significance.

Turkish oil wrestling, called “Yagli Gures” (yaw-luh gresh), is rich in historical value. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has recognized Kirkpinar as a World Heritage Site, and the Turkish government is working on approval to have the tournament recognized as the world’s longest continuous athletic event, dating back to 1640. In addition to the claims of continuity, the Turks also assert that the 2013 contest is the 652nd running of the event, which would make it the most prolific annual athletic event in world history.

The objective of the sport is simple: wrestlers attempt holds largely by grasping the kispet and forcing their opponents to place their “umbilicus to God.” Anytime a wrestler’s belly button is exposed completely to the sky, he loses. Although no firm history exists on why olive oil is used, the utility of preventing grass burns and further irritation from hours spent shirtless in the grass makes it both useful and perfectly sensible to the participants.

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Wrestlers are divided into 15 classes, with weight, experience, and talent factored together to compile each class. The wrestlers enter the field in waves, with officials pouring buckets of olive oil all over the athletes. Wrestlers assist each other to ensure they are completely covered. Whereas sweat is wiped from the body of an Olympic wrestler to promote better holds, oil wrestlers are encouraged to add more oil throughout the match. They will also cool down with water and wipe the excess, irritable oil from their eyes. A lack of sportsmanship is akin to a lack of honor, so many Turkish wrestlers will wipe the oil from their opponent’s eyes and help evenly disperse any excess oil.

Gurbuz has plenty of admirers, and an equal number of competitors who would have welcomed the chance to end the stringy wrestlers three-peat pursuit of the Golden Title. By the end of the two-day tournament, only one wrestler—teammate and close friend Ismail Balaban—remained with a chance to knock Gurbuz from a history that extends beyond the days of the Ottoman Empire.

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*****

Evren Oz offers his guests a rack of lamb and a bowl of fresh yogurt. The 22-year-old engineer and former Turkish freestyle wrestler is sitting beneath a tent in the rear of the Kirkpinar wrestling grounds. Although Istanbul and other Turkish coastal cities enjoy warm days with cool breezes, in Edirne, an inland city not far from the Bulgarian border, summer days can reach as high as 100 degrees.

Beneath the red and yellow big top, Oz remains playful as he sweats with each nibble of lamb, having just finished a short training session with Steve Maxwell, a 60-year-old fitness coach, Relson Gracie black belt, and former Division I wrestler. Maxwell, who lives on the road full-time, is in Edirne on a pilgrimage to watch Turkish oil wrestling and learn new strength and conditioning techniques to implement into his training course.

After noticing Maxwell’s cauliflower ears and striking up a conversation in English the day before, Oz offered to be Maxwell’s wrestling partner. Oz had met Maxwell early this morning and given us a tutorial in the hidden aspects of the well-publicized wrestling event.

“This is the most important sports event in Turkey,” says Oz. “The money is not the biggest prize. For many wrestlers, they want to be part of history.”

Chokes are common among the more fiery contestants, and on their feet, a looping open-handed slap to the back of the neck is frequent, violent, and meant to disorient. Wrestlers reach down each other’s trousers to gain leverage and impinge breathing. In addition, the Turks often push an opponent’s nose in the grass as a way to limit oxygen and add extra pressure to their kispet holds.

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“You’ve never felt pressure like this,” says Maxwell, recounting his training session. “ The arm down your pants is leveraging the back of your rib cage and pulling your trousers around your diaphragm. It’s the most brutal thing I’ve ever felt.”

The brutality of the sport is what attracts new competitors every year. Although Turkey’s tournament is limited to Turkish passport holders, oil wrestling is booming in popularity in both the Netherlands and Japan. Like a modern day Spartan Run, the oil wrestling tradition is based on the simple masculine idea of triumphing over pain, and there are plenty of former Olympic–style wrestlers looking for that type of new challenge.

“Most people don’t understand that these men have been training for many years,” says Oz, as he slugs back a shot of Ouzo. “These men will wrestle for three or four hours in the heat and never quit.”

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*****

As a sign of respect, Gurbuz and opponent Ismail Balaban clasp each other’s hands and wait for the call of the judges to start the competition. It’s a sign of respect between competitors who’ve managed to wrestle their way past a half-dozen competitors to meet in the finals.

In the previous round, Balaban was only supposed to tire out his massive opponent, Recep Kara, a two-time champion, whose streak for the belt was snapped by Gurbuz two years earlier. Balaban, a blonde Turk standing 5-foot-11-inches and weighing 200 pounds, was outweighed and outclassed, but after 50 minutes of wrestling, he earned a takedown and upset the storyline being written in the newspaper. Gurbuz had ripped the belt from Kara’s hands two years earlier, a surprise victory for everyone who followed the sport. Many thought it was a fluke, but Gurbuz repeated, and now stands in the grass, less than an hour from meeting his fate.

“Now, I think Balaban will let Gurbuz win,” says Oz, who has moved from the tent to the grassy field. “They are from the same town and train together. They will make it fun to watch, but Gurbuz will win.”

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With the fix in, the expectations for dramatics were tampered, but the crowd, shaded from the 100-degree heat, rallied on in support of a miracle. Half seemed to wish for the upset, half for history.

The pair is summoned to begin the pre-match rituals of crowd recognition and a choreographed series of warm-ups once meant to get the competitors ready for action, but now only used out of respect for tradition. Gurbuz and Balaban acknowledge all four sides of the field, with the largest applauses coming from their home side of Antalya. There are three main cities for Turkish oil wrestling (Antalya, Karamursel, and Ankara), and fans with strong allegiances are segregated to reduce any threats of violence in the crowd. There are also more than 100 police officers on the field, and another several hundred monitoring the surrounding fairgrounds where thousands of Turks celebrate the event with carnival rides and an abundance of air-rifle games.

image descGurbuz and Balaban finish their acknowledgements, and beneath a massive banner of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—the founder of modern Turkey—and the Turkish flag, the duo begin the feeling-out period. Their gentle patting of heads is common across combat sports and even more noticeable between familiar competitors. After a few moments of silence, Balaban crouches down and looks for a leg attack. He’s trying to grab the leg of the kispet, elevate it, and drive Gurbuz to the ground, but the effort is instantly repelled by the long arms and superior leverage of the champion.

“Oh! He is fucking Spartacus!” says Oz. “My God. How do you ever beat him?”

After a series of clubs to the back of Gurbuz’s head and another deep shot by Balaban, it’s obvious that there is no fix in. Balaban in on the field to make history, not be its footnote.

Gurbuz and Balaban enter their tenth minute, panting with exhaustion. The sun is beating down on their bodies, but Balaban is pressing forward, reaching up to slap the giant’s head before feinting a shot and grabbing for the kispet. For his offense, Gurbuz uses his long arms to snatch the front of Balaban’s kispet. The champs arms are so long that—even when leveraging up—Balaban can’t reach his kispet.

After another shot attempt, Gurbuz slips, allowing Balaban to pull a front headlock and spin behind for a takedown. The crowd buzzes. “Will Gurbuz lose?”

The champ waits out the pain. The sun is shining off his back. Balaban shoves his face into the ground and points his elbow into the champ’s ribs. Gurbuz remains motionless. Suddenly, after several long moments, Gurbuz blasts from bottom like Superman escaping from beneath a pile of rubble. The champ gets to his feet and sends Balaban flailing to the side. He covers, and within a minute, he has a hold of Balaban’s kispet at the right knee and through the waistband. In a deep squat, he roars to his feet, pulls the kispet, and drives Balaban to his back. Gurbuz has won his third Kirkpinar, the Golden Belt, and a place in history. Fans rush the field and hoist the champion onto their shoulders.

Gurbuz thanks the crowd as he walks toward the Antalya side, and Balaban give him a quick hug and respectful forehead-to-forehead tap. Gurbuz nods and continues his aim for something unseen between the merging crowds.

From the Antalya side, a small, elderly woman emerges in a headscarf. It’s Gurbuz’s mother. The champion reaches down, grabs her by the face, and kisses her on the head several times. She’s weeping, but wraps her arms around the waist of her champion, oil and all.

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GOLDEN POINTS

With the oil and general size of the participants, match-ending moves didn’t always happen in a spectator-friendly timeframe. To compensate, points were introduced in 2010 and have helped limit the length of the longest matches to around one hour (an improvement from the two-day matches of the 20th century). Wrestlers have 40 minutes to secure a win by traditional means, then a 10-minute overtime. If no points have been scored, it goes to Golden Point—the next point scored wins.

THE WRESTLING SPIRIT

According to Eugene Kincaid’s book In Every War But One, oil wrestling has a direct effect on the way the United States Army trains their soldiers to respond in times of group captivity. During the Korean War, the North Koreans imprisoned thousands of soldiers from around the world. Most were Americans, but there were also plenty of Brits and Turks. At one camp, more than one-third of all American soldiers died, while not a single Turk perished. Why?

There was no single cause of death, but after extensive research, it was found that the Americans tended to individualize the experience, while the Turks did everything as a unit. The Turkish men would wrestle every day in the yard to show the North Koreans they couldn’t be broken, and, in part, to keep up their spirits and pass the time in the dreadful conditions.

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