A 2 AM foot pursuit through city streets and back alleys can be thrilling and chilling for both parties engaged. Officers of the law put their lives on the line day in and day out to protect and serve, and they must always be aware that each day they don their uniform may be their last. On the other side of the law, robbers, drug users, and other alleged criminals have the same feeling in their gut as they try to outpace the cop who is hot on their tail.
Some live for that feeling of being alive and being in the moment. Whether they are adrenaline junkies, career criminals, or former athletes, mixed martial arts is the newest platform people are using to blow off steam and fuel their competitive drive. The sport is also being used as a way of shedding pasts and creating bright futures for participants and their families.
The difference between MMA and other sports is that no matter one’s age or previous experience, the sport is young enough where virtually anyone can jump in headfirst and find relative success. After doing a lengthy stint in prison, an exconvict cannot lace up his shoes and join the NBA or the NFL, but he can consider MMA and boxing viable options. Bernard Hopkins may be the most well-known former criminal to reach superstar status, as “The Executioner” spent 5 years of an 18-year sentence in Graterford Prison. Hopkins began his professional career at the age of 23 and, after losing his debut bout, strung together 20 wins and captured numerous championships.
Unfortunately, Hopkins seems to be the exception to the rule. Boxers normally have extensive amateur records before turning to the pro ranks, and even then one loss could prove fatal for a young boxer’s career.
MMA may be the new haven for excons who are looking to turn their lives around. One such rising star is Octavio Morales, who kept off the streets of his drug-riddled and gang-infiltrated hometown of Pomona, Calif, at a young age by joining a Jiu-Jitsu gym.
“It was a struggle growing up out here. Fights broke out all the time, and drugs are everywhere you look,” said Morales, who engaged in many street fights and was stabbed four times, puncturing a lung when he was 15 years old. “After that, I started learning some Jiu-Jitsu. It really humbled me and taught me discipline. I was able to walk away from fights in the neighborhood because I knew that I could take the guys out. There is a lot of machismo out here, but if you know you can beat the guy up or tap him out, you don’t need to prove yourself to anyone.”
Morales stayed out of trouble for the next few years as professional fighting took over his life and kept him on the straight and narrow until early 2002, when his gym closed. “When I had nowhere to train any longer, I started getting in trouble. Whenever I was training and had a fight coming up, my friends would help make sure that I wasn’t drinking or partying or doing anything like that. When the training went away, I didn’t have a reason to not do any of that bad stuff.”
Next thing Morales knew, he was wandering the streets of California a full-blown drug addict and was racking up criminal charges for robbery. The tipping point was one afternoon when he tried to steal from a Target. What would have been a misdemeanor charge led to a long-term jail sentence as Morales resisted arrest and beat up the security officer of the chain retail store.
A stay in the LA County Jail was enough to sober Morales up and put him back on track. Now 27, Morales linked up with Steven Arredondo, who manages fighters with Jags Sports Management (www.jagsmma. com). Morales still lives in Pomona and has tallied three consecutive wins in the cage, bringing his record to 3-2.
“I’m back on track and can truly say that this sport has helped change my life,” said the father of two young boys. “There are still crack deals right outside of my door, and I see pro fighting as a way of getting my boys out of here. Fighting is a big deal to me, and I am taking it very seriously.”
Morales isn’t the first fighter Arredondo has managed who comes with a checkered past. “We get a few guys that carry some baggage,” he stated. “After leaving prison, jobs are limited and MMA is a quick way to earn a decent amount of cash. We have found that most ex-cons have learned their lesson, paid their debts to society, and take the sport very seriously. They just don’t have much of an education, and fighting is something that comes naturally to them.”
Josh “The Vicious” Snodgrass spent 3 1/2 years behind bars and spent most of his childhood bouncing around youth rehabilitation facilities before finding his true calling.
“One of the main reasons that I got my life together and stopped doing bad things was MMA,” Snodgrass stated.
“The sport made me so much more relaxed. I really have nothing to prove to anyone now.”
Snodgrass began his fighting career straight out of the penitentiary when he met a man who trained with Ken Shamrock. Less than a month later he had his first fight in which he was quickly choked out. “I learned real fast that you need to have a good all-around game and can’t just go in swinging,” he recalled. “Now I’m on a three-fight win streak and feel my game has really evolved.”
On the flip side, police officers are giving up their badges just as quickly. As most come from athletic backgrounds, it is easy to slip on two 5-ounce gloves and attempt to relive their glory days or rule the playing fields.
“I compete in MMA because I’m just not finished with sports,” said former New York Sheriff and MMA fighter Ryan Smith. “I have that desire to compete and test myself, and MMA is the only thing I can compete in where the other guy is still giving it his all. If I don’t come in prepared and ready, I could get really hurt. It’s not some middle-aged men’s softball league or anything like that.”
Smith, a former Division III college wrestler and high school football player, has been involved in sports since an early age and recently gave up his job as a sheriff to have one last run at a championship. “Before, in college, it was about proving myself to my family and friends. I wanted to show everyone that I was good at something and could compete at a pretty high level,” said the 34-year-old. “Now it’s all about showing myself that I still have it.”
Everyone, no matter their background, learns a lot about themselves while training and competing. Participants learn how far they can push themselves, how disciplined they can be, and how much heart they have.
“The prison system is supposed to teach you self-discipline and rehabilitate you, but it doesn’t. MMA taught me that stuff, and I’m so kicked-back right now,” said Snodgrass, who has been out of the system for 6 years. “Everyone needs something that they can be passionate about, and fighting is it for me. I recommend it to anyone that is going through some bad times.”
Whether one is going through bad times, good times, or is just looking for a new sport to compete in, MMA may be just what they are looking for.
Law enforcement officer Joe Sullivan was a walk-on football player at UTEP from 1984 to 1990 before turning to boxing to fuel his competitive spirits. The Heavyweight fighter saw the ugly side of the sport and felt boxing was too corrupt, as he was pitted against young stars with long amateur records and bright futures.
“I was basically brought in to be an opponent against really good guys. It helped pad their records and earned me a 6-7 record professionally,” said Sullivan, who started in MMA for the self-defense tactics. “MMA is different in that I can work my way up against guys that are at my
level. It’s also great for learning to protect yourself. I know that because of my training, I am better prepared out on the street than most of the other guys.”
That preparedness may some day save Sullivan from an early funeral. It has already saved Morales and Snodgrass from one.
“At the end of the day, I am going home regardless,” Sullivan added. “I look at things the same way when I’m in a pro fight. I’m going home with my hand raised, whether the other guy is good or bad.” In the cage, no matter one’s background, everyone is dangerous.