Backstage At The IFL

The calm before the storm. An hour before showtime at The Izod Center, in a spartan backstage locker room just big enough for two warm-up mats and couple of tables, twenty people congregate. The mob includes the six men who will be fi ghting on the evening’s International Fight League (IFL) card, their trainers, a couple New Jersey state offi – cials, friends and family, and a couple of pesky media. Every time the door opens, the person closest to it is inevitably bumped.

For a room housing so many people, it is church quiet. In the moments before a fi ght, each fi ghter is alone in a way no one other than another fi ghter can ever understand. In this seemingly serene setting, there is rumbling beneath the surface. There are thoughts of sacrifi ced moments, of loved ones left behind for training camps, and paychecks stretched so thin that the choice had to be made between rent or food. It is an unsettled peace.

Nevertheless, a couple of men take advantage of the silence. IFL welterweight champion Jay Hieron will not be fi ghting until the main event. His match is four hours away, and instead of burning nervous energy, he dozes off. A few feet away, fi ve-time UFC champion Randy “The Natural” Couture – owner of Xtreme Couture, the gym where Hieron trains – is also catching a few winks. When Couture stirs for a moment, world-renowned trainer and MMA pioneer Pat Miletich smiles at him, saying, “Hollywood taking a toll on you, huh big boy?” Couture, who will be seen in at least two movies this year and is also working on a TV pilot, smiles and laughs with the rest of the room, but then closes his eyes and goes back to sleep.

Miletich isn’t done. He waits until Couture is safely asleep, and takes out his cell phone. He opens it and turns on the camera function. “I’m going to put this on my MySpace page,” he says, a boyish look of mischief on his face. “The caption’s going to be, ‘Randy Couture after sparring with me.’”

The rest of the room cracks up as Miletich snaps the photo. The laughter is welcome. The tension in the room will only continue to build. In less than sixty minutes, one of the fi ghters – Alex Schoenauer – will open the show.

For the 2008 season, the IFL changed its strategy, now employing a camp vs. camp approach. In this locker room, two camps are represented: Shawn Tompkins’ Team Tompkins, fi ghting out of the Las Vegas-based Xtreme Couture gym, and Pat Miletech’s Iowa- based Miletich Fighting Systems.

As the fi ghters warm up for their matches, the trainers exchange small talk. Team Tompkins Jiu-Jitsu coach Robert Drysdale tells Miletich he just relocated to Las Vegas from Sao Palo to begin training for his MMA debut. Miletich recalls fi ghting in that town in the early days of the UFC.

“You were probably seven,” Miletich tells Drysdale, who was actually closer to fi fteen at the time. “I think I have the VHS of that event,” Tompkins interjects. “And I think I came out to a song on an 8-track,” Miletich cracks right back.

While IFL lightweight Chris Horodecki gets his hands taped by Tompkins, Schoenauer begins loosening up, hitting pads with a trainer, working up a sweat. At seven, Schoenauer, who was a contestant on the fi rst season of The Ultimate Fighter before fi nding a home in the IFL, gets notice from the production crew that his fi ght will be starting in about ten minutes. As he walks out the door a few minutes later, several people in the room wish him luck. The monitor in the far corner crackles to life, allowing those in the room to keep an eye on the in-ring action.

Schoenauer wins a split decision over Brendan Barrett, but comes back to the locker room looking like he’s lost. Drenched in sweat, he buries his head in his hands while others congratulate him on a hard-fought win.

Meanwhile, Team Miletich fi ghter L.C. Davis is now in the ring. After a back and forth battle, he catches his opponent Rafael Dias with a head kick that knocks him out cold, with just four seconds remaining in the bout. Dias doesn’t move for a few seconds, and is eventually taken out on a stretcher. The medical staff attends to Dias, who as a precaution is taken to a local hospital. As an ambulance must be on site during all events, the IFL is forced to wait for another to arrive before it can continue the night’s action.

News of the delay fi lters back to the locker room, where both Lennox and Mike Ciesnolevicz are anxiously awaiting their matches. But because the live card will be broadcast on HDNet starting at 8:30, they will not be able to fi ght until after the main event.

“What time is that?” Ciesnolevicz asks an IFL staffer. “10:30 or 11,” she replies. “I’m supposed to be having hot dogs and Heineken by then,” he says.

A few moments later, the victorious Davis returns to congratulations. “Wow, I have a kick,” he says, almost surprised at himself. “I heard Pat [Miletich] yell, ‘Throw a kick,’ so I did.” Then, his thoughts shift to the man he injured. Despite a limp, and a cut on his cheek that will require medical attention, Davis leaves the locker room to check on his opponent’s health.

Chris Horodecki has been training with Shawn Tompkins since he was thirteen, when he attended a Tompkins-led seminar in Ontario, Canada. For years, he’s been with fellow London, Ontario residents Mark Hominick and Sam Stout. These days, they are all pros training out of Las Vegas.

At just twenty years old, Horodecki is one of the youngest active fi ghters in a major organization. Even more amazing, he debuted in the IFL as an eighteen-year-old and quickly reeled off seven straight wins. But last December, he suffered his fi rst loss – a fi rst-round TKO at the hands of Ryan Schulz.

For most fi ghters, that fi rst loss is crushing. But Horodecki is a well-adjusted young man, and says that while it was disappointing, he put the loss behind him as soon as it was over. “I went home to my friends and family, the people that are there for me win or lose,” he says.

This match against Nate Lamotte is a time for new beginnings, a new streak. He says there is no anger in him when he fi ghts, but when he throws punches or kicks, his brow furrows, and his eyes laser in on their target with malice. When his opponent lands something, he instinctively fi res back a countershot.

When asked if a transformation occurs when he steps into the ring, he tries to explain what goes on in his head. Instead, he generalizes the fi ghters’ mentality, saying, “We’re just a different breed.”

Still, for a kid enjoying the bright lights of stardom, he’s awfully pragmatic. While fi ghting full-time, he was also studying to become an EMT before having to postpone classes due to his busy schedule. Fighting is his job and he’s good at it.

After three rounds, the judges read off the scorecard and Horodecki is back to his winning ways with a unanimous decision victory. When Horodecki walks back into the locker room, he and Hieron exchange a quick handshake, but Hieron is in business mode now. His hands taped, the IFL welterweight champion begins to prepare for his fi rst title defense, just forty miles away from his hometown of Freeport, Long Island. But to get here, he had to go a long way. And mixed martial arts had to save his life.

Jay Hieron started fi ghting because he was picked on. He began with boxing, and then moved to wrestling. He realized right away that he was good. Very good.

Good enough that he could win his weight class three years in a row in high school, good enough to compete in college. But there was only one problem: he was getting caught up in the wrong crowd. It started simply by hanging out with bad infl uences. It graduated to smoking pot, and before long, Hieron found himself dismissed from the Hofstra wrestling team for failing a test. It was his senior year and he was crushed.

Hieron began dealing drugs. Employing the same work ethic that he’d used to gain a Division I scholarship, he became very good at his new role, making money and building a business in spite of his better judgment. As they often do in that world, things soon went sour and Hieron was busted. Facing felony charges for drug dealing, Hieron promised himself he was done with that life, and that he would fi nd something legitimate he could excel in.

He remembered back to when he helped his fellow Long Islander and MMA fi ghter Phil Baroni prepare for a bout. Baroni had implored Hieron to join him in the gym to train together, but Hieron had resisted. Now, it seemed like the invitation was one to salvation.

After being bailed out of jail, Hieron went to the Bellmore Kickboxing Academy to join his friend. Hitting the bag felt good, a release of frustration. Soon, MMA began seeping into his mind. Baroni J Hi t t d fifi hti b h kept a box of fi ght tapes in the gym, and Hieron would watch them, trying to teach himself some of the techniques he was seeing on the screen.

Baroni opened the door to Hieron’s MMA career, but he still needed a little help from the justice system. He soon got it. Because he had never before been in trouble with the law, his sentence was fi ve years of probation with no jail time. But even that presented its challenges. Less than a year into his pro career, Hieron was 4-0 when the UFC asked him to replace an injured Jason “Mayhem” Miller and face Georges St. Pierre. He likely wasn’t ready for such a challenge, but he took the match. And lost. Realizing he had to take his game to the next level, Hieron decided he needed to move to the fi ght capital of the world, Las Vegas. But the terms of his probation wouldn’t allow him to move.

Hieron took a chance and risked his freedom by moving to Las Vegas without his probation offi cer’s permission. But he was moving forward, progressing, and eventually his good intentions got the break they deserved: a change in his probation status. Hieron only needed to send in a signed sheet each month. He could breathe again. He had a future.

Hieron is soft-spoken yet intense as the fi ght nears. Warming up with Schoenauer, he listens to last-minute advice from his coach Tompkins and nods. He looks at Couture. The two fi ghters say nothing, just nod at each other. All the preparation is done. In their minds, the fi ght is won before ever stepping foot into the ring. At 10:18 pm, an IFL producer walks into the locker room and says, “We’re ready for Jay.”

Showing his intensity in his actions, Hieron lunges for the door and is the fi rst man en route to the ring, his fi ght team in his wake. On this night, he’s fi ghting Mark Miller, who’s coming off a knockout win over UFC fi ghter Josh Neer. But tonight, Miller has no chance.

Hieron immediately lands a right hook, and scores a takedown within fi fteen seconds. He methodically moves Miller into the corner and then unleashes, raining down fi fty unanswered punches over the next half-minute, before the referee stops the fi ght just 2:10 into the bout.

The fans explode for the local, and Hieron screams in excitement before the rest of Team Tompkins rushes into the ring to celebrate with the champ. After the in-ring interview, Hieron and his team walk back into the locker room where he lets out another celebratory scream.

At this point, Hieron is good enough to fi ght in the UFC again, but he says the IFL is his home. They’ve treated him well, and being a champion here means something to him. It is not only a reward; it is a validation of all he has been through.

“You fought great,” says Tompkins, whose team just fi nished a perfect 3-0 evening. Hieron smiles, reverting back to his quiet nature. Moments later, the door opens and his wife Maira enters, a proud smile beaming on her face. Hieron is in an interview, and she waits quietly, her face still frozen in exhilaration.

Finally, the interview ends. Hieron looks up to see her, and she rushes forward to give him a celebratory kiss. And in the wake of this busy, overcrowded locker room, suddenly it is just the fi ghter and his wife, possibly thinking about the sacrifi ces that even the nosiest reporters will never dig up. She stood behind him when he was in trouble. She took the chance with him when it could have meant losing his freedom. She believed in a future that only he could see.

“Do you love me?” he asks her as she looks over his unmarked face. There is not a wound on it, but he’s suffered to get here, to become a champ. And she knows it in a way no one else will ever know. “Of course,” she says. “Always.”

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