The evening is quiet and all is calm in downtown Redmond — save for one 10,000-square-foot space that is filled with wrestling mats and, in one corner, an octagonal cage.
About 20 young men, many of them shirtless, are grunting and sweating as they perform push-up-and-butt-touches, pull-up-and-toe-touches, and box-step-and-knees, all with loud classic rock music blaring.
Many of them jobless during an economic recession that has ravaged Central Oregon to the tune of 14 percent unemployment in Deschutes County, they are choosing to hone their bodies into mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting machines as they wait out the dreary job market.
“I’m getting a lot of students because of the economy ... more free time, and people realize they have to invest in themselves versus what didn’t work in the past,” says J.T. Taylor, owner of Rough House MMA and Fitness in Redmond. “In the Great Depression, boxing was the most prominent sport. Now MMA has taken its place, basically.”
While boxing aficionados might debate Taylor’s assertion, there is no debate that frustrated young men seek some sort of release and discipline, especially when they are jobless and, sometimes, aimless.
“I get a lot of poor kids and troubled kids, here in Redmond, for sure,” Taylor says. “It (MMA) gives them an outlet.”
Justin Fratto, 26, of Bend, is unemployed but will be the center of attention Saturday night as the “super fight main event” during Desert Brawl 38 at the Bend Event Center.
“I’m using my unemployment to train and get better,” says Fratto, who will fight Jeremy Johnson, of Medford, in the 145-pound event. “Hopefully, it takes me somewhere. I never stop learning in here, that’s what keeps me coming back.”
Taylor, 36, has been promoting MMA fights in Central Oregon for the last 10 years. He staged the first Desert Brawl in the backyard of his Redmond home.
Desert Brawl is the longest-running MMA promotion in the Northwest, according to www.mmaweekly.com. In the last decade, Taylor has watched MMA go from backwoods brawls and street fights to sport’s mainstream. Most of the larger cities in Oregon — places like Portland, Salem and Medford — have an MMA club and a fight promotion.
MMA is a full-contact combat sport that includes elements of boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, karate, judo, jiujitsu and other disciplines. Fights, contested in an octagonal cage, end by knockout, by submission (tap out), or by referee stoppage. Desert Brawl fights include five rounds of three minutes each. Fighters wear small, 4-ounce gloves.
“There’s so many different techniques to learn, and different moves,” says Fratto, who has competed in MMA for three years after starting out as a boxer. “It’s like chess: The smarter, quicker person gets the win, and it tests your will.”
Most local fighters range in age from their late teens to their late 20s, but one Bend fighter, Bruce Rava, is 45. Taylor notes that women have competed in Desert Brawls in the past, but none are on the fight card for Saturday.
At the Rough House, Taylor barks out demands and encouragement through a megaphone as the fighters perform a workout derived from CrossFit, a popular worldwide program that develops overall fitness through constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement.
“No rest!” Taylor shouts. “No rest for the wicked! Come on! Move it!”
Taylor drops the megaphone and turns to share an observation with me: “I’ve never faced more excruciating exhaustion than fighting. This (CrossFit) doesn’t even compare.”
Taylor made a comeback as a professional last year, posting a fight record of 3-2. He is scheduled to fight in an MMA Explosion event in Las Vegas on April 3.
But for now, his focus is this weekend’s Desert Brawl, which includes mostly amateur competitors. While the bad economy has created an increase in the pool of MMA fighters, it also has led to a decrease in the number of Desert Brawls. Taylor says it costs about $30,000 to organize one Desert Brawl event, and that he usually breaks about even.
In the past few years, Taylor has promoted three or four Desert Brawl events per year. Now, he says, it will be an annual event.
“We’re doing this once a year now,” Taylor says. “They’re so regulated by the Oregon State Athletic Commission. What started out in the back of my yard is now something much bigger. We’re going to have a really big one once a year.”
Also on the fight card for Saturday night is 25-year-old Jason Gybels, whom Taylor calls “our rising star.” Gybels, of Bend, is scheduled to fight Vic Deague, of Yreka, Calif., in a 155-pound fight.
“Vic Deague has beaten three of our students already, so our team feels we need some retribution,” Taylor says.
Gybels credits MMA with getting him out of trouble with the law and helping him find some focus in his life — he is married with two toddler sons and has a job as a property-maintenance worker for three apartment complexes in Bend. He was a custom home painter until the real estate and construction bubble burst.
Fighting and training in the cage, Gybels says, has brought an end to his street-fighting ways.
“You have no reason to ever fight somebody on the street again,” Gybels says. “All of us want to beat the crap out of each other, so why not?”