MMA-Fighter.com writer Brad Doerges was recently interviewed by John Keilman for his piece on the IFL coming to Chicago Titled Fighting for piece of spotlight.
Fighting for piece of spotlight – New team set to duke it out
By John Keilman
Tribune staff reporter
Published May 18, 2007
Five years ago, John Strawn was duking it out in tavern tough guy contests for nothing more than free admission. On Saturday, the sinewy 31-year-old tree trimmer from Cedar Rapids will get a shot at the big time — or at least, what a lot of people hope will be the big time.
He will battle under the lights of the $62 million Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates as part of the International Fight League, a fledgling organization that’s trying to turn mixed martial arts — that punching, kicking, grappling phenomenon that has become as inescapable on TV as Bowflex infomercials — into a team sport.
Strawn is a member of the Chicago Red Bears, a five-man squad that also includes an ex-Marine from Midlothian and a former wrestler from Poland. They will fight individually, but the results will count toward the team’s ultimate victory or defeat.
Behind this new concept are age-old ambitions. For league founder Gareb Shamus, it’s a vision of adding to an empire built on comic books, anime and other pleasures of adolescence. For the fighters, it’s a chance at making a living in the spotlight of professional sports.
“It’s kind of a thrill, an adrenaline rush,” said Mark Miller, 28, the lean-jawed, heavily inked former Marine. “Skydiving just ain’t for me.”
Shamus, who is based in New York, launched the IFL last year to tap the same male-centric market that eats up his fan magazines, which revolve around comics, toys and anime, and flocks to his Wizard World conventions.
But instead of focusing on personalities, as the well-known Ultimate Fighting Championship circuit has done with athletes like Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture, Shamus based his league on teams, hoping that would appeal to mainstream sports fans and TV executives. He also courted the mass market by outlawing elbow shots to the face, a leading cause of bloodletting in mixed martial arts.
“We’ve been able to make a sport that’s very fan-friendly, very television-friendly,” he said.
Shamus started with eight squads and added four more this year, including the Red Bears. Bouts featuring mixed martial arts are allowed in Illinois, though promoters need a special waiver from the state. A bill to regulate the sport like boxing is now going through the General Assembly.
The plan with the Red Bears, as with the rest of the league, was to install a notable figure from the fighting world as coach and build the team around his style and personality.
The man chosen for the job was Igor Zinoviev, 40, whose resume includes stints as a Soviet commando, bare-knuckle underground fighter and celebrity bodyguard. But after he selected five Russians for the team, none could get a visa.
“We had to start with a whole new bunch,” Zinoviev said. “That’s really frustrating. It’s not exactly a real team.”
The Russians’ misfortune was a lucky break for guys like Mike Corey. The thick-muscled St. Louis resident, 23, caught mixed martial arts fever as a teenager and trained for fights during two postings in Iraq with the Marine Corps.
“That was crazy because you’re on duty and all that,” he said. “You’d get off at 2 a.m. and go do some jiu-jitsu in the sand.”
He became good enough to enter pro contests but earned as little as $300 per bout, barely enough to keep him in skinless chicken breasts and protein shakes. After leaving the Marines last year, he heard about IFL tryouts in Chicago.
“We had about 30 guys show up,” said Dino Costeas, a trainer at the POW! gym in the West Loop and a Red Bears assistant coach. “I picked one and it was Mike Corey.”
His first fight with the team came last month in Moline. He wrenched his back before the bout, and though Costeas swore that Corey was the rightful victor, he lost by split decision in front of 5,300 fans.
Still, Corey said: “It was cool as hell. It was a fun fight, exciting. It was just a big show.”
His injury will keep him from competing at the Sears Centre, but he’s still a member of the team, earning a salary that Shamus said ranges leaguewide from the mid-five figures to more than $100,000. Equally important in this line of work, Corey gets health coverage.
The financial security offered by the IFL has allowed the 170-pound Miller to quit his job as a concrete pourer — “maybe the most un-fun job in the entire world” — and train five hours a day. On a recent morning, he was at POW! assaulting a heavy bag with kicks that boomed through the humid gym.
Meanwhile, Adam Maciejewski was wrestling with another fighter in a ring flanked by posters of Bruce Lee. That aspect of mixed martial arts comes easy to the broad-shouldered 26-year-old from Poland, who immigrated six years ago after being star-struck by the videotaped fights of UFC star Ken Shamrock.
But he admitted that other styles, from the painful submission holds of jiu-jitsu to the skull-rattling punches of boxing, proved difficult to master.
“When you’re a wrestler, it’s a totally different sport from boxing,” he said. “It’s really hard to learn. Throwing those punches, it’s not an easy thing [to pick up], especially when you’re 26 years old.”
Such inexperience has given Zinoviev low expectations for his squad’s chances Saturday against the Quad Cities Silverbacks, last year’s champion. Business-wise, though, Chicago already looks like a winner.
Even with ticket prices that start at $50 and go up to $140, the match could fill the Sears Centre’s 5,000-seat, half-house configuration, said Steve Hyman, the arena’s executive director.
Brad Doerges, who runs the Web site mma-fighter.com, attended an IFL event at the L.A. Forum in March and said the crowd enjoyed rooting for their hometown team. The only downside he could see is that with relatively few fighters in each weight class, fans might tire of seeing the same matchups again and again.
But the league plans to add more teams next year, including squads from Brazil and Great Britain. That will mean chances for guys like Strawn to claim a permanent slot somewhere.
He got the call to join the Red Bears as a fill-in for Corey just two weeks ago. Saturday’s fight will be like a job interview, albeit one with the potential of ending by knockout.
“This is what I’ve been fighting for,” he said. “This is my chance.”
IN THE WEB EDITION: John Strawn (above) is a member of the Chicago Red Bears. Watch his teammates explain the allure of competing in the fledgling International Fight League in a video at chicagotribune.com/redbears