The Hippo


Jan 27, 2020








The crowd loves the action. Kimberly Thomson photo.

Face-pounding, bone-crushing gentlemanly sport
Mixed martial arts draws a Crowd and maybe some respect


Shark Bait is an exercise Moreau designed that will test Zangri’s endurance without risking injury so close to his fight at the Massacre in the Meadow at the U.S. Cellular Pavilion in Gilford. One at a time, in one-minute increments, Zangri, 21, will face off against the other fighters in a series of striking, grappling and ground work. The purpose is to force Zangri to work through exhaustion, which mimics conditions in a fight where breathing is at a premium.

As the seventh and final man pounces on his back and begins to choke his neck, Zangri looks like he’s going to break. The collar of his T-shirt is stretched, his body is contorted in unnatural ways, his face drips sweat. And then Lowell Zangri smiles. There is no place he would rather be. The time runs out, the other fighter rolls off and Zangri catches his breath.

“You survived!” Moreau yells.

The rise of MMA

Mixed Martial Arts is not trying to survive. It has arrived and is thriving.

Men have been fighting since the dawn of time, but Lowell Zangri and thousands like him in gyms and dojos and warehouses across the state and the country are a new breed of fighter. 

As Zangri begins his second round of Shark Bait, it becomes clear: the crisp hiss of exhaled air just before the whap-pap of punches landing is the symphony of a new generation. The days when boxing reigned supreme are over. Mixed Martial Arts is the fastest-growing sport in America and it’s aiming for a knock-out.

There are no pretenses with Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). It is exactly what it says it is, one sport that combines a variety of disciplines. Its best fighters are proficient in boxing, wrestling, Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai Kickboxing and Karate. They must be able to fight on their feet, like boxers, but also on the ground, like wrestlers. They can win by referee stoppage, knocking out their opponent or submission (a choke hold or arm bar is used, causing pain, and the opponent taps out).

They usually fight inside a caged octagon-shaped ring.

The best pro fighters compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which is to MMA what Major League Baseball is to baseball. While sports like karate have a long and proud history, and Judo is the second-most-practiced sport in the world behind soccer, for all intents and purposes MMA is in its infancy.

The UFC began in 1993, according to Josh Nason, a Manchester-based MMA journalist. At the time, it prided itself on its violence. It was promoted as a place where anything goes and it went to states that didn’t have Athletic Commissions, like Alabama and Wyoming. Like many die-hard fans who have been on the ground floor of MMA’s rise, Nason was not attracted to the early days of UFC.

Neither was anyone else, or so it seemed, as the UFC struggled for the next eight years. In 2001, on the verge of going out of business, the UFC was purchased by three childhood friends. Station Casinos executives Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and aerobics instructor Dana White bought the UFC for $2 million.

It turned out to be a sound investment as Forbes estimates the UFC is now worth $1 billion and, as the world’s largest pay-per-view content provider, it is televised in an estimated 430 million homes in 140 countries and broadcast in 20 languages, according to the Boston Globe. But how did it turn around? It took a vision and a little bit of luck.

Even after the change in ownership, the UFC continued to struggle, until a confluence of events occurred. White, a feisty in-your-face businessman, was shopping a reality television show, which would give fans intimate access into the lives of young fighters, putting a very public face on the sport. Spike TV, a channel designed for young adult males, was interested. In 2005, The Ultimate Fighter made its debut and fans like Nason were hooked.

“They made it fan-friendly and they made the fighters accessible,” Nason said. “It was easy to follow the fighters from the show into the UFC.”

The season finale of the first Ultimate Fighter pitted Forrest Griffin against Stephan Bonnar. The winner got a six-figure contract with UFC. The fight turned out to be a brawl that would have made Rocky and Apollo cringe.

The metaphor was not lost on anybody: two men literally fighting for the chance of a better life. The ratings were through the roof. Suddenly, fans of Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment (WWE, professional wrestling) who were tired of the same old story lines had a host of new characters to worship; fans of boxing, which had been dormant for years because of a lack of star power, had a new combat sport to follow. Athletes who saw their sporting careers end after college found a new lease on life.

MMA is tailor-made for the X-Games generation. It is fast-paced, character-driven and violent. And best of all, it is YouTube-ready.

The spread to middle America

Once a sport becomes a hit on television, it moves into the mainstream. This first era of popularity for the UFC was not entirely a good thing for MMA. Every karate dojo or boxing gym became an MMA training center, even though the people running them had no experience with the sport, said John Fain, owner of Gracie Barra NH in Nashua and Triumph Promotions. It was a quick way to make a buck and associate yourself with a growing sport. But this produced a lot of bad fighters fighting other bad fighters, which led to injuries.

Now, however, “schools are producing very well-rounded fighters,” Fain said. This is partly due to the increased rules and regulations of the sport.

There is no one more old-school than long-time state Boxing and Wrestling Commission Chairman Bobby Stephen. Winner of three Golden Gloves boxing tournaments in the 1950s, Stephen still goes to the gym each morning at 5 a.m. Yet he had the foresight to see that MMA was going to be popular whether or not the state embraced it.

“When the issue came before the legislation a few years ago about whether we should sanction the sport in the state, it was difficult to agree on,” Stephen said. “But MMA was popular and it was going to happen in back yards if we didn’t step in.”

The decision has turned out to have a financial benefit for the state. Stephen said his budget is about $6,000 a year but with the sanctioned MMA fights he now returns close to $40,000, which goes back into the state’s general fund. There have also been improvements in safety.
Under the direction of the Boxing and Wrestling Commission, MMA fights now have qualified officials, two doctors before, during and after fights, who review strict medical testing, including hepatitis and HIV screening, and determine who is fit to fight. If a doctor does not sign off, the fighter sits. If a fighter is knocked out, he is banned from competition for 60 days to give time for recovery. Before a fight, the Commission reviews each fighter to make sure he is cleared to perform.

There has also been a strengthening of rules, according to Deputy Commissioner John Hagopian (New Hampshire and Massachusetts have sanctioned MMA), and as a result, referees and judges now attend training seminars and schools to learn the ins and outs of the sport. Rules are stricter for amateurs, with more safety requirements, like shin pads, for the fighters’ protections. Amateur fights are three rounds, three minutes each, while pros are three rounds, five minutes each. The state has recently made it mandatory for a fighter to fight in three amateur fights before going pro. But in both, a list of Three Stooges’ moves are outlawed: eye gouging of any kind; biting or spitting; hair pulling; fish hooking; intentionally placing a finger in any opponent’s orifice, and many other actions are all forbidden.

“Safety is our number one concern,” Hagopian said. “We want to keep both the fighters and the public safe.”

In any combat sport, be it MMA or boxing, the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, which is a federal law, mandates that events, like Zangri’s fight in Gilford, which was put on by the MMA promotional company Combat Zone, must have insurance, while the individual states dictate the amount of coverage. Very few companies specialize in combat sport insurance and Stephen said the state usually relies on the Laurence Cole Insurance Agency in Dallas, Texas.

Cole has a twangy voice and comes from a boxing pedigree. His father, Dickie Cole Sr., is a senior administrator with the Texas Boxing Commission and Laurence is a referee who has been involved with world-class fights.

In boxing, if a young fighter is a member of USA Boxing, the national governing body of amateur, Olympic-style boxing, he is entitled to an insurance policy, albeit a small one, according to Cole. Such a policy is not yet available for MMA fighters and due to the risk and the ease with which a fighter can become pro (if a fighter has insurance through his day job, he will become ineligible for that insurance if he is also a professional athlete), it can be difficult for fighters to get insurance coverage.

Cole said that MMA events have higher claims per participant than boxing. For boxing, Cole said he pays out 60 cents per dollar. For MMA, that number rises to 95 cents for every dollar.

Cole said many MMA athletes are former wrestlers who are intelligent people but when the crowd-boosted adrenaline surge is going through them, it blocks their common sense and when they are put in an awkward hold they don’t tap out (which would immediately end the fight) and so they end up breaking joints.

He also said equipment can contribute to injuries. In boxing, the size of the gloves used in a fight depends on the weight of the fighters. According to Cole, a 205-lb. boxer would be using 10-ounce gloves, whereas an MMA fighter of equivalent weight only uses 4-ounce.

The fight over fighting

Of course, Cole is a boxing guy, which brings up a real point about MMA: some people will never like it. The sport has been vilified and has many detractors, most notably Arizona Sen. John McCain, who referred to it as human cock fighting. And yet those most intimately involved in the sport will preach until they’re blue in the face that MMA is much safer than a lot of household sports.

Dr. Brian Claussen is a primary care physician, but when he arrived in New Hampshire in 1999, the office he was working at got a call looking for a doctor to attend a local boxing match. The other doctors assumed Claussen, fresh from residency, would know more than they did about sports medicine. He did not. But over the years he has learned quite a bit and he now works at four or five boxing matches a year. He said he works at three times that many MMA matches each year.

“Boxing opponents seem to have it out for each other,” Claussen said. “MMA fighters have more respect and not as much animosity. They don’t seem like they really want to kill each other.”

To the casual viewer, this statement may seem absurd. At the Massacre in the Meadow, Nick Olson (who Claussen said fought in an event just two weeks earlier, which shows safety organization is still improving) was punched so hard that blood poured from his nose. Dr. Claussen treated the nose and then asked Olson to breathe through his nose to test it. He blew and splattered Claussen with his blood.

Yet Claussen still debates which sport, boxing or MMA, is more violent. He said he recently treated a jaw fracture at a boxing match. He said most of the injuries in MMA are minor skin issues or joint sprains, collar bones or rib cages.

Claussen has a unique perspective. He is also the primary care doctor for the Manchester Monarchs hockey team and for the Manchester Wolves arena football team when they were operating.

“Hockey injuries are much worse,” Claussen said.

He said hockey and football injuries require the most repairs and can lead to loss of teeth and damaged shoulders and knees.

“Two seasons ago, the AHL [the league the Monarchs play in] made visors mandatory because a player lost his eye,” Claussen said.

Claussen also said, while amateur boxing may appear safer because fighters wear headgear, the headgear, in fact, does nothing to protect against head injuries and only prevents lacerations.
Ask any MMA fighter and he’ll talk your ear off about how safe the sport is to the point you’ll wonder if he got hit too many times in the head. Jake Deignan, 21, was an All-State golfer at Londonderry High School, which doesn’t seem like the typical path toward MMA. But Deignan, who is studying Criminal Justice at Southern New Hampshire University and wants to be a police officer, said he loved the competition and thought it was safer than boxing. His argument, which is echoed by everyone associated with MMA, is that boxing is dangerous because of its standing eight count. This means if a boxer is knocked out, he has eight seconds to recover and then the fight can continue. This is dangerous because the fighter could have suffered a concussion but, with the adrenaline and the moment, continued fighting anyway, which can lead to serious brain injury.

In MMA, a fighter may receive a rapid succession of punches, which looks brutal, but once he’s knocked out, the fight is over. In fact, many MMA fights end within the first round, so fighters aren’t receiving 15 rounds of punishment. This is one of the reasons Stephen makes fight promoters have about 10 fights per event — because one fight can end so quickly.

Even as he speaks, Deignan is wearing a special suit that looks oddly like aluminum foil and is supposed to help him lose weight before the fight. Weight is critical in any combat sport, and MMA holds a weigh-in the night before a fight. Fights are based on weight; for example, Deignan will weigh in at 135 pounds and fight another fighter of the same weight. What happens, though, is that no fighter actually fights at his comfortable weight. It is not uncommon for a fighter to drop 15 to 20 pounds in the two weeks proceeding a fight (usually by diet, exercise and not drinking water), get weighed in, and then try to put that weight on the day of the fight. While it seems dangerous to drop a ton of weight, put it back on quickly and then fight someone, everyone seemed to concede this is just how it is: fighters will always look for an advantage.

Sport for everyone

Dr. Claussen said he would hesitate to encourage patients to actively compete in the sport. However, for physical fitness, it is an excellent endurance sport. This points to another reason for its popularity. You do not need to fight competitively to enjoy MMA. Many men and women from a variety of professions train in the sport as a way of exercising. Call it Jazzercise on steroids.

“I have a guy who trains here that works at Fidelity,” said John Fain, owner of Gracie Barra NH.

“This is like his Fight Club. He got cauliflower ear [when the ear is damaged from rubbing on the mat and the ear then looks like a piece of cauliflower] and he loves it. He sits in the board room and people stare at him.”

But more seriously, Fain said MMA is a positive release for teens and provides a natural hierarchy where students respect their teachers because their teachers have earned that respect through ability.

“Our society has eliminated mentoring,” Fain said. “And this is the best therapy. In here, kids learn about natural consequences.”

If Fain sounds like a shrink, it is because he is. Before running the gym full-time, he taught psychology at Nashua Community College and specialized in family therapy. He said he gets hundreds of calls and e-mails from people saying, “How soon can I fight?” or “I train with my friends. I’m real tough.”

“People have told me they can rip out eyes and throats,” Fain said. “Really? You can do that?”

Fain takes any prospective fighter and brings him into the gym, where there is a natural weeding out process. The dedication — most fighters lift weights and run in addition to training sessions — takes complete focus and many people can’t handle it.

It is one of the reasons many of the active participants in MMA are quite nice. Andre Denson, who judges fights, said he believes this is because many of the participants have embraced the martial arts aspect of MMA, which encourages respect.

“There aren’t as many brawlers in the sport,” Denson said.

The ones who liken themselves to street fighters with big mouths get quickly eaten up in the sport, which prioritizes humility. And while MMA participants are learning moves that could help them in a real-life situation turned ugly, they don’t exploit that.

“It gives me confidence mentally to know I could deal with situations on the street,” Deignan said.

“I know I have skills if I was attacked, but I only use them in training. There are no punks here.”
There are no punks in Tom Moreau’s studio either. He wouldn’t allow it.

“I have no tolerance if kids use what I’ve trained them outside of the gym,” Moreau said. “Don’t go around bragging you’re a fighter. Never wear one of my shirts if you’re going to be stupid. I don’t want that negative spotlight.”

Moreau said if fighters thinks they’re the toughest guy on the street, if they have a bad mentality, they won’t amount to anything, which is why he takes his role as a father figure so seriously. His influence has already paid off. Moreau said when Eddie Brito first walked into the studio, he weighed 255 lbs., smoked cigarettes and was in a bad place in life. Now, he’s lost more than 30 pounds and is the team captain. As the coach of Team Valor, which is composed of the fighters in his studio, Moreau decides when aspiring fighters fight and who they fight. In essence, their prospective careers are in his hands, which is a lot of responsibility. Moreau is confident in his training.

“Whether I’m teaching Judo to four-year-olds or getting someone ready for a fight, I treat them the same,” Moreau said. “The instruction is always there. The safety is always there.”

Moreau is an excellent ambassador of the sport, and a simple conversation with him dispels any misconception of the dumb fighter. Yet he knows his chosen lifestyle is unusual to many.

“I own a tree removal business and people think I’m really down to earth,” Moreau said. “Then people see the stickers on my car and find out what I do at night and they think I’m a monster. When they realize what I do, they’re blown away and think I might be crazy.”

It is a craze Moreau has passed on to his son, Tom Moreau Jr., who at seven years old is fighting kids two or three years older than he is — and winning.

Time to fight

But on the steamy evening of June 19, Moreau is popping in and out of the two fenced-in makeshift waiting rooms/locker rooms, one for the red corner and one for the blue corner. It is fight night and Moreau is socializing with other fighters, trainers and lovers of MMA.

Zangri sits calmly on a stool, surrounded by his Team Valor members, Eddie Brito and Devin Lenfest. It is Lenfest who seems nervous.

“We know he’s prepared, which helps,” Lenfest said. “But it is harder because we’ve just got to watch and have no control over anything.”

Time seems to move slowly. The fact that the show has been pushed back by an hour doesn’t help. Some fighters seem to be stuck in traffic. Moreau is not pleased.

“Everything is about timing,” Moreau said. “The fighters eat at a certain time before a fight, so this throws things off. But I told Lowell, ‘You’ve just got to deal with it.’”

Moreau speaks affectionately about Zangri. He said Zangri, who has only been training with him a short time, is a natural and has picked up the sport quicker than most.

That relationship is on full display as the time of the fight approaches. As night descends, hanging Christmas lights come on and the waiting rooms take on a festive atmosphere. They become a revolving door of victory and defeat. Fighters in preparation spar, finished fighters ice their necks and analyze their fight, a large television monitor shows highlights from the UFC, a reminder of what they’re fighting to become.

Moreau and Zangri pace back and forth. As they walk and Moreau whispers in Zangri’s ear, the father-figure image doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

It is a big fight for Zangri. He is fighting Will “The Brown Bomber” Santiago out of Lawrence, Mass., the Mecca of MMA in the Northeast. The scene is hardcore there, which becomes apparent when Zangri enters the pavilion.

It is pitch black, save for the lights atop the cage, and one cannot avoid the Roman Coliseum comparisons. Suddenly, smoke billows from the stage (where musicians usually perform) and a purple light shines, choreographed perfectly with the start of loud rap music. It is all very theatrical. At this moment, out walks Zangri, looking down upon the crowd and the cage, his lips moving to the lyrics of the song, which are hard to hear simply because Zangri is being booed.

Attracting a crowd
It’s nothing personal.

The UFC is very popular, but the local fight scene is still influenced by the fighters and their families. For example, 50 people from Malden, Mass., packed a bus to drive up to watch Bob Burton fight. At the Gilford fight, which was held specifically during Bike Week to drum up interest, two audience members picked at random ended up being related to the fighters. The local scene is still developing.

“You don’t make money off the hardcore fans,” said Fain, who owns Triumph Promotions. “They are only 20 percent of the crowd. It is the other 80 percent you need to cater to, the ones who are there for the excitement and to see something they’ve never seen before.”

This can cause a contradiction because many fight fans come to see blood. And while there is some, MMA is actually quite technical and when two fighters are engaged on the ground, it can be kind of boring.

Andre Denson, who became a judge a year and a half ago, said during a fight, a fighter can be on the ground, on his back (which looks like he’s losing), but be controlling the action of the fight and actually be winning.

“Sometimes fans will yell, ‘This is stupid! Stand the fighters up!’” Denson said. “It is just about educating them about the sport.”

But part of the misconception is not the fans’ fault. They are led to believe each fight will be a blood bath. While fighters advocate the credibility of their sport, promoters are looking to draw people into the tent. Hence the name of the event was “The Massacre in the Meadow.”

“People know it’s a sport,” said David George, the young owner of Combat Zone, the promotional company that put on the Gilford fight. “We just use wording to attract an audience.”

What keeps the audience is good fights. And this is more difficult than it sounds. George has a great reputation of evaluating talent and pitting two equal fighters, which brings out the best in them, which in turn creates a good show.

“I put a lot of time into arranging solid, evenly matched fights,” George said.

This is appreciated not only by the fans but also by trainers and coaches. Fain said he doesn’t care if his fighters lose.

“I’m not trying to have them win every fight,” Fain said. “It is OK if my guys are challenged.”

Fain said if a guy is 10-0 but has fought 10 bums, it hasn’t improved him as a fighter in a sport, which can be unforgiving. Moreau agreed with Fain. He said a lot of other schools would have seen Zangri’s success and pushed him to become a pro. But Moreau said every fighter needs a certain amount of fights to get experience.

“I’ve seen guys become pros too quickly and then they’re flushed out after a few fights,” Moreau said.

Jared Dumais bowed out of the Massacre in the Meadow a week before the event. He said his boxing coach just didn’t believe he was prepared to fight. When Dumais, 20, began fighting three years ago, there was no rule that required three amateur fights. He said he is in favor of the rule.
“I wish I had some amateur experience,” Dumais said. “It is in a fighter’s best interest. You’ve got to get the nerves out. Get in front of people. After that first fight, everything changes. You know what you’re getting yourself into.”

Even the best pro fighters in the Northeast aren’t making a ton of money, maybe $3,000 a fight, maybe four or five fights a year. And that is just fine with Fain, who said he wants fighters to make as little as possible. He said it keeps them hungry. Fain said he wants them to scrape by, live in the gym, eat Ramen noodles and keep the edge. But he has taken his best fighter, Dennis Olson, under his wing in the hopes Olson can someday open his own studio, which is a more sustainable career.

Moreau said he always puts school ahead of fighting.

“No matter how good you are,” Moreau said, “you can’t fight forever.”

In the cage
The fight is over before it really ever begins. Zangri submits at two minutes and 25 seconds in the first round. I scribble some notes in my pad, trying to capture the scene around me. When I look up to see how Zangri looks after such a quick loss, he is already gone. And a new fighter is making his way to the cage.

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