Photos and Story by Slade Kemmet
“Have you ever been to a fight before?”
Demian Papagni, a tough looking, colorfully tattooed man asked. “It’s kinda like a car wreck,” he went on, “it’s one thing to see it on TV, it’s a whole ‘nother thing to see it in person.”
Papagni stood inside the run-down facilities of Valhalla Combat Club in Cedar Rapids, IA, home to about 20 Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters, all belonging to Team Hard Drive. The gym was an old storefront with apartments directly above it. Large glass windows, which often fogged with the condensation of sweat, faced the street displaying peeling letters that read “WE MAKE DREAMS O E TRUE.”
Broken mirrors lay against the interior walls, a tool used for fighters to perfect their form, alongside bats, knives, and brass knuckles hanging like trophies. Large pieces of ceiling were missing, exposing pipes and wires running in every direction. In the middle of the floor stood a makeshift boxing ring that crowded the small room surrounded by a carpeted floor that had a habit of staying damp year-round from perspiration.
In the adjacent room, black and red mats lined the floor and walls, used to protect the men and women while they sparred and wrestled. Towels and wrist wraps hung from low hanging rafters next to boxing bags and scattered weights across the floor.
On the other side of the room was a small bathroom covered with tacky cartoon fish wallpaper. A round thermometer sat on the far wall. In the summer it would occasionally read 110 degrees, a few fighters remember walking outside of the gym in the summer heat and shivering.
On this particular day, Papagni sang along to “Forever Young” that played on the well-used CD player as he landed elbows and knees into the head of a dummy on the floor. A young blonde haired child watched from the corner, the daughter of another fighter. Papagni is 33 years old, weighs 175 pounds, but cuts down to 155 for each fight, and is an avid reader. After reading a book on the food production process of animals, he became a vegetarian, believing no living thing should be treated that way.
Papagni is the owner of the gym, but would insist that he was merely the custodian, and one of the dozen men and women who fought for Team Hard Drive, a group that has been in existence for approximately ten years. Its members ranged from Derrick Menmen, a fighter by day and DJ at the local strip club Woody’s by night; Lonnie Scriven, a painter in business with his father; Andre Kase a six foot, 185 pound man with a particularly weak handshake; to Sarah Lacina, a local police officer.
Almost all the fighters at the gym compete in amateur fights, but only a few have made it to the professional level in the Bellator Fighting Championship. The professional level boasts longer rounds, more money, and a greater audience. Steve Carl and Jared Downing are the team’s best fighters and have obtained contracts in the professional leagues. Carl, an Iraq War Veteran, is currently traveling the Midwest, training from gym to gym in what seems to be a never-ending road trip. Last year he fought in Bulgaria and likes to boast about how he received threats from the Bulgarian Mafia before his fight.
Downing is the youngest competitor at the gym. At the age of 21, he has become a professional fighter, only having started his MMA career three years ago. Downing fights about once a month and brings in approximately $3,000 per fight, having an 8–0 amateur record and 5–0 professional.
“I’m not good at a bunch of things, but what I am good at, I’m really good at. And one of those things is fighting,” Downing explained with a noticeable stutter. He loves putting on a show for the crowd. In a main event fight last February, he entered the ring in hot pink shorts, dyed pink hair, dancing to the Pink Panther theme song. He won the match decisively.
Each weeknight, Downing looks at his phone to check the time before he leaves the gym a little before eight. He then proceeds to head home, where he lives with and takes care of his grandparents, one of which has dementia. Downing has to make it home on time each night to put them to bed.
“The fighting lifestyle is different from any other in that you’re the boringest person your friends know,”
Papagni explained. Papagni is at work by 6 a.m. each morning, gets home at five, eats, trains at the gym, watches the news and goes to bed. He says his weekends are about the same. He doesn’t drink, party, or go to bars like he used to.
Papagni worked at a moving company, constantly traveling around the Midwest. After a while he received a permanent job in the company when he was 25 and was stationed in Cedar Rapids. A few weeks ago his boss demanded that he start traveling again, so Papagni told him to ‘fuck off’ and quit. He now trains eight hours a day, almost seven days a week. To pay rent, he picked up a job at a local bar and works two nights a week.
“I don’t know how many people I know that are really unhappy because their life consists of nothing fulfilling,” Papagni said. “They go to a job they don’t like. They buy shit they don’t need. They come home to a family that probably doesn’t get along great.” Looking around the gym, he added, “This is fulfilling.”
Since fights are few and far between the fighters of Valhalla Combat Club make the most of their training. The days leading up to any fight take the form of an intense week-long training session deemed Hell Week that would make a “grown man cry,” according to Papagni. After Hell Weeks in the summer months, they reward themselves with an ice bath in a garbage can. The fighter jumps into the frigid water, nearly naked, and may receive the occasional catcall by women walking by.
This week it was Chris Lanes’ turn. In conjuncture with the handwritten message on the wall that reads “Rule #1: Cardio,” Lane started the evening with bearcrawls, moved into sprints, push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups. Whenever his chin slipped below the bar, the room would explode in a mix of jeers. He continued to hang from the pull-up bar. As his muscles glistened in the buzzing florescent lights, sweat pooled on the floor below him, running down his contorted face, past his flexed arms, and off his dangling legs to the matted floor.
Lane was down from the bar now, and taken to the mat by a teammate. On the ground he was pummeled, manhandled, and choked. As soon as he escaped from his opponent and was up on he feet, another fighter took him down. This process of catch and release was repeated for five minutes. From the corner of the room, a buzzer rang sharply signaling the end of the drill. Lane got to his feet, stumbled a yard or two, and collapsed on all fours, vomiting. Once there was nothing left to expel, Lane stood up, covered in his own puke, and went downstairs to the dark and dirty locker room. Papagni grabbed his mop and bucket and cleaned up.
The day of the fight approached quickly and the team met at the gym in the dimming evening light. One fighter removed two children’s car seats from the back of his pickup truck to make room for a few of the others before the group left for Dubuque, IA. Papagni and Scrivner sat in the front of Papagni’s truck, and as soon as Cedar Rapids was behind them, they reached for a pipe, lighter, and bag of weed and passed it between themselves, taking a few hits each turn. Noticing the full moon as he barreled down the highway, Papagni turned off his headlights and stared at the sky, enjoying the panorama.
Two hours and several stops for snacks passed by and the silver pickup drove into the Diamond Jo Casino parking lot. Inside the auditorium of the casino sat a caged octagon surrounded by folding chairs on one side, and two stories of theatre seating on the other. The crowd filled in to capacity and the complex light grid of yellow, green, red, and blue illuminated the faces of the masses, many of which had a beer or two in hand.
Outside the cage stood two cameramen, with a live feed of their video connected to two massive projectors that shot their imagery to the nearby wall. Just in case an audience member missed a piece of the action, a replay could be put up on the screens to watch over and over again. This would be the case later on in the night when a local fighter and crowd favorite, broke both his tibia and fibula, the bones pushing their way against the skin creating massive bulge. All the while a continuous replay was shown to the crowd as they cringed and gasped but did not look away.
DJ Sykora was the first to fight from Team Hard Drive, an intensely quiet man with kind eyes and a father of one. He entered the cage after a quick pep talk from Papagni and the other coaches. Silent and calm he stood in the ring with the ref, wearing plastic gloves, a black polo, and dress shoes, who remained between him and his opponent. As soon as the ref clapped his hands together, the fight was underway.
It wasn’t long before Sykora’s adversary was on the ground taking fists to the face, elbows to the head, and knees to the body, Sykora remained stone faced. As the blood began to pool around the man’s head, the crowd grew louder with their incoherent cheers. One middle-aged man, clearly drunk, made his way closer to the cage to yell, spilling beer from his large plastic cup all the while.
Slowly Sykora’s opponent went limp in the fetal position. The ref jumped in to stop the fight, deeming the other man no longer able to intelligibly defend himself. Sykora rose up, hands in the air signaling his victory, but without much emotion or excitement on his face. The other man slowly sat up on his knees, dazed and confused as the medical technicians tried to slow the blood that gushed from his nostrils. His torso and forearms were smothered in blood, and the supersaturated red loitered obtrusively on the brilliantly white floor.
Sykora exited the cage and went upstairs to the backstage bathroom, where he was greeted by cheering teammates. He held his hands out and the blood soaked athletic tape was cut from his hands with small medical scissors. A few minutes later the team went back out to the crowded auditorium to watch Downing win the fight of the night.
When it was all over, Team Hard Drive all piled back into their cars and headed home. Papagni’s truck was silent as he and Scrivner shared the pipe once again, the dark, empty landscape of the Midwest passing by outside.
Most of these men and women will not be remembered for DJ’ing at a strip club, painting houses, or working at a moving company, but what they may just be remembered for is the way they throw a punch. Back at the gym, Demian looked around smiling,
“I don’t give a fuck if I’m here for the rest of my life.”