Fight night at Santa Cruz’s KP Arena: Four hours in, hometown hero Danny Compton enters the Octagon
Forget pro wrestling, the five-hour card — with 11 bouts — Friday night at the Santa Cruz Warriors’ arena is a first-of-its-kind event in town. Mixed martial arts incorporates kickboxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu and any number of techniques of formalized hand-to-hand (or even foot-to-foot) combat. The contestants are quite a mix as well — strawweight, bantamweight, welterweight, including “The Cali Cowgirl,” one representing his home country of Kyrgyzstan. How bloody will this evening be, and how will the local guy perform in a make-or-break duel at the end of the evening?
It’s still mid-afternoon, the sun high in the sky, as I approach my evening’s engagement. A block away I can hear it, the thumping, the buzz, the fat rumble of a voice on a loudspeaker. I can recognize the tone of the voice, before I can make out any words — there’s a party going on at Kaiser Permanente Arena in Santa Cruz, a loud, aggressive, chest-beating, are-you-ready-to-rrrrrrumble? kind of party.
Inside the arena, the home of the Santa Cruz Warriors, a DJ is playing propulsive, ear-bleeding metal and hip-hop. Colored disco lights pinball through the bleacher seats and across the ceiling.
It’s my very first MMA fight.
My mood as I get closer is a cocktail of two parts anthropological curiosity and one part excitement, flavored with a splash of dread. As a person who has never equated fun with controlled violence — seriously, I’m almost certain to see blood tonight — I’m not a natural fight fan. I have to shed various clichés in my mind when it comes to this kind of entertainment, largely drawn from “Raging Bull” — short guys in fedoras exchanging greenbacks, cigar smoke suspended in the air, palookas stoically taking a beatdown. None of that really applies to this scene.
MMA stands for mixed martial arts. It’s the next evolution and currently world-popular mode of organized fighting, best packaged and presented by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The host of tonight’s event at the K-P is the Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA), a kind of minor-league feeding system to UFC. Is it like boxing? Sure. But it’s also kickboxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and any number of techniques of formalized hand-to-hand (or even foot-to-foot) combat.
There are 11 fights on the card tonight. I knew fighting was all about endurance, but I didn’t realize that applied to spectators as well. The main event is a big one, a faceoff between Brazilian Renato Valente and local boy Daniel Compton, with whom I visited earlier this month at his home in La Selva Beach. This Friday event is the first of its kind at the arena and the big draw is the Santa Cruz born-and-raised Compton, a heroic figure and friend to many locals. I soon learn that the hot item of apparel tonight is a Team Compton black tee, the word COMPTON displayed across the front in a bend, like a smile. I suspect it’s a reflection of the fighter’s trademark, his bushy black beard.
But the Compton fight is hours away. He’s the Santa Claus at the end of the parade. Now it’s time to hunker down for the preliminaries.
There is no square ring, like you might picture a boxing ring. Instead, MMA uses what’s known as the Octagon, an eight-sided platform surrounded by what looks, from the crowd, like the same kind of chain-linked fencing you might see surrounding an auto-salvage yard (without the angled barbed-wire on the top).
The action begins with four “appetizer” fights, and the first of those four is between women, one of two female fights on the card. The fighters first appear on a platform at the back of the arena, beside the DJ, stepping in front of a large video screen and appearing out of a silhouette through twin columns of smoke. It’s a thrilling piece of razzle-dazzle and gives each fighter a kind of mythic aura of bad-ass menace. They then walk the gauntlet toward the Octagon, disrobing into their fight outfits and meeting with officials before stepping into the ring, Black Sabbath or Van Halen or some other saber-rattling soundtrack blaring through the arena.
As for the fighting itself, it resembles boxing with its strategic striking, at least when the fighters are upright. The difference is, of course, the bare feet, which the fighters use to jab and parry much as they do with their hands. Often, the fighters hit the mat in one mass of limbs and torsos, wrestling for a dominant position and displaying any number of headlocks and holds. For this particular neophyte fan, I find the fights much more compelling when the fighters are attacking each other on their feet. In wrestling mode, it’s difficult to make out exactly what they are doing to each other, and it often resembles nothing more than a couple of giant bark beetles engaged in some kind of slow-motion combat and/or mating ritual.
Of the prelims, only one ends with a knockout. The rest go the full three rounds (5 minutes per round). What I find refreshing about these fights is a kind of humility of the fighters toward the process itself. The casual observer might make the mistake of thinking that MMA and professional wrestling are similar. They are, in fact, almost opposite in their aesthetics and purpose. What’s often parodied (if you can call it that) in the grotesque kabuki theater known as professional wrestling is the theatrical, teeth-baring hyper-machismo, which of course underlies everything in American culture from Marvel movies to the Trump phenomenon.
There is precious little of that bogus childish posturing, at least at this MMA bout. The fighters are generally somber and respectful, and, more often than not, at the end of the fight, they’ll embrace, two athletes recognizing in each other the commitment and sacrifice to get to the Octagon. One competitor, who actually won his fight, breaks down and weeps.
The fighters come in a range of sizes — in the vernacular, strawweight, bantamweight, welterweight, etc. — and backgrounds. Most fighters were Californians, including one who fashioned herself as “The Cali Cowgirl,” but one of the fighters came representing his home country of Kyrgyzstan. The in-ring apparel was mostly contrasting blacks and whites, but one competitor appeared in a Barbie-style pink with “La Chica” stenciled across her top, and another guy showed up in red trunks with little yellow hearts.
After a couple of hours, the main event draws nearer. The evening takes on a different tone with UFC Fight Pass, the pricey worldwide pay-per-view channel that is offered through Disney+ and ESPN, begins its live broadcast. The Compton/Santa Cruz angle is hyped again for the audiences watching at home. The music is a tad louder, the colored lights a tad more frantic. Whispers begin to circulate about this or that UFC celebrity in the audience. I watch two young boys approach UFC superstar Nate Diaz, who happily poses for selfies with them. Yes, there is a warm and fuzzy side to MMA.
But the crowd is clearly expecting the fighting to step up a notch. If adrenaline were fog, you would barely see 3 feet in front of you in this place.
As the fighters get bigger and more experienced, the fighting does grow a bit more polished, the attacks a bit more frenetic. And, yes, there is blood. When you’re watching 22 fighters, someone is going to bleed from the face in some manner, and, as the evening goes deeper, camera shots from on high reveal streaks of blood all over the Octagon’s mat. One poor schmo took an elbow to the nose and blood cascaded down his bare chest. It takes what seems like a battalion of medics to stanch the blood from the guy’s nose. Let’s hope the squeamish have found some other place to be tonight.
Finally, nearly five hours (!) into this slog of hand-to-hand combat, the big fight is at hand: Valente vs. Compton. The Santa Cruz kid defending his home turf in front of his homies. The number of Team Compton T-shirts seems to increase as the night goes on. The crowd, close to the arena’s capacity of 3,000, is poised to erupt.
Valente is the first to emerge from the fog machine, a good-looking barrel-chested guy wearing a full feather headdress, what most would recognize as Native American iconography. In fact, it’s actually a symbol of the Indigenous culture of Valente’s native Brazil. Either way, it’s a regal and even intimidating way to make an entrance.
Valente is already dancing around in the ring when Compton, tall, lean, his face obscured by his famous wild-man beard, emerges into the arena. The screams grow deafening. I expected a tinge of bloodlust at this moment, but, despite the boos that rained down when Valente was introduced, this is more like an outpouring of hometown love, not some good-vs.-evil frenzy.
The fighting begins, and the hometown boy is on the defensive from the beginning. A chant begins to churn up from the bleacher seats — “Danny! Danny!” But Danny is still looking for an opening against the aggressive Valente. At the end of the first round, he’s got a bloody gash near his eye he has to deal with.
The second round … well, it didn’t last too long. After a brief clench that begins to look like ballroom dancing, the two fighters square off again and Valente launches into a dramatic fusillade of punches. Less than a minute into the second round, the hometown boy is down.
The fight is stopped, and the energy that has been building for hours in this arena dissipates in an instant. While the officials confer, a tsunami of fans moves toward the exit, even though there is, incredibly, one more fight left on the schedule. By the time the fight is called for Valente, much of the crowd is gone. At the mic, Valente preens and celebrates, then heaps praise on his vanquished opponent. For the 35-year-old Compton, who is old by MMA standards, this was a pivotal, maybe even make-or-break moment in his career and his life. When the microphone is thrust in his face, Compton — battered, swollen, sweaty — says to nearly everyone he knows and loves in the world, “I’m sorry I couldn’t get the job done for you.” Then, no time for self-pity, he urges the crowd to stay for the final fight. I’m heartbroken for the guy.
The final fight, a couple of heavyweights, plays out before a thin, mostly disappointed crowd. It too ends with a knockout, suddenly. I notice, as I begin my own trek out of the arena, that the two massive fighters are hugging a bit longer than the others did. It’s a reminder to the spectator — especially one who will never get remotely close to climbing in a ring with anyone — that there’s an ecstasy to this kind of fighting that sustains and goads these fighters, win or lose.
As I slink out into the warm Santa Cruz summer night, five hours after I first walked in, I’m hoping that Danny Compton, so cruelly robbed of a storybook triumph, can at least still hear the swell of adoration from his hometown.
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