The Lighter Side of Cage Fighting
Big opportunities for small fighters as the UFC warms up to a new weight class
The word “fighter” often carries with it an image of a burley brute. The working barroom theory is that the bigger person usually wins. But that’s only if you assume an even playing field, where neither guy knows what he’s doing. If one of the combatants is trained, my money’s on him, regardless of size.
In the sport combat world of mixed martial arts, even casual fans understand: Technique trumps power. Regardless, a clash of two heavyweights carries mystique and will draw more eyeballs and bigger paydays.
“People assume that heavyweights are supposed to move a certain way, without much finesse,” explains John Dodson, a professional MMA Flyweight (125-pound) fighter. “When a big guy can move like a small guy, it’s pretty incredible,” he says. “People are drawn to the Heavyweights in hopes they’ll see another Ali out there, a big guy that can move like that.”
Fighters like Muhammad Ali are few and far between, he adds, but “time has proven that smaller fighters are going to be that technical and that skilled. The most entertaining fighters are at lighter weights.”
MMA’s premiere league, the UFC, is catching on. President Dana White has promised a Flyweight division, possibly as soon as 2012.
It isn’t entirely clear where Dodson scored his nickname “The Magician.” I heard it was after a match when an opponent caught one of his kicks, and he escaped the predicament via backflip. Dodson thinks the name was first used when he tossed an opponent in the air and jumped up after him: By the time they both landed, Dodson had secured a fight-ending rear naked choke. It’s a feat that’s hard enough to visualize, much less pull off. Adding to The Magician’s lore, the fighter from Edgewood has never been taken to the mat in a fight.
Dodson has trained at Jackson-Winkeljohn Mixed Martial Arts for a decade and is an instructor there. He and his teammate Diego Brandão, who fights at Featherweight (145), are cast members in “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 14, which debuts Wednesday, Sept. 21, on Spike. For those who aren’t familiar, the show is based on a house full of prospective fighters who live together and spend their days in the gym preparing to whoop each other’s asses. (The rest of the time, they talk about how and why they’re going to whoop each other’s asses.) The winners advance, tournament style, until one man is left standing. The top dog gets a six-figure contract with the UFC.
“People are drawn to the Heavyweights in hopes they’ll see another Ali out there, a big guy that can move like that.”
This season’s cast includes two weight classes, Featherweights like Brandão, and Bantamweights, who compete at 135 pounds. While Dodson normally competes at 125, the UFC doesn’t have a Flyweight division, so he competed at “thirty-fives” on the show, making him the smallest member of the cast.
Cast members aren’t allowed to discuss what happened during filming. We’ll have to watch and find out ourselves. Dodson will be hosting weekly viewing parties at Buffalo Wild Wings on the corner of Montgomery and Wyoming.
Dodson and Brandão are also among seven competitors who have used competitions organized by Jackson’s gym to springboard onto the big stage of the UFC or Strikeforce.
The next such card, Jackson’s MMA Series VI, goes down Saturday, Oct. 22, at the Hard Rock Casino. Not a single fight on the main card will be contested below 155 pounds.
The Jackson’s Series brings a who’s who of MMA out of the woodwork. The many stars who train at the gym come out to support their teammates. (I still haven’t gotten all of the spittle out of my hair after sitting in front of a vocal Diego Sanchez at Julie Kedzie vs. Kaitlin Young in April.) Members of opposing teams show up as well. And don’t be surprised to see Dan Henderson at the Oct. 22 event, when his California-based Team Quest protégé Federico Lopez takes on Jackson’s fighter Matt Leyva in a Bantamweight bout. Lopez has already beaten Jackson’s fighter Jorge Ruiz, a loss for his team that Leyva hopes to avenge. “Any time someone from our team loses to someone from another team, it’s on,” says Jackson’s manager Ricky Kottenstette.
The card also features the U.S. debut of Japanese superstar Masanori Kanehara, at Bantamweight against Arizona’s Carlos Ortega. Kanehara is visiting Albuquerque from Japan to train.
After years in the shadows, the lighter MMA fighters are finally getting a chance to show their stuff. From the regional circuit to reality TV to the big stage of the UFC, the doors are finally opening.
Even if Dodson loses in his attempt to win the “Ultimate Fighter” competition as a Bantamweight, he can still hope to enter the UFC’s new Flyweight division. But if Dodson wins the show, he’d consider staying at that weight. The funny thing is, as we speculate about what will happen, he already knows the answer—or, rather, he knows if he’ll be in the final fight, which will happen later this year on live TV. “A lot of people consider me the underdog because I’m the smallest guy in the house,” he says, stopping himself there before letting out a telling “but” or some other giveaway.
Instead, he simply offers a word of advice: “Keep your eyes on the guys from New Mexico.”
And don’t blink. Those little guys are fast.