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March 15, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Daniel “Red” McClendon enters the small cage in the middle of what is usually the dance floor of the Whiskey Wild Saloon. The crowd of people is shoulder to shoulder watching his mixed martial arts fight in January. McClendon follows his opponent, Alejandro Jimenez, around the seven-sided cage.
Within a matter of minutes the fight is underway. Jimenez exposes his bare, sweaty back. McClendon attacks. He wraps his arm around Jimenez’s neck from behind and gains a strong choke hold. Jimenez tries to break the hold, but McClendon doesn’t let go. Seconds later, McClendon, 6 feet 3 inches tall, wins the fight, bragging rights and the red and gold Mixed Martial Arts 205-pound weight class title belt.Related Articles
But there are no hard feelings between the two. Jimenez, a couple inches shorter than McClendon but heavier set, pulls himself up after the 37-second fight and congratulates McClendon.
To outsiders, MMA might seem like brutal, uncivilized fights, but to competitors, MMA is a way of life. McClendon and other members of the Hulett House Gym, a local training facility, see their fellow fighters more often than some people see their family. They train together four nights a week. They crash on one anothers’ couches. They go to the same parties.
MMA forms a subculture of fighters and affects almost every aspect of each competitor’s life. Each gym is made up of a family of sorts — a slightly dysfunctional and abusive family that outsiders don’t want to mess with but a family nonetheless.
At the cowboy-themed bar six hours before the punching, choking and kicking start, the competitors share a laugh. They talk with surprising ease and confidence, considering they are about to enter a
“We have to be cocky sons of bitches,” McClendon, called Red because of his hair color, says. “If you don’t act and think like a winner, you won’t win.” The other fighters around him nod in agreement.
As he walks across the cold, dimly lit bar waiting to fight, McClendon joins a new circle of competitors.
“You fighting tonight?” ask a couple of the men in unison.
“Yeah. Alejandro something,” McClendon says naming his competitor. “Every time I say his name, I think of that Lady Gaga song, and I can’t take it seriously.”
“I’m gonna laugh when he comes out to it,” says one of the fighters in reference to the music played when a fighter’s name is announced.
“I would tap right there,” McClendon says. “I’d be laughing, saying: ‘I can’t breath. I can’t breath.’”
Like many fighters, McClendon sports the MMA battle scar, a cauliflower ear.
McClendon’s right ear looks swollen and lumpy as if a bubble of cottage cheese is stuck in the upper part of it. But to the touch, it is as hard as a rock.
For many fighters, cauliflower ear, caused by repetitive injury to the ear, gives them a sense of pride like the Greek letters on a sorority shirt.
Practices and fight nights aren’t the only times fighters stick together. The Hulett House fighters help one another out, and their trainer, Robert Hulett, makes sure they are all taken care of. When they are strapped for cash, he finds odd jobs around the gym so they can earn money, settles them down after too many drinks and makes sure their training is on track for the next big fight. All jokes aside, they know they are a team that sticks together inside and outside of the gym.
“We take care of each other,” McClendon says. “We’re a family.”