Mixed martial arts: Two North Dakota men to compete on TV's ‘Ultimate Fighter'
by Ryan Johnson, Forum
Posted on 8/30/2010
Pablo Garza got into his share of middle school fights in Grafton, N.D., but not by choice.
"I was the guy that would get picked on," he said.
A lot has changed since then, and the 26-year-old probably wouldn't even break a sweat if he got into a brawl with his former bullies today - he has a 9-0 record as a professional fighter, and is one of 28 contestants on the new season of Spike TV's "The Ultimate Fighter."
Garza and another North Dakota native, Dane Sayers of West Fargo, were picked from hundreds of applicants to be on the show and compete for a $100,000 UFC contract. The new season premieres Sept. 15.
Both men have been training for more than a year at the Academy of Combat Arts in Fargo, a gym that's owned by Grand Forks native Dylan Spicer.
Some people might equate mixed martial arts to dog fighting, Spicer said, but the sport actually results in fewer injuries than football.
And it has a commission that sets strict guidelines and tests for steroids, he said.
"Most of the time it doesn't involve someone really trying to hurt you," he said. "I think people have the misconception when they come into this gym that we're going to lace up the gloves and mop the floor with them."
Spicer said it is instead "90 percent technique." It's a sport that follows ancient martial arts techniques, but he admitted the lucrative version of mixed martial arts today is the "blood and chaos" cage matches.
Becoming a fighter
Garza's immersion into mixed martial arts happened about four years ago when he was looking for a sport that would provide the intensity of training that came with playing point guard for the Jamestown College basketball team.
A friend got him to try boxing for about a month, and then he transitioned into fighting at about age 22. He may have been an athlete before, but said he never would have imagined becoming a professional fighter when he was younger.
"That's not me at all," Garza said. "Sure, everybody dreamed about being (Jean-Claude) Van Damme in some Van Damme movie or something, but this is just something I totally fell into."
He now trains six days a week, three to four hours per day, except Saturdays when he's at the gym for most of the day. Garza said he has to continue training even while injured if he wants to keep an edge over the competition.
"I've never known somebody that actually goes into a fight 100 percent and injury-free," he said. "There's always something wrong."
Sayers, 22, has been in the sport for two years and now follows a gruesome training routine that has him running hills, weightlifting and practicing in the gym twice a day.
But he's always been an athletic. Sayers played football since the third grade, ran the half-mile in track and wrestled some in high school.
"I regarded myself as kind of the fighter type and thought perhaps I might be good at it," he said. "It looked like fun."
Sayers won his first fight shortly after he started training, and now boasts a professional record of 7-1. His only loss came after a five-round split decision in January that generated buzz in the Fargo area and earned him a sponsor that flew him to North Carolina to compete for a spot on "The Ultimate Fighter."
‘This is my life'
Sayers said he thinks of mixed martial arts as a career, not just a hobby or form of exercise.
"I honestly want to devote my life to this," he said. "And after I'm done competing in the sport, I want to open my own gym and teach. This is my life."
But it's only become a realistic career choice in the past year as Sayers went on his winning streak and thought "this has to be worth something." As he's become more serious about it, he's realized more and more how complicated the sport really is.
Sayers now sees it as a combination of wrestling moves and grappling, striking and martial arts techniques that form a sport that can never quite be mastered.
"I'm doing something that I feel like I'll never be able to stop getting better at," he said.
Garza graduated with an exercise science and personal training degree from UND and now teaches kickboxing at the university, but said he thinks of the sport as his main focus.
"It's really hard when you first get started in this type of a career," he said. "You start off making scraps, next to nothing, and that's what makes and breaks a lot of people is just sticking with that grind of not making any money until you finally get into it."
Garza said being on the television show is a great next step for his career, but admitted it was an intimidating experience because many of the sport's top athletes have been wrestling or learning martial arts far longer than this former basketball player.
"It's not a ‘go out there and fight and beat somebody up' thing," he said. "It's literally a human chess match. You'll go out there and display your skills and whoever's better, wins it."