For amateur mixed martial artist, a long road
By Maricia Guzman
After working two jobs, training hours a day, sweating and starving to cut weight and sacrificing life and relationships, Justin Weaver was nowhere to be found.
Roll call for fighters competing in the Disorderly Conduct Spring Brawl began at the Pershing Center in downtown Lincoln at 6:45 p.m. Friday, April 12.
Weaver should have been in the ring. He should have been fighting. He wanted to fight. His opponent, however, never showed up for a mandatory weigh in. He backed out of the fight via text message.
The fight had been a chance for Weaver to prove how much he wanted to be a fighter and to make all the sacrifice worth it. It was a chance to show people who questioned his desire to become a professional fighter.
Amateur mixed martial arts can be a messy business and it’s not unheard of for fighters to drop out last minute.
However, the sport that was once banned in the U.S. because of its brutality draws in more and more athletes every year who are daring enough or – by their own admission – stupid enough to step into the cage.
April 12 was supposed to be a big night for Weaver. It ended up being just another Friday night. It ended up being another opportunity that was close, but not quite there.
Tuesday, March 19
Three weeks before, Weaver and four fighters are inside Lincoln Mixed Martial Arts on West O Street, preparing for battle.
The Disorderly Conduct MMA Spring Brawl was three weeks away and Team Viper was hard at work.
“I’m not looking forward to cutting weight though,” Dwight Joseph, a lightweight, said. “I already messed up on my eating.”
“Man, don’t you hate when your girlfriend wants to go out and at the restaurant you’re like ‘Um, I’ll have some water and leaf of lettuce’,” another said.
They all laughed, knowing the struggle of cutting weight all too well and then it’s silent.
“Can’t wait until I can have some Raising Canes,” Weaver said.
To Weaver, 23, MMA isn’t just a sport; it’s a lifestyle. Every day he goes to work at K&Z Distribution Inc., and then he trains for three to four hours in the evening while monitoring every calorie he eats.
It’s a tight and mundane schedule, but it’s worth it to him.
Weaver has a mean and fierce presence in the cage. Once during a sparring session his opponent landed a punch and Weaver snapped pummeling him into the cage wall.
But on the outside he’s just a goofy guy with big ears who enjoys joking around.
Weaver is 5 feet 7 inches tall and usually fights at the 155 pound class. He has hazel eyes and dark brown hair.
A gladiator helmet, Chinese symbols and a tribal tattoo are inked on his rock solid body sculpted by his strict diet and long workouts.
“Respect all, fear none” is a quote tattooed by the gladiator helmet. It’s something his old wrestling coach used to say.
Weaver’s ears are bubbled from cauliflower ear, caused by years of him not wearing his headgear in wrestling.
For him they’re like battle scars.
“They’re like a trophy — fighters kind of take pride in getting them,” Weaver said, “They do hurt when you get slammed on them though.”
He still doesn’t wear headgear for MMA.
Like most amateur fighters, Weaver dreams of fighting professionally.
But not all fighters are willing to give up as much as he is. Sacrifice isn’t daunting to Weaver; he already knows what it’s like to lose it all.
Weaver grew up as a farm kid in Hastings with his siblings, mom and step-dad. They didn’t have a lot of money, just enough to get by. Farm life gave Weaver an appreciation for being outdoors and it taught him hard work.
He graduated from Franklin High School in Hastings with a class of 32 students. He was a wrestler with a 29 ACT score. He had wrestling scholarship offers from a couple schools, but he opted for something closer to home at Hastings College.
For Weaver, college was a whirlwind of drinking, partying, girlfriends and wrestling.
“Why take life too seriously,” he said of those days. “Hell, you don’t get out alive anyway.”
Fortunately for Weaver, his smarts kept him afloat as an accounting major.
“I would complete most stuff people worked on for days and weeks, in a few hours,” Weaver said.
Weaver was also a math whiz.
“Anything with numbers interests me,” he said, “I’m like a calculator.”
But as time went on Weaver found that a career in accounting wasn’t for him. It was too boring.
In 2009, Weaver joined the National Guard. In the Guard, he won the Best Warrior competition. It’s a competition, to determine who the, fittest and most competent soldiers are.
At one time, Weaver was a successful and easy-going military guy who enjoyed a good party. He was engaged to a girl he loved and life seemed to be falling into place.
But a few years later, after a night of drinking with friends, Weaver saw the flashing red and blue lights of a cop car in his rear view mirror. His life would never be the same again.
Thursday April, 4
Weaver stood face to face with a guy who wants nothing more than to beat the life out of him.
Weaver’s head was cocked to one side with his fists up in a defensive boxing position. He tried to read his opponents next move.
His back was red from being slammed against the mat. He and the other fighter left sweaty imprints on the bottom of the padded cage after a stint of jujitsu and wrestling maneuvers. Then, in the blink of an eye, they are back on their feet ready to box.
Make. Him. Surrender.
It’s the name of the game, the goal of every fighter.
To the untrained eye, mixed martial arts looks barbaric, as if there are no rules.
The yellow Everlast timer buzzes loudly, signaling the end of the round. Weaver, exhausted from the fight, crawled out of the cage, flung himself onto his back and lied on the ground motionless.
His opponent, Dwight Joseph, sat on a box next to Weaver. After Weaver finally sat up, Joseph gently tapped Weaver’s shoulder with his glove.
The angry fighter from inside the cage melted into a gentler person. Like a big brother, Weaver delicately helped Joseph unwrap his hands. After seeing the intense fight between them, it’s almost comical.
The two are too tired to even speak.
“You make yourself hate the other person for four minutes,” Weaver said of fighting. “When they hit you, sometimes, something just snaps in you.”
While Weaver and his ex-fiancé were together, his life was relatively calm. But constant arguing lead to a breakup, and soon he fell back into the party life. From ages 20 to 22, he went hard, and fell far.
His first DUI at age 21 would only be the beginning.
After a night of drinking he decided to drive a very intoxicated friend home. After turning one lane too wide, an officer pulled him over. Busted.
In 2011, he got a second DUI during an Guard drill weekend in Kearney.
“I actually hadn’t drank at all since the first DUI, but I went to see some family that were in town and we started drinking and BS-ing,” he said.
Weaver said he hadn’t had much to drink that night, and he was supposed to stay at his cousin’s house anyway. But his other cousin talked him into leaving. Busted. Again.
“I was so ashamed,” Weaver said, “I felt like my life was over.”
At the time of his second DUI arrest, Weaver was training for the selective Best Warrior competition, and he narrowly escaped being kicked out of the Guard — two alcohol infractions are grounds for dismissal.
“Because of the competition, I was like the Army’s golden boy, at the time,” Weaver said.
They gave him another chance.
“That was an eye-opener,” Weaver said. “I really had to slow down.”
The second DUI cost Weaver his license and 20 days in jail with work release. After his punishment, Weaver started over.
“Now I kind of preach to my friends about it,” Weaver said. “The year I was 21 was a rough, rough stretch.”
It was a Friday night in early March 2013 and Weaver was sitting with friends watching auditions for ring card girls at the 10 Below Bar in Lincoln.
Weaver had a Redbull and water in hand.
He walked down the stairs and he saw Train. That’s his name. Train. He doesn’t have a last name. Train’s the co-owner of DC Management and Disorderly Conduct Promoters. His company was sponsoring the April 12 fight that Weaver was preparing for.
Train stood by Matt Vodicka, who Weaver was scheduled to fight. Vodicka gave Weaver a head nod and Weaver went over to shake his hand.
“Alright let’s do this right here,” Train said.
Weaver thought Train was jokingly telling them to fight but then he noticed Vodicka put his head down like he didn’t want to say something.
After a moment, Vodicka asked Weaver if he wanted to fight at the 160-pound weight class instead of the originally scheduled 155-pound class.
“I didn’t want to do it because I had already cut some weight, but we were supposed to have fought in December, but he got hurt and had to pull out,” Weaver said. “I knew everyone was looking forward to our fight and I just wanted to fight real bad.”
So they agreed they would fight at 160 pounds.
The 160 weight class is called a “catch weight class” because isn’t an official class. When fighting at a catch weight each fighter needs to be exactly 160 pounds — not a single pound over — or the fight is called off.
“You’re going to have to grow up sometime.”
That’s what Weaver’s mom said to him when he told her he was going to start MMA fighting.
She said he was chasing a dream that wouldn’t go anywhere but she wasn’t the only skeptic. Weaver also had friends who scoffed at the idea.
It was about a year after his arrests. Weaver had met Cody Land, a professional fighter. Land introduced Weaver to MMA and Weaver had started training at Hard Knocks gym in Hastings.
In that year since his arrests, Weaver had dropped out of college. He was now working and training full time.
He had his first amateur fight in the winter of 2012 and lost.
“I had the crap beat out of me,” Weaver said laughing. “I was just thrown into the fire.”
But in the spring of 2012, Weaver fought in South Dakota and won the fight in 40 seconds.
“I rammed through the kid,” Weaver said.
In all, Weaver’s had five fights. Three wins, two losses.
His plan: Get to 15 matches before going pro.
To go pro a fighter just has to declare he is becoming a professional. But once he’s in, there’s no going back.
MMA was a way for Weaver to stay out of trouble and it was an outlet to funnel his energy and passion for fitness. He also had a found a unique bond — a family — with his fellow fighters at Hard Knocks gym.
But Hastings was getting old. Weaver felt stuck. It was time to move on.
If MMA had a Yoda, Jeff Alexander might be it. Most things he says could have a deeper meaning about both MMA and life. For example:
“Focus on your movement, anybody can hit hard but not everyone has good form.”
“It takes one punch to win a fight. You could be dominating and with one punch the whole fight could be over.”
“You gotta eat clean and train mean.”
Alexander coaches Weaver and Team Viper.
He isn’t a big man; he’s just under 5 feet 5 inches, but solid muscle. He doesn’t smoke or drink and he eats well. He rarely wears shirts in the gym; just a pair of knee-length shorts and bare feet will suffice. He’s the kind of coach that will do everything his athletes do.
Alexander’s coaching style is relaxed but direct and firm. He wants his fighters to be the best and he makes them good the only way he knows how — through raw hard work.
Alexander’s entire life is dedicated to the gym he runs with his friend, Chris Dobson.
“You have to be hungry to do this sport,” Alexander said of MMA.
Alexander’s interest in MMA was sparked around 1993 with the first UFC. He had taught self-defense classes before and he was becoming more and more interested in combative fighting. Twenty years later he’s still involved in the world of MMA.
“Most of these guys work one or two jobs and then they come in and train for two to three hours a night,” he said, “Unless they’re pros, they’re not getting paid to do this.”
This is the world of amateur mixed martial arts. There are no athletic scholarships, no wealthy alumni donors and no safety nets.
If a fighter wants to train in a gym and move out of his parent’s house or go to college, he better get a job, maybe two.
“It’s frustrating that I don’t have the time to train like I want to because of my job,” said Weaver, who in addition to working full-time at K & Z Distributing Inc. also worked as a server at a local diner on the weekends.
Between paying a monthly gym fee, school loans, rent and car payments, traveling for fights and saving up for new equipment, Weaver often feels stressed about his finances.
In MMA, sacrifice and hard work is synonymous with the sport; no one gets to the top without them.
For most fighters, losing weight before a big fight is one of the most painful and necessary parts of the process.
They are still working and training, but they’re doing so on about half the calories they would normally eat. The difference takes its toll and most fighters start to feel weak and irritable.
“I can tell when I’m cuttin’ a little bit out of diet,” Weaver said. “At work, everything gets a little heavier and I don’t work quiet as fast. I also get grumpy.”
On Sunday April 7, after Weaver returned from Guard drills, he weighed 177 pounds. He needed to lose 17 pounds to be able to make weight on Thursday night.
Two days away from weigh-ins, Weaver had a 150-calorie ViSalus shake for breakfast, a 110-calorie packet of tuna for lunch and a serving of low fat cottage cheese for a snack. He would eat more tuna or a chicken breast for dinner.
In the coming days, Weaver would then start to dehydrate himself to lose water weight.
“I’m just trying to ignore being hungry,” Weaver said.
He still had two three-hour workouts to get through and three full days at work hauling heavy cases of beer from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Thursday, April 11
On the day of weigh-ins, Weaver was still two pounds over. So, he and Robert Rojas, a 31-year-old professional fighter from Lincoln MMA, went to the YMCA on 70th Street after Weaver finished working.
The two went downstairs and got on the stationary bikes for 15 minutes.
“I saw a TV commercial for food and I wanted to throw my shoe at it,” Weaver said to Rojas.
Next, they entered the sauna. It was a tiny wooden room tucked back into the corner of the Y with two levels of benches inside. The moment they entered it was like being swaddled in a heavy, hot blanket. Scathing coals burned in the corner.
Saunas help fighters to sweat out water weight without exhausting their already weakened bodies.
A few minutes after entering the sauna, three older women, who had just finished water aerobics, joined them and struck up a conversation.
“Now what’s that you do? MMA fighting?” one asked.
They explained that they were sitting in the sauna because Weaver had a fight the next day and he needed to cut weight.
“So you boys fight in Lincoln?” another woman asked. “I bet your mother doesn’t like it.”
“She didn’t at first but she does now,” Weaver said.
When Weaver and Rojas finally left the sauna one woman called out to Weaver.
“Good luck! Don’t get hurt!” she said.
Win or lose, a fighter always gets hurt.
Under the dim light of the Irish-themed Tilted Kilt, Weaver stripped down to colorfully striped boxers and stepped on the scale. It read: 160.2 pounds. He was right on. The workouts, the sauna the restricted diet had all paid off.
Then his opponent, Matt Vodicka, stepped on the scale; he was 171lbs. He was 11 pounds overweight.
State regulators wanted to call off the fight.
Weeks of work flashed through Weaver’s mind. As mad as he was that Vodicka hadn’t tried to cut the weight, he begged to let them fight. If they didn’t, fight it was all a waste.
Weaver and the regulators tried to negotiate with Vodicka to fight at 170 lbs. But rather than lose the one pound, Vodicka wanted to fight at 175 and give himself some leeway.
The 170 pound weight class was the fairest remedy but Vodicka wouldn’t budge; he wanted 175 or nothing.
So, they agreed both fighters would fight at 175 and Vodicka would have to weigh in again at 5 p.m. the next day, a few hours before the actual fight.
“He’s fat and out of shape and I plan on hurting him,” Weaver said of his opponent. “I know it sounds bad, but he just robbed me of a week of eating.”
Weigh-ins are a glitzy process, complete with bikini-clad girls and rowdy fans cheering on their favorite fighters in a local bar with plenty of beer to go around.
Like in boxing, after weighing in, the fighters stand face-to-face trying to intimidate each other while the crowd cheers them on.
“It’s nothing but a public spectacle,” Alexander, Weaver’s coach said of the weigh-ins. “All I care about is that my guys make weight.”
After the weigh in, the two fighters were called up, one by one.
Weaver pulled off his t-shirt and walked through the narrow path made by the crowd of fans and he took a picture with the ring girls.
Then Vodicka was called. He walked up and shook out his arms nervously. When the two stood together, Weaver raised his fists to mimic a boxing stance. Vodicka just shifted his weight from side to side and rubbed his thumbs against his fingers.
There was an obvious physical difference between the two. Weaver’s long workouts, strict diet and weight cut were apparent.
So was Vodicka’s unwillingness to cut weight.
Friday, April 12
The day of the fight, Weaver was feeling confident.
After work, he handed for family and friends so that everyone would know they’re cheering for him. In all, he had about 30 people coming to watch him.
Alone, in his apartment, Weaver shadowboxed. He swung at an invisible target and ducked invisible punches.
“I’m trying to think of all the different ways the fight can go,” he said. “But I know I’m way better trained and condition than he is.”
“I’m just prayin’ he makes weight right now,” he said, laughing.
He’d never find out. Vodicka never showed. All that work and nothing.
The Monday after, Weaver was back in the gym. Out of the disappointment on Friday came another opportunity — this time it was a title fight in Mitchell, Neb.
“It’s hard turning around like that and starting to train all over again for another fight,” Weaver said. “There’s no break.”
Stress was building from all sides. To train hard and win, to pay piling bills. Soon, it would get worse.
“It’s one of the first steps of basic training,” Weaver said. “They train us to handle our emotions better so if we ever need to in combat.”
Two weeks before Weaver’s second fight, he found out a good friend of his had died in a car accident.
Weaver and his friend had known each other since elementary school and had always been with each other’s families.
When his friend’s family asked Weaver if he could be a pallbearer in the funeral, Weaver’s mom asked him if he could handle it.
Weaver told her he could.
In total, Weaver’s lost four people close to him since August of last year.
“It’s been an eye-opening year,” he said, “It’s definitely not something you want to happen before a fight.”
His training as a soldier would help him focus through such a hard time.
The Resurrection Fighting Alliance needed a 155-pound fighter in Independence, Mo. on the same day as the Mitchell fight. Cody Land had helped put Weaver’s name out there and Missouri had better competition.
When Weaver decided to drop out of the Mitchell fight, Jason Marlin, the man in charge of Legion Combat Sports in Mitchell, Neb., threatened Weaver with a suspension that would ban him from fighting in Nebraska for a few months.
“I actually had a hard time backing out of the fight because it had happened to me,” Weaver said.
Marlin even threatened a national ban that would bar Weaver from competing in Missouri but it would ultimately be up to state commissions to ban a fighter. In this case, Weaver wasn’t worth it.
Weaver and Land hoped the event in Missouri would be a better opportunity and a higher quality fight.
“Everyone has higher expectations of me than I do,” Weaver said. “But I’ll trust them; this should be my first major test.”
On Thursday, May 2 Weaver was hungry, grumpy and he weighed 161 pounds.
He needed to weigh-in at 155 pounds in a little over 24 hours.
After a workout and an hour-long steam room session he was still 156.8 pounds.
He had to lose the weight fast before the next day. Independence was a three and a half hour drive from Lincoln and he got off work at around 1:30 p.m. Weaver needed to lose the extras pounds before he went to work on Friday morning.
“I got one last trick,” Weaver said at 9:18 p.m., Thursday night. “An Epsom salt, weight-cut bath.”
The bath is 18 pounds of Epsom salt, two bottles of rubbing alcohol and a sauna.
“It sucks all the water out of you,” Weaver said.
Weaver filled his apartment tub with this concoction and soaked while his roommate, Tower Robinson, sat next to him in a lawn chair with a beer in hand.
The next day at weigh-ins, Weaver came in at 155.0 pounds.
Mixed martial arts is one of the rawest, down to basics sports around.
It’s just two people facing off in a cage, each trying to hurt the other as much as possible. Fighters wear shorts and barely-there protective gloves. Very few wear head gear.
If a building could be a metaphor for the sport, the Truman Memorial Building in Independence, Mo. would be it.
It’s surrounded by antique buildings with chipped paint jobs and old bricks. It’s tucked into an older part of Independence, like an aged memory buried by more recent thoughts.
The fight took place in the Truman Memorial Building that looked more like a combination high school gym/auditorium than an arena. It was a far cry from the glitz and glamour put on at the Pershing Center weeks before.
As the start time drew near, workers sold beer from mismatched coolers while huge speakers blasted “pump up” music.
Instead of a locker room, the fighters crammed into a narrow hallway where they taped up their hands and jabbed at air.
It wasn’t glamorous or fancy. Like MMA at its truest form, it was just real.
“After I hit the cage, the entrance, the music, the noise, the lights, everything kinda gets drowned out,” Weaver said. “I’m calm but ready, my head is clear.”
Weaver said all he can think about is the guy across from him and different scenarios of how the fight might start out.
Once they lock him and the other guy in, it’s all or nothing.
Exhausted from the fight, Weaver rested his forehead on a pole used to section off the fighters’ hallway from the rest of the building. Weaver’s fellow fighters surrounded him. They stood silently while Weaver remained there with his head down for a few long moments.
Weeks of training, the weight cutting, the missed fights, the struggle to get here, all led up to a brief moment in the cage.
By unanimous decision, Weaver had lost.
It appeared Weaver had won the first round and his opponent, Theo Brown, took the second. The third round decided the winner. By the end, Weaver had taken a couple solid kicks to his previously injured knee and had lost the dominant position.
It was all over so quickly.
After he finally came back into the moment, his friends — more like brothers — sat him down and began to wrap and ice his injured knee. Weaver’s father and his girlfriend later joined him.
Instead of being angry, Weaver spoke positively of his fight. He mentioned the things he did wrong but also all the things he did well and what he could do differently next time.
It was apparent to Weaver that the loss was just a stumble and a learning experience.
A fight isn’t over until a fighter gives up. Weaver was still fighting.
Weaver still wants to be a pro fighter. He has hopes of moving to Australia in 2015 and experiencing life abroad. He also wants to go back and finish college. Maybe he’ll work in criminal justice or maybe as a nutritionist. He likes helping others feel good about themselves.
He doesn’t know when he’ll stop fighting but he probably never will. People like Weaver never stop fighting for something.
For now though, Weaver has to take a break. He has to pick up more hours at work and get a second job at Jimmy Johns to pay off bills. He won’t see the inside of the cage during an actual fight for a while.
His evening training sessions have been replaced with delivering sandwiches, but only for now.
Because mixed martial arts is still the center of his world, Weaver said.
“Fighting is a better feeling than any roller coaster or joy ride you’ll ever find.”