Mike Hammersmith: An Introduction and Retrospective on MMA

| June 23, 2014 | 1 Comment

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Hey folks.

The finishing touches are being applied to a monster UFC Fight Weekend for July 4th as the organization rolls into it’s twentieth Summer. It’s been a long road, both for the sport itself, and for all it’s millions of fans who found their blood pumping at the sight of true combat within the cage. Some folks were roped in by Jon Jones and Johny Hendricks screaming across an ESPN feed; some were born into the TUF generation; some older still.

My (pen)name is Mike Hammersmith, and I’m a life-long martial artist, longtime writer for the sport, and a new addition to the Mass-MMA team. Some of you may know me from internationally-based sites where I’ve plied my trade since 2006, yet most won’t know me at all. As way of introduction, I wanted to share a bit about myself and how I came to write about this illustrious sport, and why I continue to do so today.

In the beginning:

My father has a saying “History doesn’t occur in a vacuum” and its very true of MMA and its humble beginnings as a blood sport. Those of you that weren’t involved in martial arts at the time may look back at it and see the ground-breaking UFC 1 as a spectacle, yet at the time, it was considered anything but.

Martial arts are a heavily traditional pastime, and the idea of mixing styles was in itself a taboo back in 1993. If you took classes at one dojo, you didn’t leave for another without bad blood left behind, and while I was too young to have experienced that bit of TMA (traditional martial arts) culture at the time, there was a huge deal of pride involved in where you trained and what style you represented.

Martial arts was speculation back in this time far removed from the era of hard-nosed GI instructors; training in the post Karate Kid world of watered down techniques and limited actual contact. We *believed* what we learned would work and that any failure on our part wasn’t due to faulty mechanics or teaching methods, but a failure within ourselves. The concept to question the validity of anything we were taught was highly insulting to teachers. It was tradition after all, and you didn’t question the Why or How, but simply lived with it and believed.

At the time, myself and my older brother were taking classes in a, come to find out, fictional martial art called Iate at a local Boy’s Club. He was, and is to this day, a voracious martial artist and had a subscription to every karate magazine in existence. Karate magazines are big business, with more advertising than substance, and there was a huge ad for something on PPV that sent us over the edge. In bold letters it stated such insane concepts as “Judo vs Tae Kwon Do” and “Boxing vs Sumo”. It was every childhood karate fantasy come to life. I’m not even joking when I say I was more excited for UFC 1 than losing my virginity, which should give you an idea of how fucked up I am.

This was forbidden stuff, but someone was not only willing to pit style vs style for the entire world to see, but they were doing it right. You see, part of the Wizard of Oz routine with TMA at the time was that we couldn’t actually practice most techniques because they were simply too brutal. You would practice ripping a man’s eyes out in the air, or driving a tiger’s mouth strike into a man’s throat, but would any of this even work? Sure, it’s devastating, but could you consistently land something like that in the heat of battle? We’d find out!

Adding to the wild mystery of it all was the idea that it wasn’t students fighting, but masters. If a world-ranked fighter in their discipline couldn’t work techniques against someone of equal status, that said A LOT about that art. Students were fallible, but a master? Never. Yet someone had to fail for there to be a winner, and the winner was representing a large scale attack on every other art. We’d have something to point to and say “See!? Kung Fu IS better than Karate!” The winner was going to reap incredible spoils.

So, fast forward to a month or so later and myself, my brother and a few select friends and family are huddled around my grandmother’s giant projection TV to watch this insanity unfold. Once again, keep in mind this was well before most homes had internet and video streaming. The craziest thing you could see back then in this vein was the “Faces of Death” series on VHS, so unless you were from a rough neighborhood, this would be the first real combat between adults you may ever see.

The event started and I immediately declared Teila Tuli the eventual winner, just because he was 420lbs and it was open weight. How could anyone compete with this guy? Then Gerard Gordeau laced him with a punch and a roundhouse straight to the mouth and sent his tooth flying. I was dumbfounded. I had never seen someone get hit like that in my entire life, and the idea a martial arts master really COULD take out a behemoth like that in one shot was both frightening and joyous.

I had never considered the reality of real damage in a fight, and how easy it was to lay someone open with a bare-knuckle shot. Sure, boxing had blood, and karate movies had blood, but both would occur over many minutes of actual fighting. To rip a guys face open in one punch? It was frightening to consider, and childhood fantasies of karating burglars suddenly seemed even more ridiculous as I’d never considered that knocking someone out may require breaking their face to bits. Thanks Gerard. At that point, I didn’t know about Sumo, but Savate worked like a charm.

Then came Royce Gracie to ruin my life. Here’s the funny thing about karate: Before MMA, there were almost no ground techniques outside of ground-based arts. The reasoning was sound in an odd way: In a self-defense situation, to hit the ground was to be killed by the people attacking you, so why learn techniques that signified your failure on the feet? In fact, the only technique from my early karate classes that had anything to do with stopping a ground fight was dropping an elbow on a guy’s spine as he went for a tackle. Physics says this wouldn’t work, but karate had nothing to do with physics back then, just blind faith.

What Gracie did in that cage was almost cheating in my mind. I wanted to know what kind of karate would reign supreme, and this asshole was basically exploiting the fact there were no rules so he could avoid a fight all together. Later in life, I moved almost entirely towards grappling, but at the time I was bullshit about it. Aside from Tank Abbott in UFC 6, Gracie was the biggest boat-rocker in all of traditional martial arts.

In the aftermath of the event, in one night, UFC proved that karate could beat men of any size, but also that a small guy could beat any karate guy by making it about grappling. “Striker vs Grappler” was born, a sport was budding like a new green plant, and my life was changed forever.

I bounced from Iate class shortly thereafter; the instructor not willing to open his eyes to the reality of “reality fighting”. My older brother went on to accumulate scores of belts in search of his own truth in combat and we worked together: His sponge-like technical prowess and my bullshit meter turned up as high as it would go. I worked American Kenpo with my brother and drifted to wrestling, finding it too tame for my tastes. A bit of catch wrestling was the spice I needed all along and I studied every tape I could find, supplementing a marital skill set to work at all ranges and all situations. I traded techniques like people traded baseball cards and travelled Europe and the US looking for pieces to a puzzle within; internal and external martial prowess the only thing I cared for. I’d swap an armlock to learn a sword thrust and a proper backfists to learn to speed load a revolver. It was all-consuming: Mentally, financially, physically and emotionally.

It was a long road that saw me fight Open weight Vale Tudo in the mountains of Montana; the referee as drunk as the crowd, and compete against a future Olympian in a Muslim daycare that functioned as a sword studio at night. My body crumbled over years of hard lessons and I found my arthritic hand could hold a pen better than a knife; strike keys easier than a fleet-footed boxer.

Thus my road finds me laying down words before your eyes. I find I enjoy visiting gyms to watch young fighters start their road more than I care to continue my own in the martial realm. In this way, I can pen uplifting pieces about these men and women on our regional MMA circuit and send them into the cage with a bit more fire in their stride; passing a torch that burns within. I hope you enjoy my stories covering local MMA and some of the pieces I’ll share from my body of work over a lengthy career, as a warrior who willingly became a keyboard warrior.

-Mike Hammersmith

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  1. Dan Bonnell says:

    Great article, well written.

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