Fight the feeling
Are mixed martial arts fighters prone to violence? Whatever the answer, some fighters and fans say it’s time to man up — and tame the sport’s aggressive ethos
The party started smoothly enough. Iman Aubrey had booked suite 13335 at the Luxor hotel-casino the night of June 18 for a paid swingers mixer hosted by her company, Purrfect LV. There were drinks, light hors d’oeuvres and a lot of suggestive mingling.
Then, just as the party was winding down, Jason Sindelar showed up. He arrived with a group that included his girlfriend, Charmaine Kemp, and two other women. According to witnesses, they were already drunk.
So was Demario Reynolds, Aubrey’s fiancé and a former UNLV football player, who had also been using cocaine and ecstasy. Reynolds was also one of Sindelar’s best friends, which makes what happened next ironic — and tragic. A violent brawl would break out between the two men. A brawl that by some accounts lasted nearly a half-hour — longer than a regulated mixed martial arts bout. A brawl that raged through the entire suite — from the living room to the bathroom to the bedroom.
Reynolds and Sindelar began the night best friends, but by the early hours of the next morning, their relationship filled just two blanks on a police report: Victim and suspect. For Reynolds, the night that started at the Luxor ended with his death. Sindelar wound up in custody at the Clark County Detention Center — facing the prospect of a murder charge.
What happened? Drugs. Alcohol. Pride. Anger.
Rochelle Galloway, who arrived at the party with Sindelar, says he’d already been drinking and using drugs when he got to the suite. According to her, an argument broke out between Sindelar and his girlfriend at about 2 a.m., right after they arrived at the party. He became angry at her for breaking his phone, and the fight began to get physical. That’s when Reynolds got involved.
“(Reynolds) told him to calm down because he was interrupting the party and making his fiancée look bad,” Galloway says. “(Reynolds) said, ‘If you want to hit someone, don’t hit her, hit me.’”
He had no idea what his words would unleash.
What really happened that night? Drugs. Alcohol. Pride. Anger — and maybe something else. Was that explosive cocktail set aflame by mixed martial arts’ ethos of glorified aggression?
Combat sports on trial
A judge dismissed involuntary manslaughter charges against Sindelar in January, noting that the coroner’s report couldn’t definitively say that the fight killed Reynolds. In the maelstrom that night, there were other factors at work, most notably the cocaine, ecstasy and alcohol in Reynolds’ system that helped kick his heart into overdrive. Even though the coroner’s office ruled his manner of death a homicide, it also said Reynolds died of a drug overdose aggravated by the brawl — that is, “other significant conditions including a collapse following a physical altercation.”
“I don’t think mixed martial arts or Jason’s exposure to professional fighting had anything to do with the criminal case,” says Andrea Luem, the public defender who represented Sindelar. “The district attorney may have said, ‘Hey, look, here’s a guy who can hit harder, so we need to go after him a little bit harder.’ Reynolds died from a drug overdose. This isn’t about mixed martial arts.”
It’s a vindication for Sindelar in more than one sense.
“I think the common perception (that mixed martial arts fighters are more prone to violent acts) is merely that, a perception,” Sindelar writes in an email to Desert Companion. (Sindelar agreed to be interviewed only by email. Public defender Luem vetted his responses.) “I don’t believe that MMA fighters are more prone to violent acts. I believe that when an MMA fighter is involved in a violent act or criminal case, there is simply more media attention placed upon them. The media seems to exploit the connection because it would make a more salacious story.”
Does he think his mixed martial arts background made him more likely to commit violence?
“Absolutely not,” he writes.
Chorus of concern
Tell that to the public. Comments on news stories that appeared on the web show that many also hold the culture of professional fighting at least partially responsible for the death of Demario Reynolds. Galloway, who was friends with both Reynolds and Sindelar, doesn’t mince words about what she witnessed that night.
“People need to know that mixed martial arts and martial arts are a weapon,” she says. “If you don’t use your craft the right way, something like this can happen to someone else.”
Sindelar’s case isn’t isolated. In March 2010, a mixed martial artist in California allegedly killed his friend and sparring partner after ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms. The accused killer, Jarrod Wyatt, allegedly removed the victim’s heart and half of his face. A woman accused professional fighter Michael Whitehead in April 2010 of sexual assault at his home in Las Vegas. A year ago, boxing faced similar scrutiny after two fighters died by suicide and another was shot to death.
Supporters balk at the supposed connection between mixed martial arts and criminal violence. What about violent crimes committed by basketball players, football players, other athletes? (And what about MMA heroes such as pro fighter Jon Jones, credited with using his techniques to subdue a robber March 19 in northern New Jersey?) There is no breakdown of criminal violations by sport, which makes it impossible to find out whether combat athletes are more prone to violent crime.
Still, an increasing number of people are beginning to ask questions about violence and mixed martial arts. And not just Sen. John McCain and New York State Assemblyman Bob Reilly, two of the sport’s biggest foes. Fans, fighters and officials are also speaking out.
“Right now, the entire football community is in a constructive discussion about how to handle sporting violence,” says David Mayeda. Mayeda is a sociology professor at Hawaii Pacific University, an MMA fan and occasional MMA fighter. He’s also co-author of “Fighting for Acceptance: Mixed Martial Artists and Violence in American Society.” “That has to happen in mixed martial arts. Criticism of it must be handled in a constructive way.”
Bad brains, packaged violence
Dr. Margaret Goodman is a neurologist who worked as a ringside physician for almost 12 years for both boxing and mixed martial arts bouts. She spent part of that time as the medical advisory board chair for the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Goodman says fighting can change athletes in ways that cause violent behavior.
“Simple exposure to concussion can lead to brain trauma that can be picked up on a scan,” Goodman says. “Behavioral changes have been noted, including higher incidence of depression, violent outbursts and psychiatric disorders.”
Mayeda, who studies sports and violence, concedes that football, boxing, hockey and lacrosse all have higher rates of concussion than mixed martial arts. Fighters have the same risk of brain injury as a soccer player.
But the most troubling violence doesn’t happen in the ring, Mayeda says. It’s in the marketing — both official and viral. Despite reforms that have made fights safer, the sport hasn’t exactly disowned its violent reputation. The professional league, Ultimate Fighting Championship, never would have grown into a multi-billion dollar venture by marketing itself as a kinder, gentler kind of brawl. Despite adopting weight classes and safety rules, it never quite ditched its bad-boy image. Matches still go down in octagonal rings in chain-link enclosures meant to evoke back alleys. Many big-name fighters, such as heavyweight Kimbo Slice, built their reps through viral YouTube clips of raw street fights. That reputation translated into high ratings when Slice appeared on season 10 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” a dishy reality show on Spike TV — co-produced by UFC. (A UFC spokesperson did not respond to interview requests by press time.)
But what happens when an MMA-style beating is inflicted outside the ring? For Demario Reynolds, it may have resulted in death. Galloway said the fight between Sindelar and Reynolds went for 25 minutes. It started in the bathroom, where the two men collapsed in the tub, and continued in the bedroom and the living room. In the end, Sindelar peppered his friend with heavy blows, Galloway says, despite others begging him to back off. “Most of the men were yelling at the women to get out of the way,” Galloway says.
“None of us as witnesses could have done anything to stop it,” she adds. “During the fight, (Sindelar) kept saying, ‘I’m not a loser, I’m a winner. I’m gonna win. I’m gonna win.’” In fact, witnesses told police that, after a break in the melee, Sindelar returned to hit Reynolds even after he stopped fighting back.
Mayeda says the sport should actively distance itself from just this kind of violence.
Some fighters have already begun to do that. UFC’s Rich Franklin started the Keep It in the Ring Foundation in 2007 to steer kids away from violent lifestyles. The Hawaii State Domestic Violence Coalition tapped popular fighter Kala Hose as the face of its awareness campaign, which featured his daughter and urged men to treat their wives with respect.
Mayeda said UFC broadcasts should feature explicit anti-violence messages encouraging fighters to restrict their fighting to responsible gyms with strict supervision. And he’d like to see more emphasis on the philosophical, nonviolent aspects of martial arts training.
“There are fighters like George St-Pierre who embody all those traditional martial arts values,” Mayeda says. “We need more of those types of messages distributed to fans.”
Perhaps ironically, Sindelar agrees. “To look at MMA from a different angle would help change people’s perception of it being such a violent sport and see that like any other sport, it is about talent, dedication and discipline.”
Keep it in the ring
That awareness seems to be taking hold — if slowly — in Las Vegas.
At the Tapout Training Center near Tropicana Avenue and Valley View Boulevard, instructor Ivan Rangelov puts his charges through their paces, drilling them on grappling positions and arm locks. The training center is brightly lit, clean and populated by fit specimens in tank tops and athletic shorts.
Rangelov’s students start on the heavy bags before moving to the mats. There, they start on the ground, like high-school wrestlers, and run slowly through a series of drills. The members of his class range from young teenagers to people in their 30s and 40s.
Rangelov started studying muy thai kickboxing in 1986, and even moved to Thailand to fight professionally. After placing third at a world championship in Atlanta in 2006, he moved to Las Vegas to teach. His exposure to the modern combat pastiche of mixed martial arts has inspired him to explore ancient disciplines closer to his Bulgarian homeland, such as Mongolian wrestling and Russian karate.
Rangelov and the other instructors keep an eye out for rage-prone meatheads attracted to the gym because they like to brawl. These characters usually share a similar trait — impatience. It takes years to master the finer points of fighting, Rangelov says, but some students want to compete and win right away.
Still, Rangelov doesn’t think mixed martial arts caused Sindelar to attack his friend. Criminals are criminals.
“Would you ask the same question if it were a basketball player or a football star?” he says.
Rangelov always demonstrates new techniques in slow motion, and then explains exactly what can happen if full force is applied. He’s noticed something about his fighters: The students with the most control generally have the most promise as fighters.
“When I see that a student can control himself, I give more information,” he says. “But not before that.”
Occasionally, the gym attracts fighters who are too aggressive for its disciplined styles. Rangelov said they get one or two warnings before they’re told not to return.
The number of jiujitsu gyms in Las Vegas multiplied from about two to more than a dozen as the sport has caught on, says Simpson Go, an instructor at Cobra Kai Jiujitsu on Industrial Road. Cobra Kai teaches jiujitsu and mixed martial arts, but unlike some of the other facilities, still conducts some of its classes in the traditional gi.
Go is small and soft-spoken. He’s not exactly the kind of bruiser associated with a sport once derided as human cockfighting.
“Your average MMA fighter is a pretty normal guy,” Go says. “It’s not always someone with a rough past or someone who gets in a lot of street fights. Often, it’s someone who wrestled in college who doesn’t have an outlet for competition anymore.”
Both Go and Rangelov say they counsel their students against taking mixed martial arts outside the ring. For example, when he demonstrates a new technique, Rangelov describes the damage it can do against an untrained opponent.
At Cobra Kai, Go encourages his students to attend more traditional jiujitsu classes with nonviolent messages.
Less guts, more glory
Fight fan and prominent MMA blogger S.C. Michaelson has taken some of the criticism to heart. In order to evolve into a mainstream sport, mixed martial arts must shed its ultraviolent image, he says. He’d like to see more marketing that focuses on athletics, less on the knockouts and bloody noses.
“Football has violence, but their marketing is about stories and athletic ability,” Michaelson says. “If you want to just see the hits, you have to seek that out.”
Mayeda agrees. The National Football League participates in a lot of community service projects to raise awareness for breast cancer and fight childhood obesity. And unlike mixed martial arts, the league hasn’t avoided criticism that it’s too violent. When recent news reports raised questions about the long-term effects of concussions on players, the NFL began to evaluate its policies.
Sindelar was not a professional fighter, but before he moved to Vegas, he participated on a more serious level than most. He won four amateur fights and lost his professional debut in September 2008 at a rec center in Dickinson, N.D.
Professional mixed martial arts has evolved considerably in the 17 years since UFC debuted, and many of the changes have made the sport safer for fighters inside the ring. Until 2007, the league could claim a perfect record of zero fight-related deaths at professional MMA events. Since then, there have been two.
Neurologist and former ringside physician Goodman says boxing and mixed martial arts fights have, perhaps paradoxically, become more dangerous in recent years, after reforms that initially made it safer. As the business of fighting gets more lucrative, officials face more pressure to keep fights going, putting fighters at risk. Mandatory suspensions after knockouts — intended to give the brain time to heal — have gotten shorter, allowing fighters to make more money even as they imperil their long-term health.
Mixed martial arts has become more like boxing. Fans prefer the action of a standing fight, where fighters exchange blows, to long periods of grappling. Referees often pull fighters up to their feet instead of allowing them to duke it out on the relative safety of the mat.
Of course, there wasn’t a referee at the Luxor Hotel on the night Reynolds died. Perhaps it’s telling that the judge dismissed involuntary manslaughter charges against Sindelar without prejudice, meaning the door is open for criminal charges to be filed again. In the meantime, Sindelar says he’s been getting his life back together, and plans to continue his involvement in mixed martial arts, whether through training other fighters or competing. In retrospect, he sees miscommunication, drugs and alcohol as the culprits in the June 19 fight, not his mixed martial arts background.
“I lost my best friend, someone who I talked to daily, saw nearly just as much and related to in ways no one but God can understand,” he writes. “Demario was someone who I never even had a disagreement with since the time we met. It is difficult to try to unravel what the media has done, and how they have spun what actually happened that night.”
That night, a lot of Sindelar’s friends saw what happens when a person trips over the line between love and hate. After it was over, some of them found out what it feels like too.
“All of us loved (Sindelar),” Galloway says. “And I’ve never been a person who hated people. But with him, I went from loving that guy to loathing him in a matter of hours.”