The day begins early. The weigh-ins for Anthony Pipola's fight are scheduled for 9:30 a.m. sharp, and to get to there — Philadelphia — from here — New York City — in time means at least two hours of navigating rush hour traffic and toll roads. So we meet at Anthony's coach's place in Queens at 7:00 a.m. and set out, Anthony in the driver's seat and Steve Koepfer, Tyga Maclin and myself along for the ride. It's Friday. Ten or so hours after the weigh-ins are the fights — Matrix Fights, actually, a regional MMA organization maybe one rung below the events you'd see on FOX, Showtime or pay-per-view. And while the main event features a Bellator veteran and the co-main has a female Strikeforce veteran, somewhere tucked away on the undercard is Anthony's bout. Anthony is an amateur fighter. This will be only his second fight.
Nearly every weekend, regardless of whether there's a UFC or Strikeforce or Bellator on television, there's a regional show happening somewhere in the United States. For Philadelphia there's Matrix Fights, but take a drive down the Atlantic City Expressway and you could catch a Ring of Combat or Cage Fury Fighting Championship, and if you were in California or Florida, it could be a King of the Cage or Art of Fighting. The common denominator for them all is that each has local fighters, either amateur or pro, on their way up or on their way down, aspiring or expiring.
Koepfer, a.k.a. "Sambo Steve", runs the school that Anthony trains out of, where Anthony has trained for about a year and a half. There are others at the school, everyone from weekend warriors to pro fighters, and the weekly team gathering and the sparring it entails has been known to attract a cross-section of former Bellator champs, accomplished amateurs and rising stars. Tyga, who wrestled at Hunter College, is the school's wrestling coach. Many amateur fighters have family and friends who come out to see them compete, but the distance between Anthony's neighborhood in Queens and the City of Brotherly Love has made that impossible, so Sambo Steve and Tyga are all he's got. I'm just here to observe, to see things from the perspective of a fighter.
Snapshot of Anthony: he's not tall, but his broadness offsets his height, giving him the presence of someone strong and physical. He's a construction worker of sorts, his fulltime job involving working with ConEd to dig up cracked gas mains and repair them, and when he talks of his family — he's got a wife and three kids — he beams. His facial hair leans more towards "why bother shaving with a fight coming up?" than fashion statement. He didn't sleep much the night before, the accumulating anxiousness making slumber impossible, and that edge of exhaustion and nerves and weight cutting (Anthony is supposed to be 175 pounds; he was 172 when he last checked) is something that lurks close to the surface. Every once in while he unwraps a Jolly Rancher candy and pops it into his mouth.
"How you feeling?" I ask him after introducing myself from the backseat.
"Good," he says from behind the wheel of his SUV.
"Why'd you take a fight in Philly?" I ask.
"Because they offered it," he says.
For his first fight, which took place in May, Anthony and Sambo Steve drove seven hours to a suburb of Buffalo for a show called TNT Fights. Under current law, professional MMA competition is illegal in New York State, but the athletic commission has eased up on amateur mixed martial arts, and TNT Fights was New York's first sanctioned amateur MMA event in over a decade. Unfortunately, other than competing in local underground shows, if Anthony wants to fight it's easier for him to travel to New Jersey and Pennsylvania — neither of which require as much driving.
"Wouldn't you rather be fighting in New York?" I ask.
"[Expletive] yeah," he says. "I'd rather fight in New York. I'd rather fight on Queens Boulevard. I work overnight. [Expletive] this driving to Philly crap."
But we drive. And drive. Tyga, whose day job is at one of the Apple Stores in Manhattan, takes a conference call in the backseat. Sambo Steve plays old television theme songs on his phone, leaving us to guess which shows they're from. Anthony talks of Japanese MMA — apparently passion of his. The mood never once strays from being light. No one knows anything about the man Anthony is supposed to fight other than that he's from New Jersey and his name is Michael Roberts, and yet the lack of information doesn't seem to bother them. Then it's 9:30, and we're stuck in traffic on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. We're late.
Thankfully, when we get to the venue a half hour later, the weigh-ins are still underway. Unlike other commissions, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission allows for pro/am cards — fight cards that feature a mix of professional MMA bouts and amateur ones. The pros slated for tonight's Matrix Fights weighed in the night before. The amateurs get to do their thing the day of, without fanfare, the commission official telling them to complete some paperwork and step on the scale and that's it.
The venue is a union hall not too far from the heart of the city. The floor is carpeted, and rows of folding chairs surround the cage that's set up in the middle of a room that could fit somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 spectators. While Anthony weighs in and fills out forms, Sambo Steve and Tyga mingle with other coaches. A few feet away, one of the female fighters on the card is handed a store-bought pregnancy test to take (standard operating procedure for fighters of the fairer sex). Some mill about nervously. Others stare off into space and nod their heads to the music blaring in their headphones.
One hundred seventy-two pounds is Anthony's official weight. Andria the matchmaker tells us to come back at 6:00 p.m. The doors are scheduled to open to the public at 7:00 p.m., and first fight is scheduled for 8:00. It's only 10:30 a.m. now.
The first order business is to get Anthony some food, so we find him a place that serves breakfast, and eggs, pancakes, oatmeal and freshly-squeezed orange juice are scarfed down.
The chatter is constant, the talk hovering around Anthony's opponent (no one is completely sure who he was at the weigh-ins — was he that tall, muscle-bound dude? Was he the dark-skinned kid with the boxing coach? Was he even there?). It's a funny thing being a fighter's coach on the day of their fight, something akin to having a wife in the beginning stages of child birth. All the preparation — whether they're Lamaze breathing techniques or transitions into submissions — culminates into that one acute moment where the only thing that matters is the thing you're there for, and regardless of whether if it's happening in a delivery room or cage, the focus and singularity of purpose and words of encouragement in the ear are virtually interchangeable. "You're ready for this," says Sambo Steve, and "Just concentrate on what we worked on," says Tyga, and it's not impossible to imagine those words said to Anthony being said to a woman in the throes of labor.
After our meal we leave Anthony at his car, the idea being that he will nap and rest up. But that's folly, rest never comes. Anthony's going to be stepping into the cage in a few hours and stand before someone who wants nothing more than to punch his face in — how can he sleep?
For lack of nothing better to do, Sambo Steve, Tyga and I are at the movies, and it's there that Anthony finds us killing time. We watch some art house flick, some tear-jerker that is the farthest thing from violent and motivating and the kind of film that someone with a fight in a few hours would ever want to watch. Afterwards, we drive over to the venue and sit in the car in the parking lot.
The light mood from hours before has transformed into a tense silence. Battle is impending.
(End of Part 1. Tune in tomorrow for Part 2, because, you know, fighting and stuff.)