MIXING IT UP Sergio Moran Cabrera and Ruben Rey.
"You cannot eye poke. You cannot gouge. You cannot strike to the groin. You cannot knee to the head of a downed opponent."
It's Wednesday afternoon and Tim Burrill — owner of Tim Burrill's Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in North Providence — is explaining the rules of mixed martial arts fighting. We're in the lobby of his gym, where barbells sit in rows on the floor and championship medals hang from the walls. The room smells sweaty. The thumping sound of bodies hitting mats floats in from the next room.
>> SLIDESHOW: Cagefighting at the Twin River Casino <<
The list of things not allowed in an MMA match seems a great deal shorter than the things that are. Punching. Kicking. Grappling. Body-slamming. Choke holds that knock out an opponent who reawakens, moments later, as if from a vivid dream. Burrill reminds me that the sport was once called "no holds barred." He also reminds me that, until recently, pro fighters had to drive out of state to earn a paycheck. But then in 2009 Rhode Island lawmakers followed legislatures around the country (MMA is often cited as the fastest-growing sport in the country) and passed a series of laws regulating everything from MMA mouth guards to HIV testing to rules against "fish hooking" one's opponent.
Now, professional fights are fully approved in the Ocean State and Burrill's gym has become a hub for training. Pro fighters cycle in and out of the building on an hourly basis; while I'm there, former Spike TV Ultimate Fighter cast member "Filthy" Tom Lawlor strolls by. There is such a demand for coaching that two of Burrill's former students founded an MMA-only gym called "Tri-Force" down the street in Pawtucket. The sport is not just alive and well in Rhode Island — it's thriving, Burrill says. And in just over 48 hours, one of his top trainees will enter a metal cage at Twin River Casino, looking for his eighth knockout.
That fighter, Mike "The Beast" Campbell, arrives a few minutes later. He is polite, soft-spoken, and utterly intimidating: square jaw, shaved head, piercing blue eyes, and superhuman muscle tone. As a teenager, he was quick to throw fists in a parking lot or at Narragansett Beach, he says. "I was just that kid that was never afraid to bang," he says. "The majority of the time, my friends would start it and I would end it." Since then, though, MMA has been the calming force in his life. Now his energy is focused on his diet, mental preparation, and mastery of the myriad disciplines — judo, boxing, kickboxing, muay thai — that make an MMA champion. Part of what fuels him, too, is the reputation of his home state. "I want to put Rhode Island on the map and I want people to understand what kind of fighters and what kind of athletes really come out of here," he says. Moments later, a nearby wall rattles from a collision on the other side, triggering a cascade of plaster flecks. Neither Campbell nor his trainer flinches.