Vince Bordi attacks Angelo Henry during their 205 lb. fight at “Dragon House 5” on March 15. Bordi won by first round knockout. (Courtesy of: Vince Bordi)

By Robert Cartagena

Inside Zhong Luo’s Dragon House, students’ faces are red from pain. They have just completed some intense submission drills and now take a moment to catch their breath. You can smell the sweat throughout the gym. Sifu Luo, the founder and head instructor, instructs them to compete in a couple of five minute rounds of sparring. He sets his electronic clock for the first round. “Ready?” The students, men ages 18 and up, break into pairs and exchange handshakes. “You got five minutes. Fight to a tap out!” The clock beeps. Immediately, the students grapple each other, looking to gain the upper hand by earning the first takedown. Some quickly go to the ground during the struggle. Others execute tackles and rollovers.

Despite the frenzied pace, Luo calmly kneels as he observes each pair. Right when one student thinks he has the advantage, his opponent quickly turns it around. The battle continues. Another student grabs his opponent’s leg
and slams him to the mat. A sharp “THUD!” echoes throughout the gym. As the round comes to a close, the sense of urgency becomes apparent. “You got eight seconds. Tap out quick!” Each student executes one last takedown. The round ends.

The Dragon House may look like a traditional martial arts school with calligraphy  inscribed on the slightly faded white walls and traditional martial arts weapons displayed in the window. But the training is a whole different story. The students who train there take it very serious. There’s no fooling around inside. “I’m just pretty much the person to monitor off-training, monitor every fighter and make sure they progress, and make sure they don’t be lazy. I’ll call them if they don’t show up for a week – that’s it,” says Luo, who has been practicing martial arts since age five.

From the time each class begins to the time it ends, the students bleed and sweat, transforming themselves into future fighting machines. Various thuds can be heard when a person is taken down or bodyslammed on the mat. Students use the support beams that black heavy bags hang from to perform pull-ups and chin-ups. Even the music played during classes contributes a little bit to the training. If you’re expecting to hear Justin Bieber music, you’re in the wrong place. All you’re going to hear is “fight music,” mostly rap songs that get the fighters’ adrenaline pumping.

Welcome to the world of mixed martial arts. This popular full contact sport has taken the world by storm. Now, it is taking over the Bay Area. The Dragon House is one of few gyms offering San Francisco residents the opportunity to transform themselves into the next Anderson Silva or Georges St. Pierre.

“Nowadays, it’s hard to find a gym that has every aspect in the MMA game. We have it all,” Luo says. “The old school martial arts practitioners stick with the same style – that’s the only style they have taught – and sometimes, it’s hard to survive. People like to have more choices when they walk into a martial arts gym.”

Other local gyms offering MMA classes include World Team USA, Ralph Gracie jiu-jitsu, Fight and Fitness, Bushido Fight Team and Gym 445. In fact, Fight and Fitness co-owner Chris Cariaso recently competed in his UFC debut on Jan. 11 at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. He defeated Will Campuzano via unanimous decision. All three judges scored the bout 29-28. Cariaso will face Michael McDonald at “UFC 130” in Las Vegas on May 28.

K-One Fitness, located at 2001 Van Ness Ave., offers fitness boot camps to help people get into shape. Along with the opportunity to learn boxing, Muay Thai and MMA, the four week program offers nutritional guidance and even how-to’s on selecting the right equipment to maximize training. The most recent boot camp began on May 2 and runs until May 27.

“You can train like a fighter does for four weeks, and get all the health benefits and endurance benefits and the skill benefits you’d get by training like a Muay Thai fighter or a (boxer) for four weeks. You get all that without actually stepping into the ring and competing,” Xavier Macay, a K-One instructor, states on the gym’s website.

Mark Tabuso, the head Muay Thai and kickboxing coach at Freestyle Submission Academy Fight Team, considers the Bay Area a “mecca” for MMA because of the local fighters who are making a name for themselves in the sport. “All of our students here – all these students in every other gym – have an opportunity within a rock’s throwaway to train with one of the top 10 fighters in the world, or at least, one of (their) students,” he says.

Mark Tabuso trains with a young kickboxing student at the FSA Fight Team gym.

One of the most notable fighters to emerge from the Bay Area is Jake Shields, who fights out of San Francisco. Originally born in Mountain Ranch, Calif., he is a former Strikeforce middleweight champion, the first – and last – Elite Xtreme Combat welterweight champion and winner of the 2006 Rumble on the Rock tournament in Honolulu. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt went on a 15-fight winning streak before losing a unanimous decision to Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight titleholder St. Pierre at “UFC 129” on April 30. Despite losing, his stiff jabs and right crosses did damage to St. Pierre’s left eye, causing it to almost swell shut. Shields, who received a wrestling scholarship to San Francisco State University in the summer of 2001, was also head instructor of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and MMA at the Fairtex-Gracie affiliate in San Francisco from March 2002 to April 2008. He refers to his fighting style as “American jiu-jitsu,” a combination of his jiu-jitsu skills and the grapples and takedowns of MMA.

MMA is a combination of various martial arts, including Muay Thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and kickboxing. It originated during the Greco-Roman era as Pankration, an Olympic sport that combined boxing and wrestling. It is believed that Greek gods Heracles and Theseus invented the sport because of their frequent use of such skills during confrontations. Spartan soldiers were taught the ancient technique to solely fight on the battlefield. They were forbidden to compete in boxing competitions. Throughout the late 1880s, wrestlers competed in no-holds-barred tournaments and challenges throughout Europe. In the United States, the inaugural boxer-wrestler showdown was between then-heavyweight boxing champion John L. Sullivan and his trainer, Greco-Roman wrestling champion William Muldoon.

MMA ultimately came into fruition in 1993 when the UFC was introduced. Art Davie proposed the idea of an eight-man, single-elimination tournament billed as “War of the Worlds,” which was televised on Nov. 12, 1993. Produced by WOW Promotions and the Sephamore Entertainment Group, the tournament featured kickboxers Patrick Smith and Kevin Rosier and shoot fighter and future World Wrestling Entertainment wrestler Ken Shamrock. Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Royce Gracie won the inaugural tournament. Since then, the UFC has become the most popular form of televised MMA, hosting up to 129 UFC Pay Per View events. “UFC 66,” which featured the 2006 rematch between then-light heavyweight champion Chuck Lidell and former champ Tito Ortiz, generated 1,050,000 buys, which helped the sport reach a new level of popularity. It was also considered the biggest selling UFC event at that time.

“It’s exciting. It’s everything that a sport should be,” Tabuso says. “For American audiences, it’s a bloodshed – I’m not going to lie. It’s fun to watch people beat each other up.” But he also believes there’s more to the sport than just the ground and pound. What he and his students respect about the sport is how dynamic it is and how each fighter has a puncher’s chance.

“There’s so many different things that you’re looking for. That’s what makes it so great. You could have some guy that says he’s a Muay Thai practitioner and the first thing he does is take try to take the next guy down. That’s pretty awesome to me,” he says.

Today’s MMA bouts are reminiscent of battles from the gladiator days. Two men step inside an eight-sided cage known as “The Octagon.” They stare across at one another, eager to be released from their corners. The referee lets them rumble. From there, they have five minutes per round to prove why they will be the last man standing inside that cage. It’s survival of the fittest. Non-title fights lasts three rounds while championship fights last five. A fighter can secure victory by knockout, submission, decision, disqualification or forfeit. Fouls include headbutting, eye gouging, hair pulling, biting, attacking the groin and striking the back of the head and spinal area.

When the UFC originated, it was no-holds-barred – literally. There were no set regulations, time limits or judges. Senator John McCain was appalled by such violent nature and launched a campaign to ban the UFC in all 50 states. He referred to the sport as “human cockfighting.” In response, the organization began reforming itself with “UFC 12,” which introduced weight classes. Gloves became mandatory at “UFC 14” and fighters were prohibited from kicking an opponent’s head while they were on the ground. On Nov. 17, 2000, “UFC 28” was the first UFC event to be sanctioned by the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board under the newly formed “Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts.” UFC President Dana White is responsible for transforming the organization into the cash cow it is today.

“People like to think of it as like, ‘Oh, it’s a bloody, barbaric thing.’ But he’s made it into a sport – a real sport” says Vince Bordi, 23, who trains at World Team USA. “They have doctors on sight (and) everybody goes through pre-physicals. It’s very organized – it’s humane. If a guy’s getting beat up real bad, the ref’s going to stop it.”

As an amateur, Bordi is 5-0. He recently competed at the “Dragon House 5″ amateur event at Kezar Pavilion on March 15. He stares across at his opponent, Angelo Henry. Bordi, dressed in a red shirt and black shorts, bounces on his feet. He eagerly waits to hear the bell. Henry, an African American fighter, is wearing a blue shirt and black shorts. The bell sounds. Both men come out of their respective corners. They touch gloves as a sign of sportsmanship. Henry immediately begins jabbing with his right. Bordi constantly guards with his left hand. He soon lands a quick right shin kick. Bordi immediately shoots for the legs, but Henry briefly grounds him. Both men rise together, trapped in a clinch. Henry powers out, throwing Bordi to the other side of the cage. Like a lion, he pounces on Bordi and lands some punches. The crowd gets excited. “OOOHHH!” The pace gets frenzied. Both men exchange punches. Bordi misses a looping right hand. He is slammed on the mat for his troubles. “THUD!” The crowd gets even more excited. They’re ready to see the ground and pound. Bordi, however, breaks free.

“Once he took me down, he didn’t want to mess with me on the ground. He wanted to keep (the fight) standing. So, I was like, ‘Well, he’s uncomfortable being on the ground. I’m just going to take him down,'” says Bordi, a kinesiology major at SF State.

Vince Bordi finishes off Angelo Henry during the first round of their 205 lb. bout at “Dragon House 5.” (Courtesy of: Vince Bordi)

Bordi shoots for the legs again, forcing Henry against the cage. Henry’s back is trapped against the cold steel. He tries to break free, but Bordi drives him to the ground. He lands body shots. Henry attempts to wrap his leg around Bordi’s, but Bordi starts pounding the head. Henry is lying face down, on the receiving end of punches. The crowd applauds the action. They sense that a knockout is inevitable. Henry refuses to surrender. Bordi lands two sharp rights to the head. A ringside observer yells “Left hand! Left hand! Left hand!” Henry weathers the storm. The bell rings. Both fighters return to their corners. Bordi is flowing with confidence. A doctor steps into the cage to check on Henry. He believes Henry has suffered a concussion and declares him unable continue. Bordi earns the first round knockout.

The fight against Henry was almost jeopardized a month earlier when Bordi tore his hamstring. Competing in the California Collegiates Open at SF State on Feb. 5, Bordi faces tough competition from Cal State Bakersfield’s Zach Merrill. He thinks he can easily wrestle Merrill to the ground, but Merrill constantly escapes Bordi’s grip. “So, I was like, ‘Alright. I’m going to jerk him real quick,” Bordi says. He throws his left leg over, but soon after, Merrill sits out. His move traps Bordi’s right leg. As Merrill jerks forward, he forces Bordi to do the splits, where he immediately feels his hamstring tear.

Vince Bordi tore his hamstring during a wrestling competition at SF State on Feb. 5. (Courtesy of: Vince Bordi)

In order to keep the blood flowing, Bordi walked a lot during his first two weeks of rehabilitation, which made the healing process faster. He also ate healthier, particularly many servings of protein. Throughout his rehab, all he could think about was the fight on March 15.

“I had the thought going through my head that I really wanted to fight on this card. I hadn’t fought since November and I was like, ‘Man, if I don’t fight in March, then I’m not going to be able to (fight until after graduation),’” he says. Because of such passion to fight, he refused to ice his injury, which some people thought was a little crazy. But in the end, Bordi returned to the gym two weeks later to prepare for the Henry fight.

At the FSA gym, Tabuso is preparing for his nightly Muay Thai class. Dressed in red workout shorts and a black Muay Thai shirt with gold fighters emblazoned, he engages in a quick shadowboxing session. With some sweat visible on his face, he quickly moves from side to side on the blue training mats. He visualizes his opponent. He throws quick left-right punch combinations and finishes them with roundhouse kicks. “Wah, wah, wah,” he grunts with each combination. The gym may not look like an MMA gym because it’s been relocated to a business park in South San Francisco. On the outside, it resembles a garage; dumbbells and other training equipment are scattered on the floor. But inside, the students work up a sweat.

Tabuso prepares his students for three-minute shadowboxing sessions. He sets the clock for the first round. “Always put an opponent in front of you.” The round begins. Each fighter moves around the mat, visualizing their opponent. They don’t all throw the same strike. Some execute quick feints before throwing a strong knee. Others throw shin kicks. Inside the gym’s ring, Geovanny Aguilar is working up a sweat. Aguilar, FSA’s wrestling coach, is dressed in a white long sleeve shirt and red shorts. With short, black curly hair, he mixes his strikes up. “Hah, hah, hah!” he grunts with every strike he throws. He throws quick punches and kicks. He then moves to the side and throws another combination. He quickly evades an attack and throws some more strikes. Tabuso acknowledges his work rate. “Good! Good!” The clock beeps.

Tabuso encourages his fighters to go 30 more seconds. “One more, one more! Let’s go!” Despite some fatigue, they continue to attack. They each throw a final strike. The clock beeps again. Tabuso wants them to go an extra 35 seconds. “One more! Let’s sweat!” They push hard to finish the round. Some grunt a little louder to help them fight through the pain. “HAH, HAH, HAH!” The clock beeps once more.

A Muay Thai practitioner himself, Tabuso learned about the importance of grinding it out – continuing to fight hard no matter what obstacle may be thrown your way. As head instructor, he hopes to instill that same value into his students. “You’re going to get knocked down – literally and figuratively. You’re going to get hurt. You may have good days, you may have bad days. But it’s about how many times you get up – that’s what I want,” he says.

The fighters have less than 30 seconds to catch their breath. Tabuso resets the clock. Round two begins. This time, he watches the action from the center of the mat with his hands on his hips. Aguilar continues to work up a sweat inside the ring. Boxing gloves, hand mitts and pads surround the outside. He follows up his punches with knees. Knees are one of the most common techniques in Muay Thai, which originated in Thailand. The combat sport is referred to as the “Art of Eight Limbs” because unlike traditional boxing, Muay Thai makes use of punches, kicks, knees and elbows.

As with the previous round, Tabuso urges his fighters to go 30 extra seconds. “Let’s go, let’s work!” They soon hear that familiar beep.

Cynthia Tamura (olive shirt) waits for instruction from head coach Mark Tabuso during the nightly kickboxing session at FSA Fight Team.

Despite its popularity, the UFC has not signed a single female fighter since it originated almost 18 years ago. Hoping to compete professionally in MMA, Cynthia Tamura wants to be a role model to any aspiring mixed martial artist – especially women. She bows before she steps onto the blue mat inside the FSA gym. Wearing an olive green “LOVE” shirt and black shorts, she works up a sweat shadowboxing. She visualizes an opponent in front of her, quickly sidestepping. She throws two left jabs and a right uppercut. Seconds later, she throws a lunging front kick. She likes to mix her attacks.

Tamura considers herself one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. But when she steps on to a mat or into a ring, her game face is on. She remains focused and throws each strike with determination. She can even catch you off guard with strikes. Teammates such as Tabuso and John Kusaba encourage her to be at her best every day. She can’t see herself training at any other gym. She bleeds FSA.

“When you go out there, you’re a team. You have to totally trust that your life’s in their hands and you have to believe that they care and that you have to trust each other,” she says.

The shy 26-year-old kickboxing and Muay Thai practitioner lacked confidence early on in her life. But the UFC sparked an interest in mixed martial arts. From there, she began training at FSA. Today, she is a completely different person; she’s disciplined, stronger and most importantly, self-confident. Though you wouldn’t suspect it, Tamura, who is of Mexican and Salvadorian descent, was born to fight.

Cynthia Tamura shadowboxes during her workout at FSA Fight Team gym.

“It was definitely a whole new chapter in my life once I started. It’s a lot of fun. It takes a lot of dedication, but it’s a totally different sport. It’s an individual sport, but you’re still a team in there,” she says.

Meanwhile, organizations like Strikeforce have showcased some of the best female talent, including American Muay Thai practitioner Gina Carano and Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos. In fact, Carano and Santos competed in the most significant female fight so far. Televised by Showtime on August 15, 2009, the event garnered 856,000 viewers and marked the first time that two women headlined a major MMA event. Santos won via technical
knockout with a second left in the first round.

“(Women) can’t give as much – bottom line – as our male counterparts. It’s just the reality. So, I don’t think it ever will blow up as much, but I think there’s room for us to kind of (succeed). It’s hard to find the perfect package of what people want, especially in a girl fighter, because you can’t have it all,” Tamura says.

As was the case with Bordi, injuries are common in MMA. During one fight, Tabuso was swept to the ground by his opponent. He tried to break the fall but slipped, and his shoulder popped out of the socket. He popped it back in, but every time he used it, it slipped out. He eventually finished the fight. He rehabilitated his injury and continued competing. However, his shoulder continued popping out of the socket. After a few more therapy sessions, he began contemplating retirement because of a passion for coaching. He also considered the wear and tear that was induced on his body from previous fights. In fact, before his shoulder slipped out of the socket, he had noticed how loose his shoulders were. Following a competition in Bangkok, he decided it was time to hang up the gloves.

“I said, ‘Let me rethink this, because these guys are getting awesome. These new competitors are just pretty awesome.’ So, I decided, ‘You know what? I want to start coaching. I want to coach a lot more,’” he says.

Since joining head founder Mike Fazzino in opening FSA, Tabuso loves what he does. But he does feel pressure to bring the best out of his students and take them to the edge in terms of discovering their strengths and weaknesses.

“I have the burden of them looking up to me and figuring out the answers of not only the fight game, but also of their life. That’s the headache, that’s the worry – that I have to leave the gym and worry about what my students are thinking and how they’re living, because we become a family,” he says.

Mark Tabuso applauds Daniella Nieva (right) as she works on her kicks with Cynthia Tamura.

As class concludes for the night, Tabuso congratulates his students on a hard workout. He knows if they ever decide to step inside a ring or cage, they’ll be ready – physically and mentally. He takes a step outside the gym and enjoys some fresh air. The future is looking bright for FSA Fight Team.

“Somebody from right here is going to come off the street and be somebody, where maybe they didn’t think that they were going to be anybody a minute ago,” Tabuso says.

Daniella Nieva kicks “the suitcase” training bag during the kickboxing session at FSA Fight Team gym.