Life in the Cage

There’s a bit of initial awkwardness in this Jon Lemke interview. He’s reticent, the answers to questions coming short and guarded. But once you find some common ground—in this case, our shared military service—he warms up a little. The answers start flowing more freely. He’s open. Honest. Easy to get along with.

You almost forget he punches people in the face for a living.

“You’re going to have to make sacrifices, you know,” said Lemke, a pro MMA fighter from Bangor. “For the last five years I’ve lived in the gym, lived and rented my space [there]. That’s just part of the process of getting established. You try and make your way up through whatever…and build toward even bigger paydays. As far as making a living, could I support a family? No. But, you know, thankfully in my case…it’s just me and the dog.”

Lemke, 38, is one of a growing number of men and women throughout the state investing their time in mixed martial arts, or MMA. Unlike other combat sport disciplines, MMA incorporates multiple fighting styles in a unique, full-contact melange. Striking and grappling, both standing and on the ground, are common. The fighting space is commonly called a “cage” rather than a ring (in most cases, it actually is a caged-in area).

MMA in Maine is big enough business that in 2009 the state legislature established the Combat Sports Authority of Maine (CSAM) to regulate it. More than a sport or a hobby, it’s a way of life for many. Practitioners commonly put in several gym hours a day, nearly every day, in pursuit of their goals. For some, it’s a payday—pros like Lemke make a living from fight payouts and sponsorships, and support their income with things like steady training gigs.

For Lemke, the seeds were planted early. He was in the U.S. Marine Corps, and tried out for the Marines boxing team after a stint in infantry reconnaissance. He spent the last year and a half of his service doing nothing but boxing (“I didn’t have to wear a uniform, didn’t have to stand in formation. My only job was to box”).

“I didn’t know what I was going to do [when I got out],” he said, so he moved back to his home state of Wisconsin. “I got a job for a year that I didn’t like doing, security at a casino. So I started going to school. Got in a little bit of trouble. Got married. She already had her degree. I applied to a bunch of schools on the east coast and west coast. Got accepted to a couple, checked them out online. Maine seemed like a good place to visit. So I drove out here for a week. Found a place. The rest is history.”

In 2005, in what he describes as a low point in his life, he found Team Irish MMA Fitness Academy (now Titan Athletics) in Brewer. The gym had been established by Marcus “The Irish Hand Grenade” Davis, a well-recognized pro MMA fighter from Houlton who had made a name for himself in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the holy grail of MMA competitions. Here, Lemke found a renewed purpose.

“It became my passion and joy, my outlet, my release, and all these different things kind of rolled up in one,” he said. “So that…long, hard, stupid-decision journey that I had…all of that was absolutely necessary and leading me to the point where I’m at. We’re back to doing what I love and believe I was born to do.”

Today, he’s had 13 MMA bouts as a pro. His main weapons are his fists and and his elbows, he said, with kicks thrown in. He’s egalitarian about his fight record—“Your next fight could be your last fight. So my next fight is always my biggest fight.”

He knows the career of an MMA fighter is hard. He also knows it’s short. You can’t do this forever. For many fighters, it’s not just about beating the other person—it’s about the grind to beat your personal best.

“You know, fighting is real life,” said Lemke. “It’s not only the actual sport competition, where it’s about as real as it can get. It’s also about overcoming obstacles and just getting pushed on everything that you do.”

Angela Young is a full-time nurse in Eastern Maine Medical Center’s critical care unit. She’s a wife, a mother, and as an amateur MMA fighter she knows first-hand what it’s like to take a punch.

“I’ve had so many [co-workers] ask me about that,” she laughed. “It doesn’t hurt as bad as you think it does. During the actual fight there’s such an adrenaline surge. My very first fight I broke my nose in the first minute, and I had no idea.”

She got into fighting when she was 15, when she developed an interest in boxing and started training with her now-husband Chris Young, the co-owner of Young’s MMA in Bangor. She stopped training in high school, she said, opting instead to cheer. When they got married, she started training again. At first it was just boxing, but then it grew.

“When [Chris] opened the gym’s first location in Bangor,” she said, “I saw a couple of girls doing some of the other MMA classes in the gym. And I thought, ‘I wanna do that.’ So I started staying after for some of the wrestling and jiu-jitsu classes and…my interests just grew from there.”

As an amateur, the 33-year-old has had four fights—two wins, two losses. Unlike pros, amateurs don’t get paid to fight. It’s not a full-time job, but you wouldn’t know it. Young said that a typical fight camp (a training regimen leading up to a fight) lasts about eight weeks for several hours a day. A slow day means two or three hours in the gym.

“It takes a lot of discipline for anybody, no matter what you have going on in your life,” she said. “So the schedule itself can sometimes be very tricky. But being involved in the sport is extremely rewarding, not only going through the daily grind of training…but the fight itself is what we all look forward to. That’s the time where we get to walk into the cage and show what we’ve worked so hard [on].”

If anyone tells you they’re not nervous getting in the cage, said Young, “they’re lying. I think when you step in the cage, it’s very much the ‘fight or flight’ thing that you go through. You’re nervous. You’re thinking about all the scenarios. But I think that’s where your team really comes into play…there’s a lot of coaches and a lot of other fighters behind the scenes that are helping prepare you.”

MMA is inarguably a male-dominated sport, but that’s changing. Until recently, there were few options for women to compete at the same level as their male counterparts. Now there’s more opportunity, said Ryan Jarrell, due in part to the popularity of female fighters like Ronda Rousey. Jarrell and his partner Bryan Stackpole produce and host The Maine Event, a popular MMA-centric podcast that covers the sport both statewide and nationally.

“I think Ronda Rousey in particular…was kind of a trailblazer for women in MMA,” said Jarrell. “I think a lot more people started to pay attention to it. There were always women that were training everywhere, but there was no women’s division in the UFC [they introduced the women’s bantamweight division in 2012 and the featherweight division this year—Ed.]. And I think you look at the women [in Maine] like Rachael Joyce, for example, or Angela Young, there are some really talented women that genuinely enjoy the sport.”

Young agrees. She said she’s seen interest among women “explode” over the past couple of years, due in part to the popularity of other women in the sport. “We’ve seen a lot of women that started taking fitness classes and personal training, but they see other women stay for some of the MMA classes…so I think that by example of seeing other women involved in the sport [they become interested].”

Eduardo Benjamin, the co-owner and Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructor at Titan Athletics, said about thirty percent of his classes are female. “It has been growing,” he said. “One [woman] came here about three years ago, no confidence. And now it’s different. And then there’s the self-defense aspect. I hope we never need it, but if you need it it’s like second nature. You know what you do.”

“I tell my [students], it’s very few people that want to be hit in the face, but they choose that lifestyle,” said Benjamin. “It’s a great lifestyle, it’s hard, it takes a lot of mental toughness. Most people come here to get in shape and learn how to defend [themselves] if they need to. Most people, they will never fight. They just want to learn how to fight.”

Benjamin studied under the Gracie family in Brazil, a popular and revered martial arts family known for their development of Brazilian jiu-jitsu. As a fighter, he’s won impressive titles in his own right (“I won my titles, and it’s all about the school now,” he said). When he moved here from Brazil in 2004, there was no jiu-jitsu school in Bangor, “so I found a school in Farmington. I used to drive down to Farmington three times a week…to train. It was a long drive, an hour and a half each way. But that was my passion. You know sometimes, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do for your passion.”

He said the jury’s still out on the long-term effects of the sport. “The guys that fought the first UFC in 1993, they’re not 80 yet so we don’t know yet,” he said. “We will have to wait to see about brain damage and [other potential effects].”

Still, he recognizes that MMA can be dangerous—“You’re glad that you have refs there. We have very good refs in the state of Maine.”

“The thing that I think scares a lot of people off is that the concept is ‘a bunch of barbarians in there, it’s a bloodsport,’” said Jarrell. “And that’s not it. I think at its core, the mixed martial arts is an outlet for people to live a healthy lifestyle. What you’re putting your body through to stay in shape and to do this, you’re carving your [body] like out of a stone. It takes so much discipline to do that. And I think that the biggest thing is that this is something that can keep people on the right path in life.”

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