The Fighter and the Sword
In mixed martial arts, fighters dance on opposite sides of a sword.
One misstep, one poorly timed punch, one bob instead of a weave and the sword’s edge can fell either combatant in The Octagon.
And the crowd will cheer.
The world’s biggest mixed martial arts promotion, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, descended on Ottawa this week, bringing with it several days of spectacle that will culminate tonight in a slate of fights at TD Place.
For some fighters, the road to the grand stage of the UFC is long. For others, it’s endless.
But for all, the path is unique, fuelled by the adulation of each victory and marked by the lessons that come with each defeat.
This is a glimpse into of one of those journeys.
Soaked through shirt and shorts, Fred Stonehouse is at the Ottawa Academy of Martial Arts on Carling Avenue being put through his paces.
It’s two weeks before the 27-year-old will have his third professional fight, this one in Pittsburgh at an event called Gladiators of the Cage 21.
A professional MMA fighter and a full-time manager and instructor at the Rockland Academy of Martial Arts, Stonehouse believes in his gut he has the makings of a champion, that he has what it takes to be the best.
He started doing taekwondo as a child. It was his parents’ idea; they wanted their son to be able to defend himself. That led to karate, boxing, kickboxing, muay thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu and eventually MMA, which combines all his fighting experiences into one.
“It’s been a lifetime journey and it’s all coming to fruition now,” he says.
Stonehouse is at the peak stage of a six-week training regimen.
The pace has been unrelenting. His workout is designed to simulate a fight lasting three five-minute-rounds.
“My job is just to make sure these guys are fit,” says head Muay Thai instructor, Kru Jeff Harrison, who’s guiding Stonehouse. “And by ‘fit,’ it doesn’t mean just strong and looking good. It means they can last bell-to-bell. These guys have to transform into something very special just for that day.”
A 60-to-90-minute hard session will include striking pads, grappling, high-intensity circuit training and sparing, usually with another high-level MMA fighter.
“Bringing out the best in Fred is easy, because Fred wants to be the best,” Harrison says.
At such high intensity, injuries can happen and, with one week to go from fight time, they do, as Stonehouse injures his back in a sparing session.
It’s not enough to cancel the fight, but the location of the injury will make it difficult to generate any power in his kicks.
It’s a bad omen, and sword turns.
Graduating from the amateur ranks with a 5-0 record, this is only Stonehouse’s third professional fight but, so far, he’s off to a good start.
There was a second-round submission win in October in Moncton, N.B., followed by a first-round knockout win this March in Halifax. Now he’s headed south of the border to fight for the first time. He’ll be squaring off against a power puncher with his own 2-0 record, 22-year-old Devante Smith from Ohio.
“He’s ready for war,” Stonehouse says of their upcoming battle.
“It should be exciting. I’m moving up a weight class to meet him so we’ll see if strategy wins or if power wins.”
Three days before the fight, Stonehouse and his sister, Fay, pile into his Ford hybrid and begin the 1,000-kilometre trip, crashing at a motel in Erie, two hours outside Pittsburgh.
The next day, Stonehouse is his Pittsburgh hotel room with its two queen beds.
He knows his task: He needs to shed 15 pounds in just over 48 hours.
Cutting weight is a strategy that fighters in many combat sports employ to their advantage.
The theory is that if a fighter can shed weight before the weigh-in, so that they don’t exceed the maximum weight in their category, then regain it effectively thereafter, they will be heavier coming into the fight. Being heavier usually means being harder to overpower. There are risks. Doctors say it can be dangerous. Plus, cutting too much weight too quickly or not rehydrating properly can make a fighter feel sluggish or sore, and make them more vulnerable to injury.
After a series of hot baths Thursday night, Stonehouse loses about 6.5 pounds.
After a light morning cardio session in the hotel gym Friday morning, he hits the sauna and loses the rest ahead of the weigh in.
It’s a pro fight, but as far as amenities go, it’s fair to call this an off-Broadway production.
A complication with the weigh-in venue means fighters are quickly shuffled to a nearby comic book shop just outside the downtown core.
Seated along four 10-foot tables, the fighters recline in folding chairs.
Between a wall of Dungeons & Dragons books and a table selling miscellaneous discounted items (including a Gremlins 2 box set), fighters strip to their underwear and step on the scale.
It’s Stonehouse’s turn. “One fifty-five point eight — point eight,” he says.
“It was a close one,” but he’s cut enough to be eligible for his weight class.
He can now relax, enjoy a meal, then begin careful rehydration over the next 24 hours.
Stonehouse, along with teammate Adam Hunter, heads out to Renzo Gracie affiliate gym, Stout Training in Pittsburgh, for light training, some pad work and stretching.
After lunch, it’s back to the hotel for more rest and a chance to find some peace and quiet before the storm.
At 4:30 p.m., five hours before his match, he leaves with his team for the short walk to the venue, nestled between PNC Park and Heinz Field.
Stepping into a cage that was assembled that morning, Stonehouse and Hunter pace its confines, pushing up again the chain-link walls, testing the canvas’s padding and grip, and scoping out the position of the lights to make sure he’ll be able to see everything that comes his way when it’s his turn to fight.
An adjacent room holds fighters in the “red corner.”
There’s a brief checkup with the doctor and a fighters’ meeting, chaired by the night’s referee, Chip Snider, from the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission. Snider lays out the rules of engagement for the night’s combat, and the formalities are adjourned.
Now all that’s left is to get suited up.
It’s around 6:30 p.m., and fans are filing into the venue.
A baseball game as well as a music and arts festival nearby will hurt attendance by a few hundred seats, predicts organizer Scott Betten. He says they can typically draw about 1,200 spectators.
The team’s Mike Fitz artfully wraps Stonehouse’s hands while he looks on, seemingly bored.
Stonehouse insists it’s a state of relaxation, not boredom.
“As you get closer to the fight, you begin to stretch, warm up, get a sweat going. And the first few times you hit the pads, you feel almost weak or slow,” he says, running through the routine.
“Then you’re breathing heavy, because you’re nervous, and then you start to sweat more and then you feel good and then you feel fast and then you feel strong and then you feel ready,” he says.
“Right as they’re about to tell you to go out ‘OK, Fred, you’re up’ — it’s the hardest feeling to explain.
“The Samurai would call it mushin. It’s this mind, no mind state. It’s almost like a zen feeling, where the fear disappears. There’s no anger. There’s no anxiety.There’s nothing.”
But tonight, it’s different. The sword hangs over him.
“Once we found out my rib was pretty bad, then we changed the game plan,” Stonehouse says later.
“Originally, the game plan was to find the right time to close the distance, take him down and test his jiu-jitsu.
“But with whatever happened to my rib, (Pat) said ‘OK, just play on the outside.’”
He moves quickly as he descends the stairs toward the bowl.
Behind a black curtain, Stonehouse tests his face, lightly taping his cheeks, his chin and his nose.
As a fighter walks by with his head hanging low Stonehouse jumps up.
Bouncing on the balls of his feet, he shifts his weight side to side while the announcer begins to bellow into the microphone.
His name is the first the announcer calls to the cage, so he has the unenviable task of waiting for his opponent.
Soon after, Smith enters and loops around toward Stonehouse, offering a nod and a gloved fist-bump.
The bell rings. The fight is on.
The two fighters begin testing the waters and their distance with light jabs.
Smith controls the centre of The Octagon, positioning himself in the middle and keeping Stonehouse to the outside.
“I remember feeling flat, feeling heavy when I was in the cage,” Stonehouse will say later.
Stonehouse tries for a low kick but misses, spins round to face Smith but the rib injury pokes him in the back, a painful reminder.
Smith counters with a flurry of wild swings that mostly miss Stonehouse, but he is able to tie him up and take him down into a threatening side-control position.
After Smith moves to strike, Stonehouse is able to neutralize his opponent and get into a better position, now with both legs wrapped around his waist.
As Smith looks to either get up or push out of the position, Stonehouse’s legs come high across the back of Smith’s neck and he looks for an arm bar.
Smith breaks free but almost immediately finds himself in a leg-triangle submission attempt.
Smith slides Stonehouse from the centre of the cage toward the fence. There, after a few light exchanges, he’s able to land some more serious hits.
The sword’s blade begins to twist.
Smith finally escapes from Stonehouse’s exhausting leg-triangle and unleashes a flurry of punches with at least one landing squarely.
Pat Cooligan recalls what happens next from his vantage point in Stonehouse’s corner.
“Then there was a couple of scrambles, some leg-lock transitions and then Fred made a bit of mistake in the sense that he allowed too much distance … he basically took a big shot that rattled him.
“I thought it probably should’ve been stopped at that point. There was at least two more shots before it was stopped.”
It becomes quickly apparent that the extra shots have taken a toll. As team members rush into the Octagon, Stonehouse lies motionless on the ground.
Mike Wilkins, an MMA fighter himself out of Stout Training in Pittsburgh, struggles to remove the mouth guard from Stonehouse’s clenched jaws.
Back in his corner, Smith is pacing, posing for a picture; he flashes his biceps over his head.
Stonehouse, meanwhile, has come to and tries to push away the doctor and paramedics who have descended upon him.
With a neck brace on, he is placed on a backboard and carried out of the cage and onto a stretcher while his sister, Fay, looks on, wiping away tears.
She’s just witnessed his worst fighting injury ever.
The entourage makes its way outside the building, where Stonehouse is loaded into an ambulance and taken to a nearby trauma centre, with Fay riding in the front seat.
An hour later, Stonehouse is alert and talking with his two sisters, Fay and Christina, who were at the fight.
Lying on a hospital bed in the shock resuscitation unit at Allegheny General Hospital’s Trauma Center, he seems in good spirits although disappointed at catching the sword’s edge.
Fay reminds him that he’s never lost a fight before and that he will win again.
She is, he’s said, “his No. 1 fan.”
As the clock ticks past 11 p.m., a call comes in from OAMA’s Nick Castiglia.
In short order, Stonehouse is sketching out plans for a comeback.
“When I come back, can you and I and Pat sit down and lay out of plan ‘cause I want to be the best, Nick, and I want to train consistently and I don’t only train when I have fights.
“I want to be the best, Nick.
“I want to be in the UFC.
“I want to be No. 1.”
Nearly a week later, Stonehouse is resting at his home in Ottawa.
He has small fractures around his left eye but no pain and is dealing with post-concussion symptoms.
“Oh this did not slow me down. I feel very motivated,” Stonehouse says. “Good for him. He did what he needed to do to win and he’s only going to make me that much better now.
He can’t rest easy, because I’ll be coming up for him again.”