A Fight Night To 'Remember'

Above: Keri Mills holds a flag dedicated to her husband, Stephen "Matt" Mills, killed in action in Afghanistan in August, at the Spartyka Fight League "Proving Grounds" event on Saturday night. Below: Nick Grady celebrates his victory in the 185-pound title fight. Photos by Jason Norman

Inside the holed walls of a mixed martial arts cage, some dangerous things can happen.

Blood might flow. Bones are broken. Concussions are received. People can get hurt - badly.

But there are still rules. Even the toughest fighters can't get dirty in the cage. Participants who bite, go too low, or do other underhanded stuff can see a victory snatched from their disqualified hands in a matter of seconds.

And even after pounding an opponent into submission, the victory typically helps his foe to his feet, raises his arm, and wishes him luck for the future. There might be another day for them to meet in combat.

Indeed, the most ultimate of fighting might be dangerous, but it's still controlled. That's a benefit that not everyone carries.

Elsewhere in the world, thousands of others are fighting battles with no rules at all. There's nothing fair about it. There's no limitations on what can be done, or warnings that it will be. There's no audience to cheer, no belts to win. And these battles often don't end until someone goes down - for good.

For over a decade, tens of thousands of Americans have headed to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan - and thousands haven't come back.

On that fateful September morning when the world shook, a young navy man stationed in San Diego was given his first SEAL team assignment. Just as he had for a few years leading up to the darkest day, he'd spend much of the next decade far from his home turf.

Except, of course, for marriage and fatherhood.

"I'm not going to tell my husband he can't do what he loved, and what he's done for his entire career," Keri Mills said of her husband Matt. "He was a true patriot of our country."

Last Aug. 6, Mills and 29 others were riding in a helicopter in the Wardak province of Afghanistan, reinforcing other troops. Suddenly, a rocket-fired grenade - the Taliban claimed responsibility -- shot down the chopper, killing everyone aboard. Mills was one of 22 SEALs to die in the single greatest loss of American life since Afghanistan was invaded after the 9/11 attacks. Several victims of the crash were from or stationed in Hampton Roads.

The Spartyka Mixed Martial Arts organization has always paid tribute to those who have served and fallen in the military. On Saturday night at Norfolk's Constant Convocation Center, the fight league said thanks again (though he never competed, Mills had trained in MMA fighting for years).

Before the first jab was tossed, a small group from Honor and Remember, which pays tribute to fallen soldiers from across the nation, brought Mills to the ring to remember Matt.

She was presented a special commemorative flag in his honor, and some flags that had flown in the World Trade Center. With Matt's dog tags and wedding ring on her necklace, Mills' shirt implored the audience to "Never Forget."

"I have every single e-mail he's ever written me, ever since I've met him," she said. When their son, now almost two, gets old enough, Mills said, she'd tell him, "The truth. His dad was a hero who loved what he did and died honorably."

As the brawls kicked off at Spartyka's Proving Grounds event, one rowdy tune after another raced through the air. One fighter approached the ring to "Sweet Home Alabama," another to "Let the Bodies Hit the Floor," and yet another to the sounds of a song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (!). Portsmouth native Thomas Blair used a variation of the iconic Rocky theme for his entrance.

It paid off; Blair went nearly the entire fight with Chris Washington before finally stopping him midway through the third round.

"When you look at (MMA) on TV," Blair said, "most guys are like, 'I can do that.' But when you go through the training, you realize the hard work it really takes. It's not as easy as it looks on TV."

Intimidation was the first step in the battle for Joe Ray; with his teammates carrying the three titles belts he'd already won ahead of him, Ray stalked to the ring with a towel around his neck, angry intensity on his face so strong it nearly beamed out and burned a hole in the cage. His heavyweight battle with Scott Lovern didn't have a title on the line, but Ray hadn't lost in six fights of amateur competition, and he wasn't getting cursed on a number associated with luck.

Still, Ray didn't start out on the offensive, as Lovern landed a few kicks early on, then bearhugged him against the cage. Ray started throwing rights and lefts, enough to get Lovern away. Lovern went for a dive, but Ray grabbed him, rolled onto Lovern's back, and swung away at his head until the fight ended in just over two minutes.

"My mindset is complete domination," he said. "It probably intimidates some of my opponents, which is a plus for me, but I'm thinking about completely dominating my opponent. Anything can happen on any given night. I train hard. I know I have to be ready for anything somebody could throw."

As the event reached an unofficial halftime, a fellow who'd represented Hampton Roads in rings with ropes instead of cages showed up, as Pernell "Sweetpea" Whitaker stepped into the ring - but not to show the skills that won him a spot in the boxing Hall of Fame.

"In a short answer, no," Whitaker said when asked if he'd ever thought about trying the MMA plight. "I lived in the projects; I've already been through this. It's hard! At least it's organized in here - we weren't organized out there!"

The Thursday before Saturday's event, Jeremy Shifflet was working security at a book printing company in western Virginia. One heated text message later, he was on his way to a title fight: the event crew needed someone to battle Jason Fann for the league's 205 pound belt.

With a few titles under his belt already, Shifflet strapped on a sweatsuit and jogged off about a dozen pounds in a few days (assisted by the long-utilized art of "spitting," in which fighters use candies to fire up their salivary glands, then quickly deposit the extra liquid. It's a fast, albeit short of healthy, way to burn off some pounds).

"I was pretty confident in my training," said Shifflet, nearly 100 pounds lighter than when he first stepped into the cage two years ago. "I've been running five miles a day, sometimes seven days a week. I knew I had to go hard."

Behind from the start on height and reach, Shifflet found a way close and engaged Fann in a bearhugging contest, then whacked away with his gloved fists. He got Fann down, but Fann flipped over and landed on Shifflet's back. But Shifflet found a way out, then planted Fann back on the mat.

When they landed, the echo off the mat wasn't the only sound to be heard. Hearing a roar of pain from Fann's mouth, Shifflet reared back quickly with his hands in the air as the official and doctors moved in. With a severely injured shoulder, Fann was forced to quit.

"I wanted to take him to the ground and go from there," Shifflet said. "He yelled out, and I hate that I hurt him. This sport is not about hurting people." Sadly, Fann's wouldn't be the most severe injury of the night.

Early into the 135 title fight, Josh Mizelle appeared to be in for a fast win, holding Keith Whitehead, who only won the title at an event last month in Hampton, down in a choke. But Whitehead wasn't giving up so easily, maneuvering his way around on top. With Mizelle holding him by the arm and his calves around Whitehead's head, Whitehead lifted him up and slammed him into the mat.

But Mizelle held on, stretched out Whitehead's arm, and planted it to the canvas, ending the match in 2:36.

"That guy was strong," said Mizelle, celebrating the first title of his career. "I saw an opportunity. I knew could take that belt, and (Whitehead's) going to come back for it. He told me he'd be back, and I told him he'd better be."

An inadvertent low blow paused him in the 170 championship match, but John Stuart came back swinging - literally, as a high looping right landed square on Demar Holloway's temple, faltering him to the mat.

Stuart didn't hesitate; charging forward, he rocketed into the air like a crazed ballet dancer, and blasted a flying knee straight into Holloway's cranium. Less than a minute in, the fight was over.

Unfortunately, things didn't quite end there: the cheers for Stuart's win silenced while Holloway lay motionless on the mat, being tended to doctors and trainers. After about 10 minutes, he was wheeled out on a stretcher, as Stuart led an encouraging round of applause from the audience.

"I work at a hospital," Stuart said, "and with shots like that, you want to make sure that he's OK. When I hit him, I knew it was over with. If you've got him hurt, you go for the finish. I've been practicing the flying knee, and luckily it connected. It's great to be champ, and have somebody come after you for it. It's like, it's my toy, I'm holding onto it, and you're not going to touch it."

In the final event, Bryant Burns and Nick Grady squared off for the 185 title, and with an extreme height and reach advantage, Burns appeared to be in for a quick fight. But appearances - and nicknames, as Grady came in with the hardly intimidating moniker of "Care Bear" - proved to be a bit misleading.

Grady went inside on Bryant, and slammed him to the mat against the cage. Then he went around on Bryant's back and started choking away. Bryant made it to his feet, but Grady slammed him right back down and started pounding him in the head.

Bryant nearly got back to his feet a few times, but Grady kept breaking him back down, landing one left after another as time fell off the clock.

Back on Bryant's back, Grady kept punching. Then he leaned forward for another headlock. With one second left in the round, Bryant tapped out.

Just as the event had begun with the military in the spotlight, it ended the same way; after 27 months in Iraq, Grady's stationed at North Carolina's Fort Bragg.

"I have a couple of buddies who died in Iraq in 2009," he said. "The guys I train with, they're not in the UFC, but several of our guys could go there."

In the audience, Mills looked over her husband's flag and the ones from the WTC. Recently, she'd headed to the Freedom Tower of the Tower itself, a popular place for friends and family members of the military to inscribe their memories.

"They let us write on the walls," she said. "I thanked Matt for making me a better person and the work he had done."