Beating Down Breast Cancer

Cassie Crisano, recovering between rounds, won her cage fight at the Spartyka Fight League's TKO for the Ta-Tas event Saturday night at the Ted Constant Center in Norfolk. Photo by Jason Norman

Susan G. Komen for the Cure representative Kimberly Robinson (right) thanks Spartyka founder Jimi Partyka (left) for putting on the event, which raised over $1500 for the Komen foundation. Photo by Jason Norman

In the time it took women like Melissa Carlton and Cassie Crisano to get ready for their next go-round inside local Mixed Martial Arts cages (fighters can train as long as a year or more for their first fight alone), about a quarter-million women in America were diagnosed with breast cancer. Tens of thousands died.

Both of them had seen firsthand that the disease is tougher than anyone they could ever be going glove-to-glove with on the mats. A few of Carlton's aunts have beaten breast cancer; one of Crisano's didn't win the fight.

On Saturday night at Norfolk's Ted Constant Center, however, they and dozens of other fighters threw punches and high kicks and even strapped on a rear naked choke or two, all so others could have a bit more hope: the Spartyka Fight League held its TKO for the Ta-Tas event - an informal title for an all-too-serious cause, as the night raised over $1500 for Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation, which has brought in millions to fight the disease.

"It just felt like a charity that's really not discriminatory on race or age or anything else," said Spartyka founder Jimi Partyka, whose fiancée has a family member currently in the war with breast cancer. "This is one of those evils that affects a lot of people, and we decided to raise some awareness and some money for the foundation."

The charity, Carlton said, "was one of the reasons I decided to make this fight my debut." Though she's been in the martial arts for years, Saturday marked her first MMA foray.

"Training has been fairly easy," she said of switching fighting styles. "The stances change. It's a matter of getting your feet in line and widening your stance. I'm very excited, very ambitious."

In the eight-sided ring for the fourth time, Crisano looked to pick up another win on the way to the professional ranks.

"I've been training hard and long with high intensity," she said. "I was super-psyched when they told me. I was really excited, because I would love to be a part of this event that raises money for that cause."

Standing in Crisano's way was Kirstin Murphey, who, like Carlton, had been into the arts for years before stepping in for her cage debut. Like both of them, she'd seen a family member fight off breast cancer.

"My ex-boyfriend did a fight a year ago," said Murphey, whose grandmother beat the disease (there's an estimated 2.6 million survivors in America today). "Watching him go through the cycle, I was mesmerized by it. I wanted to know what I was made of. I was training a in a purely self-defense style of martial arts, and this is a different way, a different perspective. The last year's been focused on that. It's a lot more strategy. When I was doing self-defense, it's reactive. This is a lot about strategy, thinking on your feet, planning out what you want to do, and executing."

Right around the times that several other brawlers of the night were kicking off their scrapping careers about two years ago, Kimberly Robinson discovered a lump in her left breast.

She, like them, had seen many others fight this battle, having already volunteered for the Komen foundation for over a decade. But to have it happen to her - athletic, only in her early 30s, and with a daughter in elementary school - was a much different type of reality, and not in a good way.

"I was always consistent with my self-exams, so when I found it myself, I was more in control," Robinson recalls. "It didn't affect me as heavily, the process, going through the surgery, the chemo, and the reconstruction."

Before the first punch was thrown, the national military organization Honor and Remember demonstrated its name, presenting a commemorative flag to the family of soldier Alvaro Regalado, who died in May 2010, a month after being injured in a fire while serving in Iraq.

"He was missing something, and he wanted to help people," said Regalado's widow Teresa (he also left behind three sons). A SEAL in his native Peru, Regalado had been rejected by the navy for his age (he was 36) before joining the army and embarking on his first tour of Iraq in December 2009. "It was just his heart. Tonight was heartfelt, not just for my husband, but for everybody else."

Strolling down to the cage for battle, Carlton and Adrian Crocker appeared to be in the midst of a contest for who could show the least emotion. Even when having their faces greased up, hearing their names announced, and the crowd cheering, neither one did much more than blink every once in a while.

Carlton used her reach advantage to land some blows early on, and Crocker went for her knees. Carlton pushed her against the cage, then rolled Crocker onto her back and started pounding. Crocker kept her arms and hands up to keep her from landing many clean ones, but her face was reddened by the end of the first round.

It wouldn't last; two takedowns in the second led to an early win for Carlton.

"I was trying to move her hands away," Carlton said. "It's a lot of adrenalin, but focusing on the face and aiming for one place. A lot of it was pressure and using my legs to work her."

A nickname like "The Janitor" might not exactly strike fear into the hearts of opponents, but Brandon Pennington still had his fighting skills left over to fulfill that purpose, slipping past Mike Lawrence in a cage fight for the top contender spot in 155 competition.

"I feel like I'm the next champ," said Pennington, whose moniker came from cleaning up his home gym in exchange for a training discount. "There's no other 155-er who can beat me. That was just a preview. They're going to see the best Brandon Pennington they've ever seen in the next few months. My ju-jitsu's really great, and my wrestling's really great."

At Spartyka's next event in July, he'll fight for the 155 title against Imani Smith, who defeated Travis McClaren on Saturday.

"It feels great," said Smith, whose "Apocalypse" handle is a bit more appropriate for cage brawling. "It's pure dedication. (My coaches) tell me that there's a river of power and extra abilities that everyone needs to tap into it, and I feel like I tapped into it tonight."

Crisano and Murphey went far past tapping early on, spinning against the cage as Crisano attempted to lock on a headlock. She got Murphey down with an arm around her head, but Murphey got back to her feet. Crisano fired a few lefts to her forehead, but Murphey got away and tossed some rights of her own as the round ended.

She started the second by kneeing Crisano in the gut a few times, then got behind her. The two fell backward, with Crisano landing on top. She went for the headlock again, and more punches were exchanged. As the fighters made their way back to the corners, both their faces were gruesomely decorated with plasma.

Murphey landed another huge knee as the third round began, but Crisano blasted her right back and went low, pushing her against the cage. She knocked Murphey's leg out from under her and leaned back with Murphey in a rear naked choke.

She never got Murphey to tap out, but Crisano still piled up enough points to step away with a 30-27 victory.

"I went over my game plan before I went out there," Crisano said. "I knew she was proficient in punching and kicking. I used my front kick and jab. The first time I threw it, it affected her. I got inside and took her down, and worked the ground: simple, but yet effective. I'm a very hyper person. When I do something, I go full-force. It's all or nothing."

In just the second fight of his career, Max Lossen was already going for a title - against Joe Ray, who'd lived up to his "Ruthless" nickname by winning several belts in other organizations, and owned several pounds of a weight advantage over Lossen.

The two started out like most heavyweight wars do: pushing each other around, chest to chest, testing out their strength against each other and the cage. Lossen got hold of Ray's leg and scored a takedown and a few good whacks, but Ray rolled onto his stomach and powered his way back to his feet.

Lossen grabbed another takedown, and managed to get his arms around Ray's throat and head. The rear naked choke had worked for one fighter after another all night, and this was no exception; less than 80 seconds into the first round, Ray tapped.

"Boxing is no match for ju-jitsu," Lossen said. "I was trying to close the distance and get a takedown. He had a pretty good stance, but that's what I've been training for my whole life. Every fight, you get a little better."

Throughout the fights, Robinson sat ringside (she'd addressed the crowd on the foundation's behalf early in the night), hoping no one within the chainlinks would ever have to take on an opponent as hard as the ones that she and those for whom her foundation fights had faced. Just over a month after discovering her lump in April 2010, she was already in surgery, and has been medically clean ever since.

"It was a part of me that was gone, but it wasn't that big a part of me because I was still here," she said of her cancer. "At the time, (my daughter) was 10, and being 10 years old and watching her mom go through that, I had to be strong for her. If I can reach one person, or many more, I'm there."