"I knew we should have left earlier", I said as I was gritting my teeth in bumper to bumper traffic on the 99W. I was on my way to Sportfight at the Spirit Mountain Casino and a supposed hour and forty five minute drive was looking to be a much longer and harder trip.
Sportfight previously held their events at the Rose Garden, a mere five minutes away from my home. I was now schlepping all the way to Grand Ronde, Oregon to catch the Mixed Martial Arts action. Would it be worth the trip? As the traffic started thinning out around Sherwood my optimism began to return. All be told, the trip down to Spirit Mountain Casino wasn't all that awful; a few tunes from a friend's iPod and a sunny afternoon made sitting in the car a lot more bearable.
It had been a while since I had been to the Spirit Mountain Casino. Since my last trip they've expanded quite a bit, adding a hotel, gas station and event center. After the last Sportfight there were rumors that fans would have to wait until September for the next event. This April event at Spirit Mountain Casino was announced only a few weeks prior and almost everyone I spoke to indicated that it was pulled together fast.
As I jockeyed around trying to get access to the event I discovered a very clear fact: Spirit Mountain Casino was running the show. Almost every aspect of the event aside from the guys in the ring had the touch of the casino. In Las Vegas this would be a good thing, but here in Oregon it is something all together different. As I walked through the casino floor I was struck by two very clear realities: the room was smokier than hell, and not a single person had a drink in their hand. Spirit Mountain Casino is run more like a huge video poker and slot machine gallery than a casino. Casinos make their name on service and entertainment, two qualities unfortunately missing from Spirit Mountain.
As I met with James Buxman, PR manager for Spirit Mountain Casino, I asked him to give me the run down of the Casino. He look at me doe-eyed and said he had to run to take care of the fights. In an email exchange he explained that the casino was working to try to attract more people under 40. With a new sports bar planned for May, and night club, they hope to hip up their image. Unfortunately, their ambitions won't be realized until they can genuinely understand their new target audience. A prime example of their cluelessness is apparent in the selection of bands for their big unveiling party for the new nightclub and sports bar: Kool and The Gang, a band more likely to attract the parents of their target audience than the audience itself.
As fight time approached I was lead to my seat at the back of the arena. I realized then that the story of trying to get the story at Sportfight was going to be more interesting than the event itself. The press row was so far back from the action that trying to get a story, any sort of story, was going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. How do you talk about a fighter's ground game when you can't really see the mat? As I was bemoaning this fact to Matt Lindland, owner and founder of Sportfight, he threw up his arms and said "The casino is handling everything, you have to talk to them". My photographer, David Lawrence, opened up his camera bag and handed me his spare camera. "Geoff, you're a photographer. Shoot this next to me at ringside." As the announcer entered the ring a security guard came around and told all the photographers that they must kneel during the fights. This meant shooting the fights from a position which probably is now banned right next to water boarding in terrorist interrogations.
The event started with very little fanfair except for one of the most painful renditions of the Star Spangled Banner that I've heard in years. Would a Las Vegas casino have a sixty year old dude in a bad toupee ham up the Star Spangled Banner? I doubt it. The first bout was notable because it featured Colt Toombs, son of professional wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper. Toombs fought at the previous Sportfight and his father proudly cheered him on from ringside. This time around, despite the promotion from the casino that he'd be there, he was seemingly absent. This first bout set the tone for the evening: a lightening quick fight with one fighter clearly dominating another. It wasn't even close. I barely had time to comment on this fact when Toombs smacked Shrout across the face right in the corner where I was taking photos showering me with blood spatter. Yeah, it was going to be that kind of night.
The first four bouts each lasted no longer than two or three minutes a piece. After the fifth round I realized that there was a distinct pattern to the evening – 'stand 'em up and knock him out' with the winner of each fight belonging to Team Quest. Sportfight has long fought criticism that it rarely breaks out of being nothing more than a showcase for Team Quest. The last Sportfight seemed to be a solid step away from that with a strong presence from other rival gyms like Braveheart. This time around Team Quest owned the evening, even to the point of promoter Matt Lindlan cornering for at least one of the fights (something odd for a promoter to be doing). I spoke to one of the commissioners from the Oregon Athletic Commission and they commented that the event had come together "extremely fast", and it really felt that way. One of the things I really value in MMA is how strong match ups often are, and here most of them weren't very competitive.
Of the eleven fights of the evening only two made it past the first round (Tom Shrout v Colt Tombs went mere moments into round two and Marlo Meiranda and Tyson Jefferies went the longest – three full rounds). The only fight of the evening that felt like any sort of real competition was the Main Event between Meiranda and Jefferies, but even that bout was plagued with issues. After a second kick to the groin in round two, Jeffries huddled in the corner where we were shooting. "What the fuck!" he yelled as he held his groin. Lindland, who was also cornering Jefferies, advised him to take his time and clear his head; instead, Jefferies made the amateur move of winding himself up and then going to hard and too fast at Meiranda, who answered with one of the most punishing knees to the head that I've seen in a long time. This kind of bush league move isn't something you'd expect from the main event of a professional fight, but none of the fights really had the mark of top caliber Mixed Martial Arts.
Even mediocre fights can be enjoyable with a good crowd, and even though the Spirit Mountain Casino event center was filled to capacity (at just over 2000 seats), there wasn't much energy to the crowd. Rather than cheering I often heard people yell obscenities at the fighter they were rooting against or even a spattering of boos if they didn't think the action was moving fast enough (insane considering how short the bouts were).
After the fights were over we tried to find somewhere to crash and decompress for a little bit before driving back to Portland. After kneeling for two and a half hours my entire body ached. The only lounge in the casino had a line out the door and there was no casual place to go and just sit with a beer. I grabbed a bottled juice from one of the 'food' stands at the casino and then we were on our way back to Portland.
I'm a big fan of Mixed Martial Arts and I really think that an event like Sportfight in Oregon could get some real traction and be something significant, but there are no short cuts. Throwing together an event run by a casino who knows nothing about MMA or really entertainment isn't going to further the cause. If Sportfight is ever going to be relevant they'll need good match ups with fighters beyond Team Quest and put together an evening of real entertainment (there's no excuse to not even having fighter intro music). Although it's on a much smaller scale I think the Rumble at The Roseland, which is considered amateur MMA, is much more successful and relevant. Next time around I'll save myself the long drive and just head down the street to the Roseland because I can't see how anything at Spirit Mountain is going to be worth the trip.
Here's a video of the bout between Tom Shrout and Colt Toombs, it gives you an idea of how one sided most of the evening was:
More Sportfight Info: