By Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Mixed martial arts is a particularly vicious form of pugilism that has essentially replaced boxing as the favorite of fight fans. UFC cards on Fox Sports fill up sports bars each Saturday night, reminiscent of the Gillette Cavalcade boxing matches Friday nights long ago.
One local fighter, James Clark, had this opinion on why MMA has supplanted boxing.
“It’s more exciting than boxing. You can’t just worry about punches in this game. You have to train for kicks, knees, elbows, chokes, arm locks, knee bars — people trying to dislocate your knee — and heel hooks — people trying to break your ankle.”
He added: “Fans love to see that. You heard the cheers the other night when that guy knocked me down.”
Clark referred to his bout on a kick-boxing card in Minneapolis last Saturday night when 23-year-old Justin Nelson floored him with a heel to the forehead. That match was otherwise dominated by Clark, a superior boxer, pummeling Nelson’s torso and head, for a TKO in round two.
Clark, a former Elk River wrestler (27-3, third in the state at 145 in 1983) who lives in Champlin, is a mild-mannered, well-educated fellow, not to mention 48 years old, seemingly not a typical participant in the brutal realm of MMA, where two barefoot combatants maim each other with punches and kicks to the head and (almost) everywhere else.
Still, Clark has a 7-4 record and earned one title shot, which he lost. His opponents have all been in their 20s except one guy who was 33. As Clark observed, “There’s no Old-Timers League in MMA.”
A former high school and college teacher (metaphysics), and currently owner/trainer of the Crystal Fight Club, where he works with 30 fighters, the Rogers native grew up both wrestling and boxing, taught the latter by his dad, a former pro.
As an adult, the beast within him compelled Clark to push his 5-foot-6 body to absolute limits as he captured a slew of world fitness records, such as 33,001 pushups in 24 hours, 2,001 parallel bar dips in five hours and 91,000 pounds on a lat machine in one hour.
He has appeared on “The Tonight Show” and wrote a book called “Platonic Superman” for which a small L.A. firm called Zia Films bought the rights. He’s also been on the Star News sports page a lot, but we figured, why not also make him our first athlete of the week from mixed martial arts.
Clark’s highlight so far was his 185-pound title bout on the Brutaal tour June 2 against Joe Sullivan, who’s eight inches taller at 6-foot-2. Clark made the first takedown but Sullivan caught him in a triangle choke hold with his long legs and won by submission at 2:13. The outcome convinced Clark he needs to drop one more class. “At 170, I won’t have to fight guys that tall,” said Clark, who has already trimmed from 240 to 185. “I can do it, just like I did in wrestling.”
The win over Nelson was “the start of my road back” to another title shot. Next are an MMA bout with Daimon Nailan and a boxing match with Thomas Herrera, both in August.
The Driller Tour kick-boxing card last Saturday at a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency (13th and Nicollet) was a virtual sellout with around 300 fans. The MMA cards easily draw a thousand fans, said Clark. These are not Twins crowds, by the way. There’s a lot of spiked hair and tattoos and attitude among the guys, and the young ladies come dressed to kill.
In MMA, the only blows not allowed are kicks to the head when your opponent is down, and groin shots. With all the talk about concussions, isn’t this a big concern? “Very much so,” he acknowledged. “In this game the object is to hurt the other guy. Even in football, you’re not trying to hurt him, just knock him down or take the ball.”
Clark insists he has no fear. “My Platonic philosophy has helped me to lose my fear, and to help me focus … Socrates said, ‘The body is the tomb of the soul.’”
Remarkably, he once competed in an even more savage sport, called Vale Tudo, which is Portuguese for “anything goes,” while living in Ecuador for nine years in his 30s. To supplement a modest teaching salary, he engaged in bare-knuckle fights where even kicks to the groin were encouraged. He says he won nine of 10 bouts, but had three front upper teeth knocked out when a Brazilian head-butted him. (Since replaced by porcelain).
Clark says he took up MMA due to a lifelong passion for “combat sports” along with a refusal to accept that a guy his age has no business there. But he’s realistic, too. “At 48, I know I am not going anywhere, but I’m proud that I got a title shot, and nobody else close to my age has done that in MMA. I’m going to try get another one and this time I hope I can win a title.”
THE CLARK SCORECARD
Personal file — Age: 48 … Family: wife, Lady Montoya, children, Joshua and Mary Clark … Sport: mixed martial arts … Occupation: owner of Crystal Fight Club; former teacher of Platonic metaphysics … Residence: Champlin … Hometown: Rogers
Favorite stuff — TV shows: “Smallville,” “Kyle XY,” “Legend of the Seeker” … Movies: “Barfly,” “The 9th Configuration” … Reading: Plato’s dialogues … Music: Irish fare … Food: All-you-can-eat salad bars … Drink: Guinness stout … Team: Vikings … Athletes: Stephen Watt, Damion Hill, Brett Murphy, Mahmoud Aburria, Blake Bergeson, Josh Wiseman, Jake Erickson