It’s Wednesday at 1:00 p.m., and I am waiting for amateur mixed martial arts fighter Jaime Reyes at the Lakeside Cafe. When he walks past me, I don’t even notice. I am expecting someone beefy, tattooed, or, at the very least, goateed. Jaime is wearing a hoodie and shorts. Black socks peek out from under Adidas slip-on sandals. He is baby-faced and rail-thin and looks no older than 15.
He orders a fruit salad and ice water. He calls our 20-something waitress “ma’am.”
“I have a fight in a few weeks,” he says. “I need to weigh 135.”“My girlfriend weighs more than me right now.” Jaime laughs. “I decided after my last fight to drop down ten pounds. The guys I used to fight against weighed 145. My natural weight is 140. They were bigger and tougher.”
Jaime started mixed martial arts fighting when he was 20.
“In the beginning, I was doing [it] for self-defense. Before then, I didn’t like any kind of punching. I wanted to try out martial arts to see what it was like. I didn’t want to cage fight or anything.”
Jaime began training in jiu-jitsu and muay thai. Six months later, his gym arranged a cage fight at Epic 3. At the time, Jaime didn’t know how to strike or take a guy to the ground.
“I guess my coaches saw something in me. They wanted to show me I had the ability to fight at an amateur level. My coach said, ‘Test yourself. See where you’re at.’ I went for it. I was 20 years old. My opponent, Marcus Aven, was 25. He was undefeated.”
The atmosphere at Epic 3 was something Jaime had never experienced. The event was oversold, and Epic, the fight-promotion company, was forced to turn people away at the door. Jaime estimates that somewhere between 1000–2000 spectators filled the seats. The fire marshal had to come in and tell people to go home.
“I grew up in Lakeside,” Jaime says. “There’s not much action here. So it was pretty intimidating. That night, when my opponent stepped into the ring, I thought, Oh, my god, I am about to fight a full-grown man! He was stocky and so buff. I put my left hand out to engage him. He hit me. He grabbed my arm in a weird position. He put me down on my knees. He gave me an uppercut and pulled me up to my feet. He gave me a jab and a hook. That’s when I snapped into reality and realized that I was in a real, actual fight, right then. I started jumping up and down to get my jitters out. When the first bell rang, I was thinking, Oh, my god, this is the crazy! My legs felt like they were 100 pounds.”
Jaime lost that night by decision. But he and his opponent were awarded fight of the night.
Jaime has fought seven more fights since then. He won three by submission, lost three by decisions and one by armbar. He trains Monday–Friday for two hours each day. He goes to the gym in the evening, after working at Home Goods in El Cajon, where he stocks and carries furniture out to customers’ cars. Each week, he spends three days at the Dungeon mixed martial arts gym in Santee, and the other two at Marron’s Boxing Club in Lakeside. He takes the weekend off, with the exception of one hour of muay thai on Sundays.
Last year, Jaime lost four months of training due to an injury. It happened while he was sparring with a friend at the gym. Jaime failed to wear a cup and took a knee to the groin. He lay on the mat tossing and turning. He couldn’t get up for an hour.
“I felt a burning sensation. My testicle swelled up to the size of a grapefruit. It was crazy. I went to a doctor at Sharp [Memorial Hospital]. He told me I had to have surgery to drain it. I was too scared for that, so I went to a hole-in-the wall doctor’s office in Chula Vista. That guy wanted to stick a needle in my testicle. I was freaking out. I couldn’t eat, walk, or even get out of bed for four days. I didn’t have health insurance because I had been recently laid off. I decided to go to TJ. The doctor there told me all the same things that the other doctors said. ‘Or,’ he said, ‘I can give you pills, and you can pray to God.’ Two weeks later, I started seeing a reaction to the pills. The swelling went down. It took four months to heal. As soon as I got better, I started hitting the gym again.”
Because of injuries like those, Jaime’s mom is not a fan of mixed martial arts.
“My family trips out on the damage I get from fights and how many hours I put into training. They are skeptical of the sport, shocked that I’m a mixed martial arts guy. They saw me as a quiet guy that stayed out of trouble. No one expected me to do this. My mom worries about me getting hurt and not being able to take care of my six-month-old son. She does not like this sport at all, but she is so supportive. She’s my backbone. My mom, dad, and girlfriend go to every fight. ”
When I ask Jaime if he worries about brain damage, he wants to know if I think he should be.
“I would appreciate it if someone would tell me, because, if it’s true, I should probably think about a different career.”
The Fight Promoter
“Cheerleading is more dangerous than mixed martial arts fighting. So is figure skating,” says Jason Stewart, owner of Epic Fighting. “This may hurt some fighters’ egos, but mixed martial arts doesn’t even make it on the top five most dangerous sports list. It usually falls at 17, after golf and baseball.”