We are in Chula Vista, sitting on the patio of an Asian restaurant. Jason is wearing a crisp button-down shirt with boxing-glove cuff links, trousers, and expensive-looking shoes.
Jason created Epic Fighting two years ago. He saw a void in the San Diego amateur fighting world and decided to fill it. His goal with Epic is to offer an Ultimate Fighting Championship experience. Once a month, he showcases local fighters at cage fights held at places such as the Four Points Sheraton off Aero Drive in Kearny Mesa, and at 4th and B downtown. There are usually 10–15 fights per show.
When he first started, Jason would wake up in the middle of the night from a recurring nightmare in which his first show was empty. He began to post on Facebook about the event. He hung posters. By the fourth show, he was turning a profit.
Jason attributes a portion of his success to the large mixed martial arts culture in San Diego.
“San Diego is a haven for gyms. You could argue that it’s either us or Vegas that is the best in the nation for mixed martial arts. Some of it has to do with the fact that many jiu-jitsu guys are Brazilian. The climate in San Diego is similar to Brazil. They feel real comfortable here. All [these] gyms need jiu-jitsu guys.”
The fighters who compete at Jason’s shows don’t get paid. That’s the norm in the amateur world. Pro fighters are the only ones making a paycheck.
“The fighters do it because they love it,” he says. “They like the fame. Some of them just want to fight — they don’t care when or how.” But it can be risky for amateur fighters to turn pro. “For a lot of these fighters, once they go pro, their mixed martial arts careers are over. [There are more] pro fighters looking [for shows] than shows happening. I know pro fighters that haven’t fought in two years. They would die to get in the cage. Since most are only fighting once a year — and have to pay $1000 to get medically cleared for that year — they stop getting cleared. They go to the Indian reservations to fight, because those aren’t state-regulated.”
Jason makes sure that his amateur shows are safe for competitors. He sees this as a way to ease fighters into the pro mixed martial arts arena.
“My amateur fights have three two-minute rounds. In the UFC, it’s three five-minute rounds. [At my fights] there is no eye-gouging, pinching, poking, biting, or groin strikes. You can get deducted a point or kicked out for that. You can’t kick or knee a downed opponent in the head. You can’t hit the back of the head, either. You can elbow, though we have yet to allow knees or elbows to the face. We want our fighters to fight hard and fight often. We want them to stay healthy. If they do go pro, we want them fresh and free of scar tissue that will open up every time they fight. We do this so they have a good chance at a solid career.”
A few weeks later, I follow Jaime Reyes’s black Honda Civic around a curvy road, past an ostrich farm, and down a dirt alley to Marron’s Boxing Camp in Lakeside. Marked with a hand-painted wooden sign, the gym is constructed of tarp and metal pipes. It’s more like a tent than anything else; it’s even in a back yard. Two oversized flags flap in the wind. One is American, the other Mexican.
Shirtless, sweaty guys sit on plastic chairs; one guy has stitches above his right eyebrow. Inside, there are two boxing rings built up over the dirt floor. Plastic buckets have been placed strategically in various locations; from time to time, guys hack loogies into them. A sign reads “KEEP THIS GYM CLEAN! NO SPITTING ON THE FLOOR.” Gym rules are written out in Spanish and English. Boxing gloves hang on hooks from the window, and posters cover one wall, some of women in bikinis; others, the faces of boxers. Punching bags are in one corner, exercise equipment in another.
Jaime gets into a ring and begins circuit-training. He turns up the stereo and shadowboxes. He shuffles around the ring, kicking and punching. His rhythm is so perfect, he looks like a dancer. There are seven other guys in the room. One of them, Ramiro Rodriguez, a round-faced man in his early 30s, is Jaime’s boxing coach.
“How’s your weight?” he shouts.
Jaime shouts back, “137!”
Ramiro smiles. “Good!”
Jaime is the only guy here who is barefoot. He’s so thin he looks breakable. He is conditioning for a fight on September 8, at Epic 14. He’ll be competing in the featherweight category.
“I want to have 15 fights, a title belt, and be 24 when I go pro,” he says. “I’m young; I’m really young. Most mixed martial arts guys are a lot older. By the time I’m their age, I’ll be at a different level and have years of experience. That should help me out to where I want to be. I don’t even know what pros get paid or what kind of sponsors to expect. I’m not worried about that. People think I’m crazy because I don’t get paid to fight. I’ve never been paid by my sponsors, either. I get a discount at Marron’s because I’m an amateur fighter. Normally, this gym is $35 a month. I pay $25. As of right now, I’m not looking for money. I want people to acknowledge that I’m a good fighter. I just want fans.”
The lobby at the Four Points Sheraton is filled with mixed martial arts fighters waiting to be weighed in for Epic 13. They sprawl on couches. Some sit on tables, others on the floor.
A muscular-looking man addresses the fighters. “My goal is this: I want to get you on the scale as soon as possible. Fill out your pre-fight physical and bring it back to me with a photo ID. You must have a photo ID!”