The Cage Fighter

Until Rodney "Sho Nuff" Wallace, there really was no such thing as a professional extreme fighter from North Carolina. Wallace is battling to change that, one kimura arm lock at a time
Chris Edwards

The small jiujitsu gym sits inside a Harrisburg strip mall. Rodney Wallace came upon it by mistake. It was three years ago that the recent college grad decided to start a new career as, of all things, a cage fighter. The five-foot-nine, 205-pound former high school wrestling star had seen men from his weight class fighting on television, under the shining lights, in front of the roaring crowd, in all the glory of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the major leagues of a booming sport. Wallace is a cocky dude. He sized them up and told himself he could beat their asses.

Wallace, twenty-eight, jokes about it now. "I was like, how do you get into the UFC? What do you do, e-mail them? Call them up?"
he says. "I still don’t know the formula." There really is no such thing in North Carolina as a professional cage fighter. Mixed martial arts (MMA) events were illegal here until a couple years ago, and there are rarely pro fights. The most likely path for Wallace was to learn jiujitsu, the best MMA foundation, and win some amateur fights. Then, once he got good, he could move on to a bigger gym in a place like Las Vegas or California. Wallace had been driving around the area in search of a jiujitsu trainer with a pretty big local name. Instead, he found Snake.  

Snake’s gym is a single, sparse room. It has a long blue mat, some heavy bags, and a cage. Leaning against the cage are two massive tractor tires that he and his students flip across the strip mall parking lot. And that’s about it.

The back wall, though, is cluttered with framed photos, enough to make the six- year-old gym seem very old. There are so many that most stories about the gym — its accidental origins, its unlikely successes— can be punctuated by pointing to an image behind a dusty piece of glass.

Two new photos have been squeezed into the mix. In one, Wallace stands on a scale, flexing his left bicep, staring coldly into the distance. In the second, shot at the same event, an opponent has his dukes up, the classic prefight pose, but Wallace keeps his hands at his sides and stares directly into his much taller opponent’s face.

His demeanor inside that packed room at the Las Vegas Palms in December, just a day before his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut, created a buzz in the crowd that intensified the aura surrounding his 9-0 record and lightning-fast ascent. Two months later, on a Monday afternoon in February, Snake’s gym is all but empty. His voice booms at a few young fighters—"Yes! Yes! Kick, kick, kick! Knees!"—in the other- wise quiet room.

Only the photos suggest that from this obscure place a fighter stepped into the UFC Octagon, the most revered stretch of canvas in mixed martial arts.

Six million ways to die, choose one.
—Snoop Dogg, "Serial Killa"

December 3, 2009. Two Days before wallace’s UFC Debut.

As Wallace bounces barefoot on the blue mat inside a conference room that has been converted into a training room at the Palms, two things are immediately frightening. First, his calves. Wallace is cut like a Spartan soldier from the movie 300, and it is his inordinately massive calf muscles that most evoke a primal urge to flee. They surge and press against his skin like claws trying to break through.

Then there’s his face. When he is away from fighting, Wallace jokes, ribs, taunts, and cackles, always the center of attention, and he flashes the exaggerated facial expressions of a stand-up comic. His nickname is "Sho Nuff the Master," taken from a smack-talking, van-driving shogun of Harem, the villain in a cult-classic kung fu movie. It fits well with his persona, which can be, all at once, outrageous, bombastic, and endearing.

When it’s go time, though, Wallace’s face falls eerily blank. He punches, kicks, tackles, and wrestles without even a flinch, breathing calmly and quietly as beads of sweat form atop his shaved head. His eyes are not angry or even intense, just empty and emotionless, even as other men as scary as he is, and also trained in the highest levels of the martial arts, punch him, kick him— maybe his head, maybe his knee, anywhere is in play, really, except his groin— choke him, elbow him, twist and bend his arms and legs, and generally try to knock him unconscious or break his will.

That Wallace has so far managed to win all of his fights is a fairly ridiculous feat, especially considering his inexperience. And the wins have come in rapid succession, including, most recently, three in one night. There are so many ways to lose. One misstep can land a fighter in an armbar or leg lock, helpless as his opponent wrenches the limb in the wrong direction, no option but to tap out, submit, surrender. In the case of a chokehold, fighters sometimes pass out before they can quit.

"Yes!" Snake says as Wallace, now grappling on the mat in the conference room, sits squarely on Ranard Brown’s head.

Along with Snake, Brown will serve as Wallace’s corner man at the fight, but this evening Wallace is using him to practice a kimura arm lock, otherwise known as a chicken wing.

Next to Snake stands Jason Culbreth, a jiujitsu black belt and the team’s expert in submission moves, like the kimura, which have the goal of getting the other guy to give up (jiu-jitsu uses leverage and momentum to control an opponent with throws, pins, and submissions). Wallace believes he can use the kimura against his opponent, veteran fighter and ex- Marine Brian Stann, who is better known for his striking than his grappling. He also knows Stann will expect this. So Culbreth is teaching him a counter to the counter to the kimura.

"Now remember, step on his face," Culbreth says. "Step on his face."

Brown, his face still smushed into the mat, lets out a muffled grunt to indicate that Wallace has the new move right.

 

A few other fighters share the room, and even Kimbo Slice, the street-brawling YouTube sensation who is one of the sport’s biggest stars, walks inside, strips to his socks and a carefully placed hand, and steps on the scale. Slice, with his bushy beard and unreasonable muscles, is a scary spectacle. As everyone practices alone with their camps, the room is tense.

Though Wallace and his friends insist they’re not awe-struck by the jump to the UFC, it’s easy to see them as the upstart outsiders here in Vegas. (Later, Brown and Snake will have their pictures taken with Slice.) For one, Wallace is the only fighter on the UFC roster, which is more than 200 strong, who trains in North Carolina. He’s also one of the few fighting out of a small, unknown, independent gym. A few big-name programs dominate the sport; the main card for the March 27 UFC 111 event, for instance, features five fighters from the top two schools, and all ten hail from major gyms. Those who come up with small gyms tend to leave once they make the UFC or after they suffer a loss.

Stann began training with one of the top schools for his own UFC debut. He was coming off the first loss of his career. "It’s huge," Stann says of the importance of working regularly with elite fighters and trainers. "And you don’t realize it until you lose."

A photo on the wall of Snake’s gym shows him facing another man in the ring. Snake is tall, bald, goateed, and shredded like a bodybuilder, which he is today at forty- seven. The photo was snapped at the start of a fight in September 2008, as Snake took his first step toward his opponent. A few steps later, as he prepared to lunge for a takedown, a tendon snapped, and his right kneecap shot up his leg and into his thigh.

His friends made a get-well video for him to watch in his hospital bed. In it, Wallace addressed the camera.

"Old man," he said. "Pass the torch to me."

Aside from high school wrestling, Snake, whose real name is Hallie Hair Jr., had used his bulk and strength only as one of Jimmy Buffet’s bodyguards until he decided to learn jiujitsu ten years ago. He joined a local gym, where he sparred often with Brown, the only other student his size. But after a few years he and Brown felt their progress was far too slow. Then Royce Gracie entered their lives.

Gracie is the man most responsible for jiujitsu’s popularity in modern MMA. He used it to dominate the early UFC, which when it started in 1993 featured single-elimination, Bloodsport-style tournaments that pitted fighters of all sizes against each other in the cage. The 175-pound Gracie won his first eleven matches, usually against much bigger men, submitting every opponent, often right at the start of the fight.

Snake knew a guy who claimed to be Gracie’s manager, something he never quite believed. One night the guy invited him to dinner, and there was Gracie at the table. He began flying Snake from Charlotte to his home in California to train, teaching him the slight hip shifts and angle changes that can make all the difference in a fight.

"[Gracie]’s the nicest guy in the world," Snake says. "If you look at him, you’ll say, ‘Man, I could whoop this guy’s ass.’ That’s what I said. He got on top of me and he felt like he was 300 pounds. That’s how he uses his weight."

Gracie convinced Snake and Brown to start a gym where they and a few friends could practice his teachings on their own.

"He’d come to school five times a year, stay a week at a time, and show us five or six different things," Brown says. "Then all we would do is spend easily three hours a day just drilling one thing, until we could do it inside and out."

People started noticing the fighters through the big windows in front and asking whether it was a school. Eventually, Snake agreed to take on students. He charges just $50 a month.

"That’s just a price to keep crack heads from coming in," Wallace says, noting that Snake travels even to out-of-state amateur fights, paying for everything out of his pocket.

When I ask how much time Snake spends at the gym, Wallace snorts.

"You might ask how often he’s not in here. He’s pretty much here all the damn time."

Under Gracie’s tutelage the gym transformed from strictly jiujitsu to mixed martial arts, and it is a member of Gracie’s North Carolina-based Team ROC, which has a network of gyms, including Culbreth’s in Raleigh, and routinely cleans up at state tournaments. But Wallace has risen higher in the sport than anyone could have imagined when he first walked in the door. He says it frustrates him to hear so many commentators say that a fighter needs to join a top gym to find success.

"No, you don’t," he says. "Just because we’re here in Charlotte don’t mean jack shit."

December 4, early in The morning.

There are two types of chokeholds. One is the sleeper. As its name implies, it is relatively pleasant. Your opponent squeezes his bicep and forearm against the sides of your neck and stops the flow of blood to your brain, causing you to "sleep."

The second is straight-up strangulation. Your opponent cruelly crushes your neck from the front, blocking your windpipe. This really stinks.

I learn this first-hand. Wallace has gone to bed early, and after hitting the town with his friends I foolishly challenge Culbreth and one of his students to a hotel-room grappling match. I quickly find myself pinned to the ground, the student on my back and his arm around my throat.

Strangulation is a slow process. The front of my trachea presses against the back, a painful thing, and when I try to gasp for air, no air comes. Seconds pass like minutes. I try to hold my breath, hoping to faint and get it over with, but my lungs instinctively suck for air. Panic ensues. I must look pathetic. The student lets me breathe.

I have been watching the UFC since I was a kid, and to me it seems at least as normal as boxing. But the experience makes me wonder: what kind of person would choose to make his living doing such a thing?

Wallace is a well-groomed, intelligent, all-around good guy. He has a degree from small, liberal arts, academically minded Catawba College, where he was a star running back. Despite the fact that he is a cage fighter who calls himself Sho Nuff, at his core he is almost boring: he sets goals, works incredibly hard, and achieves them.

He is a wrestler through and through—dedicated, disciplined, and, like many wrestlers, more than a little sadistic. Wrestlers have an innate, weird desire to seek out a fight: to find an opponent, face him, press against him, brawn against brawn, sweaty man against sweaty man, roll around, struggle, and see who’s better, just for the hell of it. UFC fighters take this mind-set to the extreme. It must be an overwhelming urge; maybe it hits them whenever they pass a person on the street. Wallace tried working a normal job after college but drifted back to fighting.

Later, I ask Wallace what he gets out of fighting (the money, at least at this stage, is not great). The answer starts with the serial-killer face he makes on the mat and in the ring. He calls it a response to a threat.

"People jump up and get pumped. I don’t really get that feeling. I feel like I’m going in somewhere that someone is really trying to hurt me, and in my mind it’s like this dude can’t do it to me," he says.

"The real reason I like fighting is ’cause you really get to measure someone’s heart. And I get a rush from seeing someone that’s supposed to be badass, and I look in his eyes and say, ‘No, you aren’t badass.’ I like everything from that point, knowing that the dude is scared of me."

December 4, in The evening.

In Wallace’s room the wall-length windows look out on the shining lights of Las Vegas. His friends are crammed onto the beds and chairs, joking with him about what he should do after he wins: roar like a lion, maybe, or take a bottle of his sponsor’s sports drink and dump it all over his face. Brown, as usual, makes himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Snake prepares to turn in early so he can wake up and work out. Wallace walks over and steals a look out the window and into the night.

People always want to know one thing about Wallace: what goes through his mind when his name is called, music blasts, fans scream, and he walks toward the cage?

"I don’t think about shit. I don’t feel shit. I don’t think shit," he says. "When I’m walking down that aisle I’m thinking about not thinking about shit."

Same goes in the ring. Wallace says he tries to train enough that he can just react. The one thing he constantly considers, though, is energy. Snake focuses heavily on cardio, and Wallace tries to calculate what each action will take out of him and out of his opponent, and whether it’s worth the price. He thinks he can wear Stann down.

Stann, apparently, plans to knock Wallace out. He has made this prediction in an interview with the Bamberg (S.C.) Times and Democrat, Wallace’s hometown newspaper, which Wallace has pulled up on his cellphone.

"He said that?" Brown asks. "He said that!" Stann says Wallace hasn’t accounted for the big jump in competition. He questions his power and calls him short. Wallace bristles at this; he has been discounted as the little guy his entire career. His wrestling wins came in 2A, his rushing records at Division II. And instead of one of the big clubs, of course, when he fights tomorrow he will be representing Team ROC and Snake.

"I always grew up the big fish in the little pond. So now I get the chance to swim in the big pond and see how I do in there."

What if he loses? New fighters who don’t perform well can get dropped from the league.

"Everybody loses, man. There are 100 million ways you can lose in a fight," Wal- lace says. "On the other hand, it’s my life. So you’re like, ‘Man, don’t you mess this up.’ "

And tonight? "I’m gonna think about sleeping."

Sho Nuff: Am I the meanest?
Sho Nuff’s crew: Sho nuff!
Sho Nuff: Am I the prettiest?
Sho Nuff’s crew: Sho nuff!
Sho Nuff: Am I the baddest mofo low down around this town?
Sho Nuff’s crew: Sho nuff!
Sho Nuff: Well who am I?
Sho Nuff’s crew: Sho Nuff!

— Sho Nuff the Master, in The Last Dragon

 

Saturday Night, December 5, Undercard Bout Number Three.

Wallace is about to enter the arena. His family and friends crowd around the edge of the walkway that leads to the Octagon. Everything is crisp — the neon lights, the booming bass, the echo of the screaming fans, the JumboTron.

Wallace appears on the screen.

"Winner of all nine of his fights," the voice-over says, "Rodney Wallace has made it to the big time."

Brown looks angry. Snake is pumped. Wallace enters the Octagon and hustles around the inside of the cage, hands casually raised, eyes drooped, face blank and scary. Stann seems alert and agitated. He and Wallace don’t touch gloves.

Someone from the crowd shouts, "Hoo rah!"

Stann tries a kick. Wallace grabs his leg and takes him to the ground.

"Yes!" Snake says. "Yes!!"

Stann escapes. His famous trainer, Greg Jackson, shouts instructions from the corner. Stann’s star teammates cheer him on from the stands. Wallace executes another takedown. Stann escapes.

Stann lands a left, then a kick. The dull thud of the four-ounce gloves sounds nothing like the sweet swish in boxing. Stann kicks Wallace again, but Wallace grabs his leg.

Brown and Snake jump off their stools, and the crowd erupts, as Wallace lifts Stann over his head and suplexes him backward onto the canvas. The sound of two huge bodies hitting the canvas is extraordinarily loud.

Wallace gets another takedown before the round is out. Two of the three judges score the round for Wallace, and out comes the ring girl.

Wallace opens the next round with a couple of jabs and another takedown, which Stann escapes yet again, seeming content. Wallace is starting to slow down, and now Stann takes him to the canvas. Soon Wallace is on his back against the cage, catching elbows and body shots, and his mother is up and shouting in the stands. Stann wins the round on all three cards.

In the third and final round, Wallace’s face betrays a hint of worry and at times he gasps like a suffocating fish. He continues his takedowns, and Stann continues his escapes, landing a few clean blows and then a leg kick that brings Wallace to a knee.

The winner, by unanimous decision: "All-American Brian Stannnn …"

After the fight Wallace does not want to talk. He sits in a folding chair outside the locker room, perfectly still and si- lent, his head hanging down, his elbows on his thighs, Snake standing guard over him. Suddenly there are shouts and grunts inside. The door bursts open. Out comes the next fighter on his way to the cage.

February, two months after the Las Vegas Fight

Snake’s gym will close in about an hour, but Wallace still isn’t there. He slept in, trying to recover from a brutal weekend of training with Culbreth in Raleigh, where fresh sparring partners were rotated in every minute.

Wallace is preparing for UFC 111, where he will face Jared Hamman, who also lost his debut. The loser will likely be dropped.

Soon Wallace limps into the gym, wearing an oversize T-shirt, looking exhausted. As he plops down next to Brown on the mat, Family Guy boxers stick out from his shorts.

"I don’t have time to mess around let’s go," he mumbles.

"What?" Brown says. Wallace mumbles again. "What?!" Brown shouts. "I don’t have time to mess around let’s go!" Wallace shouts, and the two begin to wrestle.

Later Wallace sits on the mat, sweating, staring serenely into space. Brown heads home. Snake finishes mopping the floor and tells Wallace to lock up when he leaves.

The gym is silent. Wallace catches his breath.

"I feel like the next fight is do or die. You can’t lose twice," he says.

I ask if he might consider joining a bigger gym.

The answer seems to flow from the same vein of red-blooded pride that fuels his desire to fight in the first place. He’s in it to measure himself. And this small gym in Charlotte is part of who he is.

"If I’ll be a loser, I’ll be a loser with the people I started out with," Wallace says.

He turns off the lights, takes his keys, and locks the door.

Mike Giglio is a freelance writer.

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