JACKSONVILLE — Cole Wells, 21, waited in an outer wing of Pete Mathews Coliseum as fight music filled the main arena. The music swelled and he began his descent closer to the fighting cage.
Although the two men were comparably matched, his opponent, Mark Squires, was no easy target in the Saturday night event. Both men fought hard to claim the win, but ultimately Wells would come out on top; he was one of several winners at the Alabama Fighting Championship, the first-ever mixed martial arts event at Jacksonville State University.
“This man hits like a freight train,” Squires said after his loss to the 135-pound Wells.
Because of the overall safety protocols that must be observed at MMA fights, however, most universities won’t co-sponsor events such as this, sport sources said.
It was an “absolutely huge deal,” for JSU to have hosted such an event in the first place, JSU ROTC department head Lt. Col. Travis Easterling said.
“To my knowledge, it’s the first time that any college in the state has co-sponsored a professional MMA battle,” Easterling said.
Though the fights come with some risks, those risks are mitigated through precautionary measures required by the Alabama Athletic Commission (AAC). The AAC is Alabama’s “sole regulatory, sanctioning, and licensing authority for professional boxing, professional and amateur mixed martial arts, professional wrestling, and Toughman within the State of Alabama,” according to its website.
Easterling said not just anyone can “come off the street” to compete in MMA fights. Fighters must go through rigorous training camps and be affiliated with a gym. In addition to being well trained, fighters are separated out by weight class to ensure the safety of all participants.
Easterling said everything down to the tape on the fighters’ hands must be inspected for safety by the AAC.
Sam McAlpin — the owner of Alabama Fighting Championship (AFC), which co-sponsored Saturday’s event — called putting together such events “a lot of work,” but said that the university helped soothe some of those growing pains.
“Jacksonville State was very welcoming. They helped us a ton with setup — everything like that — bringing us in,” McAlpin said. “There was a few hiccups with the athletic commission, but that’s part of it. We deal with them regularly and we’re trying to get some things fixed.”
Originating from Rainsville, the AFC sponsors events with crowds as large as 2,500, according to McAlpin, although the JSU event wasn’t close to that figure. He said the organization typically operates out of Rainsville/Cullman area, and Huntsville.
When asked in advance what should the crowd expect Saturday night, McAlpin said, “Evenly matched fights from start to finish.”
“Some of them’s gonna bleed — some of them’s not. Some of them’s gonna make it look easy — that’s because they're good,” McAlpin said. “It’s gonna be an awesome night.”
Chief Inspector for the Alabama Athletic Commission Stan Frierson was present Saturday to ensure every precaution was taken.
Frierson said three of the fighters were on track to go on to the “house,” which he explained was a subsidiary part of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) — the largest MMA fighting organization in the world. At the house, fighters can receive more training and will compete for UFC contracts while living inside one “house” with other fighters.
“They’ve been watched. We see a lot of good action, a lot of good fights,” Frierson said.
Asked if he expected the night’s events to be a fair fight, Frierson said, “It’s always going to be a fair fight. That’s my job.”
“As the chief inspector, my job is to make sure that all the fights are licensed, that the fighters are coming from a gym and have somebody to coach them up — you can’t just walk in straight and do this,” Frierson said.
Doctors who were ringside must be ringside physician certified, and the judges and referees must be certified by the Association of Boxing Commissions (ABC), according to Frierson. Medics were also present alongside the fully trained physician staff.
“The most important thing is the safety” of the fighters, Frierson said.
Trent Martinez opened the event as the first fight of the night against Chris Huggins. Martinez’s fierce character inside the ring was nothing like the mild temperament he displayed once the fight was over.
“It went perfect to plan. He came in hot and heavy, so I was just taking my time, really,” Martinez said. “Then I closed the distance and took him down.”
He may play a beast in the ring, but Martinez has a day job at Sam’s Club. And because he has dreams of going all the way to the UFC, Martinez said, when he isn’t at work, he’s training.
Like Martinez, some of the fighters in the cage Saturday said that training for these fights takes up most of their free time. When they aren’t in the gym training with their coaches, they are running or maintaining physical fitness.
Wells also trained hard to claim the win against his opponent. Wells said when he isn’t at his job as a metal roofer, he’s training with DeKalb County Martial Arts in Fort Payne.
“I get my butt beat every day, Monday through Friday, I’m there at the gym. We train about three hours a day,” Wells said. “I get off of work, and then I go to train. I compete every day.”
All the hours of hard work paid off for him Saturday night. He was satisfied with his performance.
Those who missed Saturday’s event might have another opportunity as more MMA events could be in JSU’s near future, according to Easterling.