Two men stand across from one another, surrounded by walls of linked fencing. No shoes, no shirt, just a pair of shorts and fingerless gloves. Their fists are ready for violence. Or is it art?
Paint brushes are attached to their feet. Looking down, the same is true of their feet. The floor is a octagonal canvas. A bell rings and they meet in the center, trading blows and casting broad strokes over the mat. Fifteen minutes later they stop and admire their unique creation.
26-year-old lightweight mixed martial artist Christian Inga jokes with his teammates about wishing he could participate in such a spectacle, but the parallels he draws between fighting and painting are completely serious.
“MMA is one of the purest forms of art,” he said. “You can see when someone fights angry or sad or nervous. That’s what art is: it’s full of emotion, it’s full of expression.”
Growing up in the Westchester County hamlet of Cortlandt Manor, Inga explored his identity through skateboarding, graffiti, reading comics, gardening, drawing, painting and architecture. But nothing stuck with him like fighting.
He was a rambunctious kid in high school, getting into fights for little more reason than having a surplus of energy. He needed to find a place for it all, and exchanging punches in the halls of Lakeland High seemed like the perfect vessel. There was never an attraction to violence. He began training in MMA at age 18. Once he learned how throw a proper punch, he never fought outside the gym again, at least not until his first amateur fight six years ago.
He lost, though not by knockout, submission or decision. Somehow, one of the walls of the cage detached from the canvas, fraying out at the bottom. As both fighters went to the ground, Inga’s hairline met with the exposed cage. He was rewarded with a loss and stitches for his troubles.
There was something else though, some intangible connection to fighting that he gained from the experience.
“It’s a part of me now,” he said. “I feel like I’m not complete without it. I can’t go a day without thinking about it. Without this release I feel like I’m being someone who I’m not. You put on this mask everyday to go to work, and then you gotta take it off and just be you sometimes.”
He speaks from experience. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in architecture from Florida A&M University School of Architecture, he decided fighting wasn’t for him anymore. He wanted to dedicate himself to art wholly and thought fighting would only distract him.
The decision lasted a couple months. Being away from the gym had the opposite effect of what he intended. He would sit, staring at a piece of paper before him, unable to draw anything. His creativity had disappeared. It was then he discovered to do one form of art, he needed another.
He exudes a wisdom that betrays his youth. Over four fights, he’s amassed a respectable collection of injuries: torn rotator cuff, torn meniscus, deviated septum and, of course, the striped scar above his forehead. None of these have been enough to stop him from fighting. Still, he’s adjusted his goals in the sport, fully conscious of brain trauma and its high likelihood in MMA.
One professional fight, that’s all he wants.
As a younger man, he would spar every single day. His memory began to falter from the repeated blows to the head, a telltale sign of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). He knew his career couldn’t last forever, so one professional fight became the final objective.
The study of CTE is still in its early stages, having only begun in 2009. There’s currently no way to identify CTE in living brains, meaning that research has been limited to the donated brains of people who have died in the past 8 years.
These brains have largely belonged to football players. Players in positions with more head to head contact have been found to have the most cases of CTE.
Head trauma has been identified as the leading cause of CTE. Despite the lack of research in other athletes, there’s no shortage of head trauma in MMA.
“No one rides the bus for free,” he said. “I want to have one pro fight just to do it. I put in so much work, so much blood, tears, everything. It’s only due fit.”
He walked into the Westchester County Center in White Plains last November for what would be his last amateur fight, win or lose, before going pro. It was familiar territory, so familiar that it was almost jarring to come out in fight gear instead of a cap and gown. His graduation from amateur MMA was the second graduation he’s had in the County Center, the first being his high school commencement. But there was more at stake than nostalgia. Fighting so close to his hometown, let alone his home state, for the first time was a way of honoring a deceased former coach that introduced him to his passion for the sport.
This coach was UFC fighter Josh Samman, a man who at one point in time was ranked the 23rd best middleweight in the entire world. He died unexpectedly in October 2016 from an overdose of cocaine, heroin and painkillers.
Even recalling Samman visibly filled Inga with inspiration. Remembering the way he fought and coached, always pushing, always persevering put a smile on his face.
“I’m no longer fighting just for myself, now I fight for him,” he said. “I still hear his voice yelling at me when I’m tired to get back up, to keep pushing. This is me giving him the fight that he deserves.”
Samman would always tell Inga how spectacular it is to fight in your hometown, that there’s no feeling like it. If the opportunity ever arose, he should jump on it.
The fight in White Plains “is my way of honoring him and seeing what he was talking about,” Inga said.
He hopes to bring what he learned from his last amateur bout to his one and only professional fight, a feat that would have been impossible in New York state less than two years ago.
In April 2016, New York became the last state to legalize professional MMA.
Plenty of arguments were made against legalization during a frenzy in the early years of MMA, the ‘90s. State senators and other politicians denounced the sport as barbaric and immoral, resulting in a law banning it in a professional setting in 1997. Sen. Roy Goodman spouted that it was “unbridled human cockfighting.” The craze of outrage even inspired a UFC rule still in place today, no 12-6 elbows, meaning that a fighter cannot drop an elbow on an opponent straight down without adding some arc. Videos of karate practitioners breaking bricks with this technique led many to believe it was far too dangerous. This misconception was just one of many that slowed MMA’s legalization.
In addition to concerns about violence, a slew of homophobic remarks were tossed around the assembly room during discussions on legalization. Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell can be quoted as saying “You had two nearly naked hot men rolling around on top of one another trying to dominate each other and just in case you don’t know, that’s gay porn with a different ending.” Assemblyman Matthew Titone, while supporting legalization, echoed the statement by saying “If I wanted to see half naked men fighting in a cage over a belt and purse, I’d go to Fire Island.”
These claims are widely criticized by fighters, state officials and fans as disingenuous in addition to being offensive. The UFC battled with Las Vegas-based culinary unions for several years over co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta’s non-unionized business operations in Nevada.
The push could only be held back for so long.
No training today. Nagging injuries are keeping 23-year-old Demetrios Plaza stuck at home, working out a ding in his car to the boom of Latin music.
Some might relish the notion of taking a day off from their nonstop work schedule.
But not Plaza.
“When I’m training or I’m at the gym I feel like I’m home. Being here, I feel like I hold myself back more. I’m more quiet, more shy, but when I’m over there I’m more open, I’m me.”
He had never really been exposed to MMA before wading into it. Never saw a fight on TV, didn’t know anyone who did it.
As a chubby teenager from Wappingers Falls, NY, an unremarkable village in Dutchess County named after a cascading creek, he dabbled in a few boxing “matches” with his cousin. There was no referee, no rounds and no ropes, just two boys with boxing gloves on the lawn of Plaza’s childhood home beating the life out of each other.
After receiving his fair share of beatings, Plaza decided to begin his training as a boxer at New York Martial Arts Gym (NYMAG) at 16 years old. There, he began to branch off into other martial arts like jiu jitsu. NYMAG was eventually replaced by Black Hole Jiu Jitsu, where he was taken under the wing of head coach Mike Wacker.
No longer a portly adolescent, Plaza radiates an incredible yet tempered hunger, eager to prove himself as a mixed martial artist to the world while retaining a timidness from his youth. At one moment, he’ll meekly apologize for his trouble with words, eyes cast down, explaining that English is his second language. The next, he’ll be pridefully expounding on his future as a fighter. Talking about fighting and actually doing it break him out of his shell.
“I want to be a legend,” he said. “I want people to watch me fight and see the pain that I carry, to see the emotions I put into the fight. I don’t do it to be cocky or to be a better person, I just want to find out if people went through what I went through and can withstand what I’m going to put them through.”
He was stifled growing up, always being told when he could and couldn’t talk by his stern father. This lack of freedom to express himself presented itself in school as well. Finally, MMA was the outlet for release.
For him, becoming a professional fighter in New York is equivalent to the alpha of a wolf pack defending its territory or a gladiator fighting for respect and glory. It’s about leading and representing the art of MMA in a fresh landscape for both fellow fighters and potential fans, spearheading the sport in his home state and establishing it as an honorable discipline.
There are other clear benefits to going pro, like cheaper travel expenses. Raising an eight-month-old baby girl named Natalie, Plaza will take what he can get when it comes to lessening his financial burden.
On top of training - what Plaza refers to as a second job that doesn’t pay for diapers and formula - he works as a personal care aid taking care of the elderly in their homes. His old job as a construction worker paid better and might seem more fitting for an aspiring fighter, but the hard labor made him too weary for both training and taking care of a baby.
His workweek is spread across three days: two 14 hour shifts and one 16 hour shift. He needs free days during the week to dedicate to training and time with his family.
If Plaza gave up training he would have more time and money. People don’t fully understand why he dedicates so much of himself to fighting. But he doesn’t seem to care. He maintains that becoming a professional fighter will allow him to take care of his family better than other jobs could.
“Sometimes I’ll think ‘I should’ve been working instead of training,’” he said. “Sometimes I waste money on things I need for training. Sometimes you want to just pull your hair out. People will never understand why you do the things you do. They won’t see the long term, they’ll see in that moment. But it’s going to pay off.”
The pay of professional MMA fighters varies depending on what organization they fight for, how long they’ve been with that organization, whether or not they are or have been a champion, how many total fights they’ve had and how popular they are.
Fighters with the UFC get paid through an automatic sponsorship with Reebok. Sponsorship pay is determined by how many fights a fighter has had with the organization and if they are or have been a champion. This can vary from a couple thousand dollars to tens of thousands. Fighters also receive undisclosed income from the UFC directly and can receive $50,000 bonuses for their performance.
For Plaza, it’s not all about the money. Representing his native land is the greatest opportunity fighting in New York can afford.
He was set to make his debut on Nov. 11 at Aggressive Combat 17 in the Westchester County Center in White Plains.
“I want to represent New York,” Plaza said. “In fighting, you want someone from where you’re from to be the baddest guy, so when they see ‘that’s a New Yorker,’ they think they know how to fight. I want people to feel like that when they see me or they have me as their champ.”
His journey to cultivate an interest in MMA once took him to a minor jiu jitsu tournament in Jersey. Somewhere in the midst of rolling, grabbing and intertwining with another person, his knee buckled. Following the bout, a friend carried him to a car where he proceeded to pile into the backseat for the trip home. Lying down and trying his best to stretch his leg out in the cramped interior, he eventually fell asleep. He awoke to find his leg locked up as a result of the awkward position it was in over the hours he slept.
Unaware of how much cartilage his knee still had, he took two years away from training. Some time and a cortisone injection later, he continuously has to fight through the injury. While it doesn’t plague him as it did years ago, he sometimes finds himself having to push through it, an act encouraged by his coaches.
This isn’t the injury that’s keeping him house ridden though. Three years ago, he received a swift heel to the calf while sparring. It immediately seized up. What was a weapon became a useless, hard bundle of muscle. The mangle of nerves firing off in his leg combined with his knee injury cast a looming shadow over his future as a martial artist.
These injuries have come back as recently as mid November. It took less than two weeks before he began feeling well enough to resume training.
Inga was hard pressed to find an MMA gym in the area at the start of his career eight years ago. His decision to attend college in Florida came with an extra benefit: There were actually places to train. He was able to hone his skills with the Blackzilians, once a home for high echelon fighters like Rashad Evans and Anthony Johnson.
By the time he came back to New York things had already begun to change. MMA gyms were slowly popping up one by one.
Now, there are over one hundred gyms in New York, many with branches in neighboring towns. Since its legalization, the viability of becoming a professional MMA fighter in NY has risen to pave way for a new wave of fighters.
It was a frigid night in White Plains. Walking into the Westchester County Center was warming in more than one way, especially when you’re seated with a Black Hole family grateful that you’re covering one of their fighters.
Inga’s teammates had all come out to support him and teammate Meylis Charyyev, two of the three men from Black Hole originally slated to fight that night.
Plaza had mixed emotions upon learning that his fight fell through on only a week’s notice. It didn’t help that his last opponent was the second to drop out. His original opponent dropped out once, came back, then dropped out again before he was replaced.
“When I first found out I was kind of upset, kind of angry,” Plaza said. “I wanted to fight on the same card that my teammates were fighting on. That was the goal.”
Plaza has already waited much longer for his first amateur fight than most fighters do, having trained six years before attempting to fight when most take no more than two.
“This is a hiccup,” he said. “Mentally I’m tough like this, so it’s fine.”
His next fight is scheduled for January 26 in Albany.
After seeing Charyyev win by TKO, Inga knew he wanted a finish of his own.
He started off aggressively as soon as the bell rang, applying nonstop pressure to opponent - Kenneth Rayside - with leg kicks and right hands. The crowd roared with everything that landed.
Inga studies his opponents closely, making sure to watch their last three fights and make a pros and cons list. He knew that once Rayside shot for a takedown, that meant he no longer truly wanted to fight and shifted focus to protecting himself.
About 30 seconds into the first round, Rayside shot. Inga sprawled. They made their way back to their feet. Inga continued to apply pressure until he was met with a series of three stinging right hands. He fired back with one of his own and dropped Rayside to the mat. Inga followed him down in an attempt to finish things off, but fell right into a trap. Rayside threw up an armbar. With Inga’s arm fully extended and his back on the mat, the fight looked seconds from being over.
In that moment, Inga understood what his former coach was talking about. He knew why fighting in your hometown was so special.
Inga’s father never supported his pursuit of fighting and never went to any of the fights. This one was different. At the very last minute, Inga learned that his father would be in attendance.
“Knowing that everyone around you is a loved one and this is the area you grew up in, it gives you a type of shield, an aura,” he said. “I felt like there was no way I could lose. I wasn’t tired, I was calm, I didn’t have a doubt in my mind. When the energy is your loved ones and people that know you, it’s like a bond.”
Inga used the motivation from the hometown crowd to escape his approaching defeat. He got to his stomach and gained side control before eventually taking Rayside’s back.
This would be the final position of the fight. Inga rained down punches until he received his first TKO victory at 2:27 of the first round.
Despite the excitement of the win, Inga doesn’t want to rush his professional debut. He wants a year to focus on his artwork and hone his skills. As for where he wants to fight, he would love to stay close enough to home to recreate the hometown audience magic while branching out to a larger stage.
If he gets his wish, the beginning and end of Christian Inga’s professional career will be seen under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.