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Outside the chain-link, cage-fighting's champion

  • Author: adn_jomalley
  • Updated: April 28, 2016
  • Published March 22, 2010

[img_assist|nid=150821|title=THE PROMOTER:|desc=Sarah Johnston, who owns Alaska Fighting Championship, quit her job in real estate to do AFC full time. (MARC LESTER / Anchorage Daily News)|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=233]

Josh Clark, a bulky, red-haired fighter from Fairbanks, paced the cage in Sullivan Arena like a pit bull waiting for dinner. Jesse Cruz, an Anchorage fighter, swaggered in through a puff of fake smoke. A rosary tattoo circled his neck. It was near 9 p.m. on a recent Wednesday. They went to their corners.

Air horn! Round 1.

Cruz and Clark breathed spittle around their mouth guards. Fists connected with flesh. A kick. Cruz doubled over. Cup shot.

"Aaaoooooowww!" the audience sympathized in unison.

Time out, said the ref.

I sat cage-side. To my right, a writer for a national fighting magazine tucked a fat pinch of tobacco in his lip. I looked at the faces around the chain-link ring. Dude. Dude. Dude.

And then there was Sarah Johnston.

Johnston stood near the opening to the cage, eyes glued on Cruz, her blonde pony-tail streaked with hot pink. A little bit of tattoo showed from the sleeve of her right arm. She sipped a Red Bull.

Johnston, a 27-year-old single mother and former mortgage broker from Wasilla, took over the Alaska Fighting Championship three years ago. As a woman, she's an unlikely cage-fighting entrepreneur, but she has grown AFC from a family hobby to a full-time, profitable business that's drawing national and international attention as well as thousands of local fans. Fighting hooked Johnston about the time she was old enough to crawl on her dad's lap in front of cable television, she told me later. There was something visceral about it, shocking and addictive all at once.

"Kind of like a train wreck," she said.

Now that train-wreck kind of fascination pays her bills.

Cage-fighting or mixed martial arts, a hybrid of boxing, wrestling and martial arts, is a new, popular sport with a bloody reputation. Anchorage fights, about once a month, draw as many as 5,500 fans to the Sullivan Arena. By comparison, Thursday night boxing, which has been going on in Anchorage for 20 years, draws 1,200 to 1,500 fans weekly in the winter time to the Egan Center. Cage-fight fans tend to be younger than boxing fans, promoters say, part of a generation that grew up playing Street Fighter on Nintendo.

Bob Haag, an AFC judge who has been promoting boxing in the state for decades, sat with me near the cage for a while at the Sullivan, waiting for the fights to start. Johnston's tickets sales impressed him. Cagefighting, he said, is one of the fighting world's hottest trends.

"When (cage fighting) came on the scene," he said, " I felt like John McCain."

Johnston and I met for coffee a few days after I saw her at the Sullivan. Her days consist of driving around in her Ford F-150, dealing with fighters, posters, ads, and radio appearances. She quit her job in real estate to do AFC full time because doing it and her regular job was overwhelming, she said.

"I definitely had some bawling sessions, worried I couldn't put food on the table," she said.

Now she makes less than she did in the mortgage business, but enough to get by and support her daughter, Audrey, who is 9. The success of her business has also grown the fight purse, paying winning fighters as much as a couple thousand dollars a fight, a lot more than they would make boxing. Her best investment, she told me, was re-branding AFC. She hired a designer to create a sleeker logo, and pulled together an advertising plan that includes everything from television ads to a Twitter feed.

"All it is is selling," she told me.

Johnston has ambition. She wants a wider audience. Newcomers are usually surprised by how entertaining cage fights are, she said. She likes to tell the story of a 50-year-old secretary at her mortgage office she convinced to come to a fight. That night a fighter's arm "snapped like a tree branch," she said. That kind of thing doesn't usually happen, and it's gnarly to watch, but the secretary didn't leave. And she kept coming back.

Some fans want to see skill and the martial arts moves. Some of them are looking for gore. That, Johnston told me, isn't what she wants the show to be about, even though there's frequently a sterilizing blood "mop-up" between matches. Six medics staff every fight, she said.

"This isn't human cock-fighting, it's a regulated sport," she told me.

Johnston sometimes brings Audrey to the fights, she told me. The 9-year-old competes nationally in gymnastics. She's into the technical stuff, Johnston said. Ask her the difference between a triangle choke--when a neck gets squeezed between thighs-- and rear-naked choke-- a choke executed from behind--and she'll have no trouble explaining.

Johnston also wants buzz. She sold footage of the fights to a global cable company. Scenes from Sullivan Arena play in 55 countries, from France to Iraq. "Knocked-Out Sports World," bought footage, which will be on Spike TV this summer. Anchorage fighters were featured recently on a cable sports show. Johnston visits a half-dozen Southcentral gyms, watching fighters and deciding who in each weight classes should fight. Those decisions don't make her popular with everyone. She's had her angry phone calls and uncomfortable run-ins.

"I used to take it very personally, but it doesn't bother me anymore," she said.

Nic "Naptime" Herron-Webb, a fighter named for a chokehold that left his opponent unconscious, told me she earns respect at gyms because she's professional and organized. Fighters like that more people are showing up to watch them.

"The fan base has grown tremendously these past couple years," he said.

I didn't really get what was fascinating about the fights until Cruz and Clark's third round at the Sullivan. By then, blood trickled from Clark's drooping left eye. Once crisp jabs seemed droopy. Seconds remained. In a burst of energy, they went at it, pummeling until the bell rang. The fight went to the judges. Cruz took it. He scaled the cage like Spiderman and gave the audience a murderous grin.

I couldn't take my eyes off him.