For the seventh time since he entered mixed martial arts as a promoter, S. Marcello Foran hit the road for a 12-hour drive from Pondra Vedra Beach, Fla., to Washington D.C. on Wednesday. The ambitious 40-year-old CEO of Mid-Atlantic-based Ultimate Warrior Challenge says the journey to the city of his youth, a tradition for the self-described entrepreneur, marks one final break from the manic pace of putting an event together.
Focused on finding and building talent, Foran has made it UWC's mission to promote meaningful fights that feature mixed martial artists with a future. Mike Easton, 25, a survivor from the violent Anacostia neighborhood of D.C., is the best example of what Foran has in mind.
After winning seven of his eight fights, Easton -- the current UWC bantamweight champion has a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Lloyd Irvin -- is just beginning to realize the rewards of progress. A win on Saturday at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va., on the campus of George Mason University, against former WEC champion Chase Beebe could propel Easton into the top 10 of his division and the next phase of a career that may very well have begun the day he was born.
"I've been fighting since I was little," said the stout 135-pounder, who is a far cry from the frail 2-pound 3-ounce premature baby who managed to hang on at George Washington University Hospital. "My first opponent, I fought death."
Death has been a constant theme in Easton's life. He learned early what it's like to live while friends do not. He learned to cope with family being gunned down in cold blood. He learned, like many people in Murder Capital USA, that "growing up and surviving in D.C. is a testament" to resiliency.
Today, Easton fights so people might know that good things come out of southeastern D.C. He fights for his two young children. He believes in his team, his mentor Irvin -- one of the few well-known African-American trainers in MMA -- and himself.
Beebe, meanwhile, finds himself in a "situation where I can't afford to lose or I need to start thinking about another career." Having lost three in a row against tough competition, including Miguel Torres, who captured the WEC belt from Beebe (12-4) in February 2008, the former collegiate wrestler is clear about the consequences of falling short against Easton in a bout that headlines a card available for $14.95 over the Internet.
"If I'm not producing, I'm not winning. It brings into question whether it's worth it to me or not," said the 24-year-old from Chicago.
The bantamweights were originally scheduled to meet last February. However an apparent knee injury and a conflict with a bout in Japan put the fight on hold. Beebe was roundly criticized for looking as if he'd bailed on Easton and the fledgling UWC for a bigger payday to compete in Dream's featherweight tournament. Beebe hopes he can "redeem" himself in the eyes of the fans and the promoter this weekend.
"The whole situation cast a shadow over me ever since," Beebe said. "It's really eaten at me how I've been viewed in the MMA community because of it. It's really upsetting. I just want things to be cleared up after this fight. I want to go out and smash this guy so I can show everybody I wasn't trying to avoid him."
Not surprisingly, after winning twice more and earning the black belt from Irvin -- under whom Easton has trained since he was 16 -- the UWC champion considers the delay among his many blessings.
Veteran lightweight Antonio McKee certainly has the courage of his convictions.
He wants to win. He doesn't care if you find him boring. He won't use pain killers or mess with drugs. If you do, you're not training with him. He thinks mixed martial arts is too much WWE and not enough sport. It bothers him. He prefers winning to making money. He says African-American fighters like him don't get a fair shake from the top MMA promoters. And he intends to change that.
Stepping into the ring on Friday versus Carlo Prater near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, (HDNet 10 p.m. ET), the 39-year-old McKee, a product Long Beach, CA., brings with him one of the best records of any fighter not ranked in the top 10. At 22-3-2, the strong wrestler is approaching the end of his career having barely pocketed over six figures.
"I fight because I enjoy it," he said. "I'm not really into the fan base. I know a lot of that plays an important role in how you get paid in this sport."
That attitude is reason No. 1 why top talent evaluators in MMA have declined to give McKee his chance against many of the names in the sport. Maybe he can beat some of the better lightweights, said one matchmaker, but his smothering decision-laden style makes it unlikely McKee will get a shot against anyone.
McKee's promoter on Friday, MFC's Mark Pavelich, doesn't have an issue with a fighter boasting 18 decisions in 27 fights. "People calling it boring," he said of McKee's resume, which has gone unblemished since he lost on points to a young Karo Parisyan in 2003. "I see it as greatness. You can take most of the guys in the 155 division in the UFC, they won't beat McKee. Not a chance."
A promoter talking like one to be sure. Yet McKee is noteworthy, and not necessarily for his record. Turning around a life that saw him raised in a drug-infested home and on the streets, McKee six years ago created "Fight For Kids" to teach MMA and wrestling to inner city youth.
"I got no support for that," he said. "I do it all out of my pocket. I do it all on my own. I don't brag about it, I just do it because that's where I am from. If I would have had a program like this, I may not have gone to jail 17 times."
If his goal is lifting disenfranchised youth -- "The value of life there is really shallow," McKee said. "There are some places in Long Beach you'd think you were in hell." -- then finding new "bundles" of talent for mixed martial arts makes for a nice perk.
After wrestling as a kid, local gangsters incentivized McKee to enter tournaments. He figures that over the years 250 medals netted him $8,000 from one man in particular, money that he sent back after the guy was sentenced for 15-to-20 years for murder and selling drugs.
"The youth now, they have no problem killing your ass," McKee said.
Among his most important accomplishments, McKee lists as his finest bringing African-American and Mexican teens together on the mat. They can fight in the gym, he said, not in the street.
"I'll be 60 years old still talking this talk," he said. That's just 20 years away, McKee's detractors would say.
In the meantime, McKee will continue to take MMA as it comes. He was slated to defend the 155-pound MFC title on Friday. However, when Prater missed weight, the bout was relegated to a three-rounder.
A small sample of Twitter questions to @SI_JoshGross with accompanying responses:
MTFIII: Was the heavy promotion of the Nelson-Kimbo fight more lamentable, given the fact that the outcome was already determined?
I think it was. The UFC and Spike TV knew the outcome. They were well aware that Nelson would smother Kimbo and finish him meekly in the second round. Yet it was sold with tremendous hype, like something meaningful was accomplished many weeks ago when the pair met in Las Vegas. You have to wonder how Kimbo must have felt doing a ton of press to sell an uncompetitive performance. Of course, most media ate it up.
prozacpat: Do you think Kimbo Slice is the next Tank Abbott? A popular fighter with limited skills.
That's a pretty fair comparison even if Abbott did enjoy some success early in his UFC career and was a far better mixed martial artist than Slice will ever be. The question I have after Kimbo lost for a second time in a row in front of millions of people: How many more Kimbo fights will casual watchers tune in to see? Tank's longevity was a result of a name built upon early, brutal victories. In Slice's last two fights, he fell to a guy with pink hair and some dude sporting a giant belly. Not good for the menacing reputation Kimbo has been saddled with.
RVAfoodie: The UFC middleweights: Silva beats Belfort, easy. Hendo-Marquart need to settle No. 1 contender. What's the hold up?
Henderson doesn't have a contract with the UFC and negotiations have been slow to develop. Both sides remain far apart on money as well as some of the finer points of the deal. Still, I believe Henderson will return to the UFC to fight Marquardt. Dan isn't interested in going anywhere else.
raul3rd: Could you do a ranking of the top 10 MMA fighters of all time in your opinion and why (so far)?
I usually shy away from stuff like this but I'll give it a go:
10) Randy CouturePlenty of people would disagree with his inclusion. A record of 16-10 doesn't sit well. But every fight has been a tough one, and he's the ultimate competitor.
9) Chuck LiddellMMA's first crossover star in the U.S., and a pretty darn good light heavyweight.
8) Mark ColemanHis dominance marked a shift in eras. In his prime there may not have been a more vicious heavyweight.
7) Kazushi SakurabaImprovisation and artistry in the ring at its best.
6) Dan HendersonJust look at his record. He's held virtually every title you could want. And he's done it for over a decade.
5) Georges St. PierreNext-gen talent, focus, training. He could top this list eventually.
4) Antonio Rodrigo NogueiraChanged the perception of how heavyweights can fight. One of the toughest men in the sport.
3) Matt HughesThe dominant welterweight during MMA's first 15 years. GSP will pass him.
2) Anderson SilvaSo good he can look bored. He embarrasses excellent fighters.
1) Fedor EmelianenkoHe's the best fighter I've ever seen in MMA.