Saturday, March 3, 2007

Local martial artists combine several fighting styles to train for 'ultimate' competition

Mike Russow stands, shaky and covered with sweat, as one by one, they come at him.

In seconds, he's on the ground, grappling with a man who outweighs him by 50 pounds. Veins pop on his neck as he strains, pushing his opponent up and off, then spinning over to pin him with his arms. But just as he's gained an advantage, a voice rings out from his left:

"New guy! New guy!"

Russow stands again, releasing his opponent, and gets ready as another hulking, sweat-drenched foe prepares to take him on. His legs are quaking, and his eyes are half-closed. And to an outside observer, he may seem ready to drop. But as his new assailant lunges toward him, Russow counters with surprising speed.

"You should see him when he's fresh," says one of his trainers, Armando Sanders, from off to the side. "He rolls through everyone."

* * * * *

Sanders would know. He's one of the founders of Team No Ego, a group of mixed martial arts enthusiasts who train everyone from beginners to professional fighters like Russow. They meet at Pinnacle Performance Wrestling in St. Charles, where they teach basic self-defense, wrestling moves, boxing strategies and takedowns.

And if a student is really good, they'll teach him how to fight like the guys on Pay-Per-View, competing in the Ultimate Fighting and Pride Fighting Championships.

For Sanders and Dennis Hughes, that's how it all started. The pair, along with Kane Henneke, started Team No Ego in Kendall County about a year ago, after falling in love with mixed martial arts through the Ultimate Fighting Championship, one of the most popular pay-per-view sporting events in the country.

What is mixed martial arts? Well, if you've ever asked yourself if a wrestler could beat a boxer in a fair fight, this is the sport for you. As the name implies, mixed martial arts combines skills from various disciplines, including judo, jujitsu, boxing, wrestling and tae kwon do. The athlete starts on his feet, but if his opponent finds a way to take him down, he'll have to grapple his way back up -- or it's over.

The UFC gained a reputation in its early years for brutality, but over time, it's become more structured and is now sanctioned by athletic commissions and marketed as a true sporting event. Now, it's on the way to eclipsing boxing as the country's most watched pay-per-view sport.

And it's one that requires intense dedication. A former Montgomery police officer, Hughes trained three times a week for a decade before retiring to devote himself to mixed martial arts full time. Now, in addition to Team No Ego, he works with United States Special Forces as a defensive tactics instructor.

Team No Ego has a deep law-enforcement connection. Sanders is a Montgomery police officer -- he met Hughes while on the job -- and they both say the majority of their students are also police officers. The training draws law-enforcement professionals because it goes beyond what they get at the police academy.

"If you're dealing with someone who's intoxicated, or high, they can't reason, and they don't feel pain," Hughes said. "The techniques they teach you at the academy don't work if they're high."

Montgomery has a small police department, Hughes said, and he would often find himself on his own, dealing with drunken drivers. The techniques he learned while training for mixed martial arts competitions helped him subdue suspects with minimal injury.

Aurora Police Department Sergeant Jeff Wiencek has been a client of Team No Ego for months now, training several times a week. Although the police officer looks like he's in top shape, he laughs when asked why he would need additional training.

"You think you're in shape until you come in here," he said.

Weincek, who has been with the APD for more than 13 years, believes it is his job to stay in the best shape he can. He appreciates the paradox that by training to fight, he's helping to avoid violence on the streets.

"If we don't stay in shape, then citizens and our co-workers can get hurt, and that's the last thing we want," he said.

* * * * *

It's Wiencek's turn to go up against Russow, and he's elected to start on the ground, grappling with him and trying to subdue him with his arms. Even though Russow has faced eight other men at this point, Wiencek can't get him to quit. Muscles strain and eyes bulge, but Russow just won't lie down.

It's the last day of intensive training for Russow before he heads to Las Vegas to compete in the Pride Fighting Championship. Unlike the UFC, Pride is based in Japan and holds competitions around the world. In five days, Russow will face the number 10 heavyweight fighter in the world, Russia's Sergei Kharitonov, in a 17-minute match.

Here's how it works: The two fighters face each other for three five-minute bouts, with one minute of rest in between. To get ready for this, Russow is taking on 15 opponents, for one minute each. The idea is that by the time he gets to his 15th opponent, he'll be worn out, but he'll be facing a fresh fighter, and he'll have to keep going.

Russow is a Chicago police officer, and one of the few professional fighters Team No Ego trains. He works on his moves six hours a day, every day -- he will go to his 90-minute boxing workout directly after this training session -- and it shows. As each new person takes him on, you can hear words of encouragement from all sides.

"Come on, give it everything," someone says. "You're not benefiting Russow by holding back."

* * * * *

The concept of Team No Ego is all in the name. Each person is there to help the others become the best they can be, Sanders said. There are no attitudes, and once the competition is over, there are no hard feelings.

"I help make you better, and you push me to make me better," Sanders explained. "At the end, we shake hands and say thanks for helping out."

The emphasis, Sanders said, is on safety, and on providing a good workout for everyone. Injuries do happen, but all steps are taken to prevent them: The training is intense, but not brutal. At any time, all a fighter has to do is tap his opponent to end a match.

It's a philosophy that allows for a more complete training regimen, Sanders said. Or, as he put it, "In this environment, I lose nothing by teaching you everything I know."

Russow did not win his fight: Kharitonov subdued him with an arm bar in less than four minutes. But Sanders said the team was preparing to file an appeal over an illegal move, and a referee's failure to halt the fight. Still, it was a learning experience for everyone, and Russow had already scheduled another appearance in a Pride fight.

"This is a complete workout," Hughes said. "It's not just boxing or wrestling. You will learn everything, and you will be sore from your eyebrows to your toenails. But if you see it on SpikeTV, you can come in and learn to do it."

Team No Ego meets at Pinnacle Performance Wrestling at 2015 Dean St. in St. Charles (630-779-9908) and at Hughes' house in Oswego (630-768-2191). For more information on classes, log onto


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