Friday, March 23, 2007

The Other Side of the Ropes

By Sarah Aswell

As Jay Hieron and Donnie Liles circle each other at an IFL bout in Los Angeles, exchanging blows, I try to focus on their faces. Although I know that the punches hurt, it is a different kind of hurt on their faces – a sort of disappointment in themselves for not bobbing out of the way, not keeping their hands up.

The physical pain seems like an annoyance, an accepted fact of their art, their job. More simply put, they have the expressions of fighters.

I look across the ring and past the fighters to Hieron’s wife, Maira. My collective memory of fighter wives, pieced together from old boxing movies, has led me to believe that she should be wringing her hands, or not looking, or maybe crying. But she’s not.

She has a look of concentration and deep involvement. When her husband – a welterweight fighter for the L.A. Anacondas – gets hit, she shows maybe just a tinge of annoyance. She’s sure he knows better. It’s a very similar expression, I realize, to the one that Jay is wearing a few yards away.

From the opening bell, Hieron is the aggressor, suffocating the Razorclaws’ Donnie Liles with takedowns and punches. He tries for a choke. When Liles escapes, Hieron immediately continues pummeling him.

It’s a good night so far, but Maira has seen enough of these to know that it only takes a second for everything to go wrong. She’s seen it before, when Hieron was TKO’d by Georges St. Pierre back in 2004.

“It was devastating,” she says when I catch up with her later, her voice dropping as she thinks back to that night. “It was a reality check.”

Tonight, however, the Anacondas fighter looks to be in total control.

Hieron finishes the fight in the third minute of the first round, submitting Liles with a guillotine choke. His hand is raised and Maira’s face relaxes into a smile.

It’s only after the fights that I get to talk with her. I want to know: what is it like to see the person you love most in the world get in the ring with someone so intent on hurting him? What goes through your mind?

“I love it,” she says. “It’s all of his training and education and hard work paying off. It’s mixed emotions, but it’s a good feeling to see him displaying his skills.”

Maira met Jay before he became involved in mixed marital arts. Initially, she admits, the transition was rough.

“At first I thought he was crazy,” Maira says. “But he was so dedicated. He’s not a half-stepper, and when he says he’s going to do something, he’ll do it.”

Maira credits the sport with helping Jay out of rough times. They both see it as his calling. Oddly, she’s not as worried about the physical harm that might come to her husband – it’s something else that’s on her mind.

“I do get scared. I worry that he won’t be able to show everyone what he’s about. That he’s an amazing fighter who is improving all the time.”

Emilie Stout, the fiancĂ©e of the new Anacondas’ head coach Shawn Tompkins, as well as the sister to MMA fighter Sam Stout, says she has similar feelings about watching the men closest to her compete in the ring.

“When someone hits them, it’s personal,” she says. “You’re getting hit too. And you’re not just concerned that they’re physically well – you want to know that they’re okay mentally, and have control in the fight.”

Just like their respective men in the ring, the women can be rocked. Maira gets that, sincere, reverent look again when she discusses her husband’s loss to St. Pierre. It was difficult to watch, she says, but after a moment she reverts to the strong fighter’s mentality.

“It comes with the territory,” she says. “He took the fight at the last minute, and he wasn’t ready. He’s evolved since then.”

Really, the only other time that the women are rattled is when they can’t attend a fight, as if watching the reality of it is better than imagining the scenarios.

“I hate missing fights,” Emilie says. “The anxiety is really bad. You can only wait for the phone to ring. You want to be there, no matter what.”

Both women credit their passion for fighting – and their ability to watch even when their significant others take hits – on their growing knowledge of the sport itself. Just like any MMA fan, the more you know about the sport, the more you understand the art (and even the safety) involved with it.

“I’m [at the gym] everyday, training and watching them train,” Emilie Stout explains.

“When fighting becomes part of your life, you become educated, and then you can enjoy it.” Hieron agrees. “When he first started fighting, I was scared. But then I learned that it’s not just two guys knocking each other out. It’s an art.”

We’ve come a long way from the fighter wives of the past, who gasp and faint and shield their children’s eyes. Maira Hieron and Emilie Stout may be representative examples of a new era of fighter wives: they’re more interested in the art than in the drama, more interested in training than in doting.

They’re more interested in why their spouses got hit than what it feels like. They’re interested in the win, in having their husbands leave the ring happy and safe and fulfilled.

The pain is temporary, for the fighters and for their wives. The pain is part of the sport, and it is too be loved and feared at the same time. The pain is how they know it’s all working. The pain is nothing.

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