The packed ballroom at the Hilton Lac-Leamy in Gatineau, Que. was at its loudest around midnight, four hours into the 4½-hour fight card.
Of the 1,300 or so folks who paid $60-$125 for a ticket, it sounded like about 1,000 were on their feet booing.
They weren’t, of course. They were “Booooo-ts”-ing.
What’s it like, hearing that kind of support up there in the cage, a reporter twice the age of Mark “Boots” Holst asked.
“It’s never too late to find out, brother,” Holst said with a grin.
Robin Black is proof of that. Like the 25-year-old Holst, Black circled Friday, Jan. 28 — Wreck MMA’s Strong and Proud show in support of Canadian troops — as his final fight. Unlike Holst, Black took up the sport later in life. He was the 36-year-old lead singer in a glam rock band when he decided he wanted to go pro in MMA.
Moments before Holst convinced the jukin’ and jivin’ “Showtime” Wedderburn to tap out, Black’s career came to a quick and sudden halt. His record fell to 3-5 when he was forced to submit by Mike Reilly 57 seconds into the first round.
“I love MMA. It’s been like an incredible journey for me,” said Black, a Winnipeg native who had his first fight at age 39. “When I started, people just thought I was that crazy guy who wore makeup and sung in a rock band. And I got to fight eight times, in front of great people. Now I work for the Fight Network and Score Fighting Series, and I get to be involved in this sport.
“I’m 41 years old and I’m getting married in a year. My body is getting real tired ... I’m moving on before my body breaks down completely, and while I can walk away from it looking pretty. I wish I had won more than I lost, but I’m proud of what I’ve done.”
Just 13 months from its start-up, Wreck MMA supports causes and charities, as well as our soldiers.
“I challenge people to get educated about the sport, and to support it,” said president Nick Castiglia, who, now that MMA has been sanctioned in Ontario, has a card planned for Ottawa in September.
“You’ve got people who are trying to build athletes and help people at the same time. I want them to give us a chance.”
The crowd at the casino hotel Friday was tough.
There were the nicely fixed-up women in the lobby dropping more F-bombs than Robin Lehner in a TSN interview.
There were the guys near ringside chanting “Run Kalib Run”when former UFC fighter Kalib Starnes was being introduced before his bout with Matt MacGrath. Staring straight ahead at his opponent, Starnes nonchalantly responded by scratching the back of his head with his middle finger. After defeating McGrath, Starnes held his forefinger to his lips in a “shhh” gesture, while staring at the area where the taunts were coming from and repeating their “Run Kalib Run”-s.
But the fans did not get caught up in the action to the point where they engaged in fisticuffs themselves.
One gentlemen figured he totally caught a reporter checking out his date, but only nodded and laughed when their eyes met. (By the way, buddy, did you ever think that maybe I was looking to see if she was going to spill those two beers?) Others were too young to notice anything other than what was happening in the cage.
For his first pro fight, Rockland’s Marc Lefebvre had his wife Jaime and their four children watching. They could not have liked what they witnessed early on. Lefebrve was split open by a couple of good punches over the right eye from Chris St. Jean and didn’t stop bleeding for the rest of the first round. Lefebrve was cut again in the third, but he still wouldn’t stop. Ultimately, he was declared the winner on the judges’ scorecards.
“Freaking amazing,” the 35-year-old civil engineer said of the experience. Asked how he managed to continue on despite being dazed, he replied: “I’ve got four kids and a wife. I’d go through anything.
“This is my first fight,” he added. “I just want to keep going on, see how far it will take me.”
Also forging ahead after an initial setback was Jeff Harrison, who trains with Holst at the Ottawa Academy of Martial Arts.
Harrison was stunned early in the first round when he took a kick in the package from Jamie McLean. When the sickening feeling finally subsided and he was able to continue, Harrison defeated McLean with a rear naked choke hold in the first round.
The victory was a popular one near ringside, where the 29-year-old had his fiancee Tracy and her family and friends cheering loudly.
“I was confident, but there was a bit of doubt just because I had to go up a few weight classes,” said Harrison, who fought at 155 lbs. “It took a lot of guts to make that decision. But it was good. I pulled it out.”
Harrison moved to Ottawa from Cambridge about two years ago. He works as a Muay Thai coach at OAMA and loves life.
“I’ve been doing this sport every day for about 11 years now,” he said. “I just want to keep going. I’ve got a great job that allows me to train all day, teach all day. We’re all full-time employees and we all just do what we love all day. It’s amazing. It’s a world-class martial arts facility. I see myself getting a couple of more wins ... just go until my body fails.”
Where that will take him, he does not know.
“If you focus on the goal sometimes, you’re missing out on the journey,” said Harrison. “I’m just enjoying every second. Keeping my zen.”
Harrison dedicated Friday’s win to his teammate, Randy Turner, who is fighting in Afghanistan, and to his grandfather, a WWII veteran who passed away about five years ago. Then Harrison went to join his family and friends, and the loud cheering section for Holst.
“Yeah, it’s a good rush, but the hometown thing is a good thing and a bad thing sometimes,” said Boots. “Some fighters will say it’s a lot of pressure, and it’s good to have that hometown advantage. But ask my coach, I perform better away, I think. Because there’s less pressure. Sometimes the pressure can help you, but it can also kill you.
“The five days before the fight, it really sucks. The pressure, the training, the dieting ... it’s been 10 years that I’ve been competing. I’m happy to hang up the boots.”
Holst will compete in Brazilian Jujitsu and Muay Thai tournaments, and he plans to open an Ottawa gym with his coach and good friend, Pat Cooligan.
“I’ll live through my students,” Holst said about the future. “You can ask anybody what they’re going to be doing in two years, and they don’t know. I really don’t know if I’ll be back in it or not. What if I get a good student who can make it all the way? I’ll have to stay behind and be a trainer.”
One thing will get him back in the MMA cage, however, and that’s a rematch with Team Bushido’s Nabil “The Thrill” Khatib.
“There was a controversial decision, only in his mind. Ever since that fight he’s been talking smack,” Holst said of their last bout. “He says he doesn’t have a problem with me ... but he wasn’t really nice after the fight at all. I’ll fight him to shut it up, because of what he said about my mom.
“I’m down (for it to be) whenever, but he has to accept it. I don’t know if he will or not.”
There will be lot of both “booing” and “Boo-ts”-ing that night, to be sure.