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Love packs a punch

Two Southland fighters share their passion for mixed martial arts -- and for each other.

January 15, 2007|Scott Gold | : Times Staff Writer

AT a gym tucked away on a grungy block above Sunset Boulevard, 18 heavy punching bags swing slowly from a rack of steel girders, like carcasses on butcher hooks.

A barefoot man with a soft face begins to stalk one of the bags, breaking the silence with two jabs and a thunderous kick. Soon, he is joined by a lanky woman with black, spiky hair and her mother's name, Rhea, tattooed in Gothic script on her left wrist.

They turn on each other, striking with fists, feet, knees and elbows. Her breath quickens. "Suck it up," he tells her. She kicks him, hard, on his neck. "That's better," he says. Then she leans in and gives him a tender kiss.

Here, in the bosom of one of America's most violent sports, love is blossoming.

Toby "Tiger Heart" Grear, 27, and "Roxy Balboa" Richardson, 29, are part of a growing wave of people who are once again stepping off the apocryphal bus in Hollywood to find their fame. Unlike their predecessors, they are not here to act, or to dance, or to sing. They are here to fight.

The sport of mixed martial arts -- known to many of its fans as ultimate fighting -- has leapt into the central tide of American pop culture. With its ascendance has come a network of fight clubs and training centers, many of them in Southern California.

One new entry can be found under a parking garage adorned with a peeling portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Legends Mixed Martial Arts Training Center, which opened in August, is billed as a "university" where aspiring fighters can learn all of the necessary crafts under one roof -- the footwork of boxing, the "science of eight limbs" (two feet, two knees, two elbows, two fists) of Thai-style kickboxing, the submission tactics of Brazilian jujitsu.

Many of the gym's 300 members -- accountants and actors, even a golfer looking for more distance off the tee -- are among the legions in Los Angeles who are looking merely for a workout. But 50 of them, give or take, are looking for more.

They have come from Ohio, from Tennessee, from Sweden, and they are here to learn from professionals and, in a sense, to get discovered -- to attract the attention of managers and trainers who can land them real fights.

Theirs is a new, Spartan existence, draped on the fringes of an emerging sport and far removed from the glitz of the sport's upper echelon. It is embodied by Toby and Roxy: an inseparable couple, college-educated, articulate and ripped with muscles.

Five blocks from their small apartment, they help manage the gym and train its members. Inside, they swap tips: Keep your pivot ankle at a 90-degree angle to gain more velocity on a kick; use nasal spray to constrict the passages of the nose, thereby preventing nosebleeds if you get hit in the face. They trade gym shorts, except for the lucky pair that Toby hasn't washed in two years. They nurture each other: Roxy gives him books on nutrition to wean him from fast food; he gives her books by the self-help writer Dale Carnegie.

And they train together, whaling on each other to prepare for their next fight, hoping to escape the minor leagues of their sport -- "waiting," Toby said one recent afternoon, "for someone to find us."

His Midwestern roots

He is from Lima, Ohio, a Rust Belt town named for the city in Peru -- because Peru sent over the medicine used to treat malaria during the pioneer days -- but pronounced like the bean.

He was the second of three boys, all red-headed, all built like sycamore trees. In Lima, a boy who doesn't play sports in his spare time has to get a job, so, naturally, the brothers became fanatical athletes. At his Catholic high school, Toby ran track, competed on the swim team and, his senior year, was captain of the football team, which held Mass before every game, with players in full pads and uniform.

In the winter of 2000, midway through the University of Dayton, he yearned for a new sport. He flipped through the yellow pages, landing in the M's -- in "Martial Arts."

He enrolled in a small martial arts academy in northwest Ohio. It was a clarifying event, so much so that he remembers the color of the shorts his first mentor was wearing the day they met: blue. By the end of the year, his trainers put him in his first tournament. It was at a local union hall, a "roughman tournament."

"I was 150 pounds. Skinny, skinny, skinny," Toby, now all the way up to 160, said one recent morning. "I fought a guy who ate steroids for breakfast."

In the second round, Toby faked two jabs and then spun in a circle, catching his opponent on the side of the head with the back of his fist.

"I put him on his ass," Toby said. "I started whaling on him. He didn't come out for the third round."

Amateur fights soon gave way to small purses and, last year, he turned pro in mixed martial arts.

"I had told everybody I could never do it, that it was too brutal," Toby said. "Then I tried it. And everything changed. It was so open. You could do anything. I could see the future."

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