Life on the Local MMA Circuit Isn't as Big as the UFC but It's Just as Real

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Life on the Local MMA Circuit Isn't as Big as the UFC but It's Just as Real
Luke Zachrich (photo courtesy of OHMMA.com)

It was a rain soaked night in Columbus, Ohio but the parking lot at the Aladdin Shrine Center on the east side of town was filled with cars.

Typically this particular venue is host to such exciting fare as the camera collector's society annual sale and auction as well as the local doll club and bear sale. On that particular Friday, however, the main hall in the Shrine Center had a cage in the center of the room, surrounded by folding chairs and a few tables.

The food and beverage area looked like a picnic set up with baskets of food along the sides of the walls with a single beer vendor pumping out suds per cup to each customer. A lone ticket vendor welcomed the guests as they gained admission or paid cash that was held in a single lock box by the entrance.

Inside the cage, amateur fighter Donny Korbel picked up a win in an amateur bout at Ultimate Victory Challenge 23. When local shock jock Jeremy Loper came in the cage to give him his post fight speech, Korbel was so excited he thanked all of his friends and family that came out to see him, as well as a special thank you to his girlfriend—who also happened to be the ring card girl that night.

It really is a close knit group for fighters, promoters and fans on the local circuit in the mixed martial arts community.

For every UFC show that takes place in a huge arena with over 15,000 fans in attendance, there are dozens of locally owned promotions that put on shows in states all over the country. These are the places where your favorite fighter probably got his or her first win. These are the places where no television cameras are found, and the only photographers are from the local paper if there are any at all. 

These are the places where MMA is born and bred.

It's easy to turn on the TV Saturday night and watch high-level mixed martial artists clash at the grandest level, but just like every other professional sport, those competitors had to start somewhere. 

In the Midwest, shows like Ultimate Victory Challenge are where fighters get the chance to battle inside the cage for the first time, or maybe the last time depending on which direction their career happens to be going.

For instance, 41-year-old Marc Cofer, who is a school teacher by day, picks up a decision victory and, after the fight is over, admits that while MMA is a pretty good hobby, it might be time to hang up the gloves.

The opening bout on the card features 30-year-old Jeremy Karshner, who was making his professional debut after spending several fights working with the UVC as an amateur. With four kids and a wife at home plus a full-time job that fills his days, Karshner is doing MMA for one reason and one reason only—because he loves it.

He can only train when he has free time and between his job and family those moments are at a minimum. Karshner's trainers come in early and stay late to help him get ready for his first fight, and walking into the cage, he's confident that he's done everything possible to walk away victorious.

Nine minutes and 50 seconds later, Karshner's heart was broken.

With time winding down in the second round, Karshner got caught in an armbar from his opponent, Matt Anderson, and had no choice but to tap out from the maneuver. When the local radio DJ came back in the cage to interview Anderson, the sullen look on Karshner's eyes was unmistakable. 

This was the look of defeat and sadness, and he didn't have to be in the UFC to feel that way.  Karshner was now 0-1 as a professional mixed martial artist, and the pain was every bit as real to him as the greatest champion who just lost a title.

"He did a ton of work on his own and did a ton of work with us," Luke Zachrich, who trains Karshner, told Bleacher Report after the event. "He really, really worked hard and he was 110 percent confident he was going to win this fight, I was 110 percent confident he was going to win this fight. The guys put in the work and it's no different than training to fight in the UFC."

Zachrich owns a gym in the area called Ronin Training Center, and looking at the bouts on the UVC lineup, one thing is very evident—a lot of the fighters on the card are students of Zachrich. As a matter of fact, of the six professional fights on the card that night, five of them featured Zachrich's students.

A former Ultimate Fighter competitor during Season 7 of the reality show, Zachrich has spent a lot of his time lately focusing on the young fighters he's bringing up in the gym while also managing to become a successful business owner with two flourishing restaurants in the area.

Following a serious back injury that saw him lose his only fight in Bellator three years ago, Zachrich has eased himself back into fighting with just a couple of bouts in the last 12 months. With his gym now up and running, Zachrich was giving his own MMA career one more run to see where he could end up.

Fighting on the local circuit is a great way to get back into things, but it's no simple task competing on a show like this in his backyard either. See, fighters that compete locally are not only tasked with showing up and competing, many times they are responsible for making sure the seats are filled with fans.

"There's so much that goes into fighting locally. When I started out it wasn't that big of a deal because promoters don't expect too much of you, but when you get to the point where you're headlining local shows they want you to be able to sell tickets for them," Zachrich stated. "I've got a huge fanbase around Ohio and Indiana, so I'll have hundreds of people come in and watch me every time I fight so that's a ton of pressure that it puts on me for the tickets to sell."

Zachrich working at his gym (photo courtesy of Ronin Training Center)

On this show, Zachrich was the headlining fight, but just because he was the main event didn't mean he was waiting for the pomp and circumstance of walking out to the cage as the last fighter of the evening. In fact, Zachrich routinely popped out of the back to run cage side to check on his fighters who were competing ahead of him to see how they were doing.

Even with his hands half-wrapped for his bout later that night against Marcus Finch, Zachrich couldn't resist running out to the front to watch the action and to see how his fighters were doing in their own bouts.

Finally it was his time to enter the cage, and as Zachrich walked down the aisle with Nirvana's "Lake of Fire" blaring throughout the room, the capacity crowd stood up and cheered on their local hero.

Zachrich dominated the fight winning every minute of every round and walked away with a unanimous decision victory. The real emotional moment came after the fight, however.

With his wife and nine-month-old daughter in the cage, Zachrich broke down talking about the rigors of being away from his family while he trained so hard to make sure he came away with the win. He couldn't be sure if his fight that night would be his last, so Zachrich thanked everyone for all of the support. With tears streaming down his face, he exited the cage and was greeted by his mother and father waiting at the bottom of the stairs for him.

"Leading up to this fight I had some doubts about where I was going to go in my future. It just kind of came out, it wasn't scripted it just kind of came out and I spoke from the heart," Zachrich said. "I had no idea what I was going to do. I was honest. I had a chance to speak in front of my family, friends and fans, and everybody knows where I stand in terms of my future in the sport."

Throughout his career, Zachrich has fought in front of much larger crowds. He was coached by former UFC light heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin and a host of UFC regulars when he was on the Ultimate Fighter in 2008. This moment, however, was completely raw, real and full of emotion because Zachrich knew it could be the last time he ever set foot in the cage.

Following the fight, Zachrich says he's not sure if his career has come to an end. His dream is to fight in the UFC, and with a 12-2 record, he's certainly got the credentials to back up his desire. Whether that happens remains to be seen.

His fight in the UVC was more than 5,000 miles away from the city in Brazil where the UFC will hold its next card, but with a much smaller crowd and a lot less fanfare, Zachrich's speech was just as emotionally charged as anything that will be said this weekend.

The local MMA show isn't as big or glamorous as the UFC, but it's just as real.

Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained first hand unless otherwise noted.

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Lead Blogger

Damon Martin
Damon Martin

Damon Martin is a veteran MMA journalist having covered the sport professionally since 2004 as the lead writer and reporter for MMAWeekly.com. He has also been a published author at Yahoo! Sports, Sports Illustrated, Fight Magazine and UFC.com
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