With his shaggy blond hair and laid-back demeanor, Eddie Dahlen looks like he'd be more at home on a board—be it skate, surf or snow.
But it's Dahlen's perichondrial hematomas that give him away. Like many wrestlers, boxers and martial artists, Dahlen's cauliflower ears are the most visible clue he's a fighter; that is, until he gets in the cage and goes to work in a sport that mixes a furious frenzy of fighting techniques.
Inside the 24-square-foot chain-link octagon ring at Braveheart Gym in Gresham, Dahlen practices for an upcoming bout, the third on his way to becoming a professional fighter. On his feet, the 25-year-old carries himself with surprising confidence, considering his true skills are as a wrestler and boxing is relatively new to him.
But when his sparring partner leaves Dahlen enough room to go in for a takedown, the chiseled 145-pound featherweight strikes like a cobra, and if you blink your eyes, you're likely to miss the action.
Dahlen is one among dozens of local fighters trading punches, kicks and choke holds in the global phenomenon known as mixed martial arts, or MMA. MMA was popularized by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, the often-maligned event that debuted in Denver in 1993. Promoting no-holds-barred fight competitions broadcast on pay-per-view television, UFC had few rules and no weight classes. The bouts, which frequently pitted 180-pound jujitsu fighters against 250-pound kickboxers, were often bloody spectacles. Tough-guy Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) once called them "human cockfighting."
Despite growing popularity among fans, such mounting political pressure led to UFC events being dropped by all major cable TV companies, essentially forcing the sport underground. Then in 2001, under new ownership, UFC made a push to become more legitimate, with rules and weight classes.
In 2004, Oregon joined the list of 26 states sanctioning amateur and professional MMA competition, the official sport of UFC. Although they only have authority to regulate professional matches, Oregon regulators, like their counterparts in Nevada and New Jersey, say they keep a close eye on all MMA activity.
This legitimacy in Oregon and elsewhere opened the floodgates for a sporting phenomenon. The Ultimate Fighter quickly became one of the highest-rated shows on Spike TV, and monthly UFC events on pay-per-view pulled in millions of dollars. In six years, UFC has become the leading promoter of MMA, branching out globally, moving to HBO and getting reported on by ESPN. In 2006, gross revenue from UFC pay-per-view events alone exceeded $200 million, already surpassing Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Enterprises. Not bad for a sport that 10 years ago was banned in the United States.
Brad Darcy, who heads the Oregon Boxing Commission, says there is some sort of MMA bout nearly every week somewhere in the state. And why not?
UFC Hall of Famer and current heavyweight champ Randy Couture trained out of Gresham's Team Quest gym, putting Oregon on the map when he debuted at UFC 10 years ago. Team Quest's fame grew when it was featured on The Ultimate Fighter. The Full Contact Fighting Federation—one of the nation's biggest promoters of amateur MMA competitions—is run by Matt Lindland, the world's top-ranked middleweight. He also coaches the Wolfpack, the Portland franchise of the International Fight League, a league of 12 mixed martial arts teams.
While the 43-year-old Couture is one of MMA's best-known fighters, and Lindland has also proven himself with 19 wins and 4 losses, there are other Oregon fighters worth watching. Local fighters like Chris Leben, Nathan Quarry and Ed Herman are making names for themselves.
Dahlen hopes to join them.
Dahlen started wrestling 13 years ago, when he was 12, at the Peninsula Park Wrestling Club in North Portland, under coach Roy Pitman. He wrestled at Evergreen High School in Vancouver, where he had a record of 121 wins and 6 losses, eventually taking the state championship for his weight class. He placed second in the Pac 10 tournament during his senior year at Portland State University, which competes in the conference for that sport.
Despite his accomplishments, Dahlen was frustrated with his college wrestling career and, at 5 feet 4 inches and 145 pounds, saw little future for himself in pro wrestling.
"I wasn't able to do what I knew I was able to do," says Dahlen of his college wrestling. "There were a lot of regrets I thought I was going to have to live with. But MMA gives me a second chance to live up to the potential I feel I have."
Earlier this year, Dahlen, who works part time at a coffee shop and teaches kids jujitsu, joined Braveheart Gym. He just wanted to get back into shape and had no plans ever to compete again as a wrestler, let alone a mixed martial artist. But Braveheart co-owner Pat White saw potential and asked him if he would be interested in joining the gym's team, which includes 10 amateurs and one pro fighter, Brian Stromberg.
Standing a full foot taller than Dahlen and outweighing him by nearly 100 pounds, Stromberg is a 35-year-old former Arena Football League player. Ten years ago, before rules and regulation, it was possible to see fighters like Dahlen and Stromberg actually square off. Now, the closest thing you'll ever see to such a match is the two practicing grappling moves during a grueling three-hour training session at Braveheart's new facility on Southeast Powell Boulevard, where the scent of fresh paint is still stronger than the smell of sweat.
Next month, Braveheart will showcase some of its fighters, including Dahlen, at the Elite Warriors Championship Breakout on June 2 at the Expo Center. Home-grown amateur competitions like Main Event and Sportfight's Rumble at the Roseland earn an estimated $2 million in ticket sales annually.
But for fighters like Dahlen, who don't get paid until they turn pro, the money isn't as important as proving themselves in the ring.
With his eyes on a professional career in MMA, Dahlen loves the competition, the frenzied energy of the crowd, and pushing himself to the limit. Eventually, Dahlen, along with an entire generation of new fighters, wants a shot at UFC, the pinnacle of MMA competition.
"I want to dance at the big show," he says.