Mixed martial arts was born as a seedy sport on the fringes of society. The matches were short, loud and brutal, fights for those who found boxing too tame. Over the years, it’s grown into a mainstream spectacle that now draws millions of viewers on television.
The sport blends techniques from jujitsu, kickboxing, karate, taekwondo, judo and wrestling. Certain moves, like eye gouging and shots to the crotch, are generally not allowed. Across America, kids squabbling in their backyards now dream of making it to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, just as playground basketball players picture themselves in the N.B.A.
But far from the bright lights of professional matches, shadow fighting circuits have sprung up around the country, in small towns like Kingston, Wash., and big cities like New York. It’s like the early days of boxing, but with more kicks to the face.
“It’s amazing that guys will get beat up for free,” Christos Piliafas, a top fighter in Michigan, said. “They just love to fight.”
In Michigan, the bouts take place in nightclubs, community centers and casinos. Most are unregulated, with few safety requirements to speak of. In April, a 35-year-old died after losing a fight in Port Huron.
The crude violence and underground feel of cage fighting draw lusty cheers across the state. These are not carefully negotiated bouts between millionaires trailing personal nutritionists and publicists. Inside the cage at Streeters, unknown Michigan men — factory workers, fathers, soldiers and convicts — become the Wolverine, the Bloodbath, the Spider Monkey and the Nightmare.
“You build a brotherhood,” said Justin Martinson, a fighter and former Marine. “It’s the closest thing to combat.”
When Rowan entered the cage for the first time, he felt electric. Part of it was the cocaine — he was high, as he was for most of his fights. But he also loved the atmosphere: the chain link walls, the heavy metal music, the screaming fans.
Rowan could take a punch, but he was out of shape and showed little promise. “He was a horrible fighter,” said Piliafas, who competes professionally. “He just showed up and would fight. He was a great first fight for someone.”
Rowan kept his brown hair cut close and wore a thin mustache. He had a tattoo of a viking on his left shoulder, the Grim Reaper on his right; Jesus’ face on his right leg; and MOM on his left wrist. His newest tattoo was a gothic D inside a diamond, the logo for DiPonio’s mixed martial arts team. To Rowan, the Diamond D fighters were family, even if they didn’t know what to make of him.
“It’s amazing that guys will get beat up for free,” a top fighter in Michigan said. “They just love to fight.”
Rowan had struggled to find meaningful work since dropping out of school before 10th grade. He spent time in telemarketing and pipeline installation. He even worked on the carnival circuit assembling rides. He fathered three children with three women, but he drifted from all of them.
Rowan’s real family admired his passion for the cage. “I thought maybe it would be good for him,” his mother, Lynn Gardner, said. “He seemed to like it, and I thought finally he found something and can take out his aggression. Maybe it could help him turn his life around.”
Rowan was from Gladwin, a city of 3,000 that’s barely a blip amid Central Michigan’s endless wheat, corn and soybean farms. His story was pieced together from more than 50 interviews with relatives, local fighters and Michigan law enforcement officials, as well as from police reports, court records and family letters.
Gladwin families hunt on weekends, and the town’s quiet roads include Deer, Elk and Antler Streets. It takes five minutes to drive across town, from McDonald’s to the west to Shopko to the east. Jobs are hard to come by. Slouching houses with plywood-covered windows are as common as stop signs.
In some ways, Rowan had been preparing for the cage his whole life. His father, also named Charles, had beaten him and his brother ever since they were little.
“His dad would put him on the floor and stomp him in the head,” his mother said. “When he couldn’t take it out on Chuckie, he would take it out on me.”
Home was cigarettes, beer, and the blare of a television over his parents’ constant arguments. The family moved around Michigan as Rowan’s father picked up and lost factory jobs. For a while, the family gathered soda bottles for spare change.
“I thought about leaving a lot,” his mother said. “But I was never confident enough in myself and my abilities.”
Rowan’s father died of cancer in 2001. “He told Chuck that he would rather it was him” — his son — “that was dying,” she said.
Even as a kid, Rowan was always in trouble. He stole from neighbors and relatives — “guns, dumb things, work tools, money,” Scott Gardner, his stepfather, said.
In the years after his father’s death, Rowan was arrested on charges of marijuana distribution and failure to pay child support. He was charged with criminal sexual misconduct as a teenager and failure to register as a sex offender in 2007. Those records are sealed under state law. Rowan spent most of 2012 in jail on check fraud charges.
During those years, he used cocaine and did some work for drug dealers, but he kept that a secret from his family.
Through mutual acquaintances, he met Michael A. Gomez, a convict with drug and weapons charges dating back at least 20 years. The sheriff’s office knew Gomez had ties to the Latin Kings and the Mexican Mafia Gang.
While Rowan was ferrying drugs in Three Rivers in 2010, before he began cage fighting, he claimed to have lost Gomez’s shipment, maybe worth as much as $80,000. As Rowan told it, a group of thieves jumped him, cracked his ribs and stole the drugs.
Now, Rowan owed money to impatient people. He tried to lie low, but in January, a group of men beat him up behind Shopko, leaving him with two black eyes, broken ribs and blood on his baseball cap, he told friends at the time.
Rowan was desperate. Then, while he was watching TV at his girlfriend’s house, a show caught his attention. It was on the Investigation Discovery channel, something about a guy who staged his own death so he could start his life anew.