The cheers drone through Municipal Auditorium: "Luuuuuuuuuuuuuke. Luuuuuuuuuuuke."
It's Oct. 18, and Luke Sanders, 27, has just won his sixth professional mixed martial arts fight, a TKO over Tennessee MMA vet Zach "Thunderwood" Underwood at Xtreme Fighting Championships 26. Less than four minutes into the second round, Sanders mounted Underwood — sat on his chest — and punched him many, many times in the face and head until the ref, to prevent grievous bodily injury, stopped the fight. "No one's ever made Underwood look like that," one of the promotion's insiders says of the fight, in awe.
Filling the folding chairs that surround the ring, Sanders' friends and family chant his name like lisping, lowing cows. Guys are lucky to cadge 30 friends and family into buying tickets to their fights. Sanders sold 160. He takes more strikes to the head and back in congratulations on his walk to the lockers than he did in the match.
"You can't train somebody to get punched in the face," Sanders, who turned 28 in December, says over coffee at Edgehill Café. Most featherweights, those like Sanders that fight at 145 pounds, are lanky and lean. Sanders is built like a powerlifter. He's got short, well-muscled arms and a broad chest, and his shoulders strain the buttons of a brown-striped henley. His long, brown hair, cornrowed to his scalp when he fights, is pulled back in a loose topknot.
"If someone punches you in the face, what's your first reaction?" he says. Before he can answer his own question, someone distracts him. It's his daughter, 7, playing on his phone.
"What's your password again?" she asks.
"It's your birthday," he says, and types it in. Back to business.
"That's what a fighter is," he continues, as if he'd never paused. "Do you fight, or do you run the other way?"
But to those that know Sanders, there's more to him than just a beast let loose in an eight-sided cage. Jamie Bryant, owner of HOTBOX Fitness Nashville in the Gulch, hired Sanders as a kickboxing instructor in late 2012 but had been acquainted with him for years before.
"If you look at Luke, it's really hard to see a fighter," Bryant says. "He's a dad, he's an instructor, he's a trainer, he's a friend, and he happens to put all that together and win fights."
He's always been a fighter, Sanders says: wrestling since second grade, karate lessons, football and hockey in high school. At 17, he wrestled his way to a D-I state championship for Montgomery Central in Cunningham while covertly boxing "toughman"-style competitions, lying about his age to promoters and never telling his school. He went 11-0.
As a wrestling state champ, Sanders had colleges interested in him, but he wasn't interested in college. "I didn't want to wrestle and go to school," he says. Then he amends, "Well, I wanted to wrestle, but I didn't want to go to school.
"I knew that's what I wanted to do; I just didn't know how to do it."
Around this time, Spike TV, the male-centric cable station that emerged from what was once The Nashville Network, picked up a reality show called The Ultimate Fighter. Bankrolled by the nearly bankrupt Ultimate Fighting Championship, the show's premise was basically MTV's The Real World with a twist: strangers in a house finding out what happens when people stop being polite and start punching each other in the face.
It was a gamble, and it worked. Fighter ignited interest in the newly reorganized sport, making it one of the fastest growing sports in the world. In 2012, it raked in $500 million in pay-per-view sales alone. For amateur fighters, it raised new possibilities. It certainly beat what Sanders was doing in 2006: working in HVAC and plumbing.
"I didn't want to be the person who's like, 'I can do what he does. I can beat him up,'" he says. "I wanted to try to beat him up. That's when I walked into the gym."
It's been a long process for Sanders to transition from a former wrestler/amateur boxer/kickboxing instructor to the all-encompassing discipline of mixed martial arts. Lance Patrick, a striking coach who trains Sanders and others at Nashville MMA near Berry Hill, says he's watched his star bloom from "athletic, but not very good" to a fighter with the potential to challenge the best in the world.
"Everybody has weaknesses," Patrick says. "He's turned a lot of those weaknesses into strong areas."
Where once Sanders couldn't wait to tackle someone, leaning on his wrestling background, Patrick says Sanders now loves to "stand up" and trade blows. To compensate for his lack of reach, he stays "dancing outside [and] blasting inside with a full head of steam."
"At first I felt more comfortable going to the ground," Sanders says. "Now, it don't matter."
In four of his six fights, Sanders has KO'd or TKO'd his opponent, meaning that in four of his six fights, he has won by the "ground-and-pound" — the tackle-and-punch method used on Underwood in October. But the only reason he's beaten his opponents on the ground, he says, is "because they didn't want to stand up and get punched no more."
Each fight has been building his exposure. On Jan. 7, Sanders signed a multi-fight deal with Resurrection Fight Alliance. What makes RFA unique is that in its two-year existence, nine of its fighters went on to sign deals with the Ultimate Fighting Championship — seven last year alone, and one already in 2014. No other organization could be more aptly described as a pipeline to the Big Show. "Once he's in [RFA], other people will be looking from higher up," Patrick says.
"The clock is ticking for me," Sanders says. "I'm only 28, but I don't want to be a 36-year-old man getting beat up by a 22-year-old. I don't want to be that guy. I want to see how far I can get with it, and take it as far as I can go. I want to dedicate some time in my life right now before it's too late and then there's no 'last hurrah,' and if there is, it's a joke."
Dedication means leaving Nashville — if not for good, then at least part time. After several short trips out west to The MMA Lab, a world-renowned gym in Glendale, Ariz., to prepare for fights, Sanders plans to now spend a month or two at a time. It's not going to be easy for someone as closely tied in the community, but he says that if he wants to take his fighting to the next level, he needs professional-level coaching and a professional-level training partner.
"You need people that are going to beat you up and black your eyes and bust your nose and slam you," he says. "I don't get slammed here anymore. I don't get black eyes anymore."
Sanders will fight his first RFA bout early in the spring, his agent says, though the date has not yet been released. In the meantime, Sanders says he's packing his car to drive west for his first months as a signed fighter.
Want to make Sanders blush? Call him "vicious" and he thanks you with an effusiveness normally reserved for graduations. Which, with his RFA contract, Sanders finally has.
It's past 5 p.m. now on a Saturday and Edgehill Café is closing. His daughter, next to him, asks when they'll be leaving.
"Soon, baby," Luke Sanders says. Then, in explanation: "It's all her after this."
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