The Gladiator 

Ultimate fighter Ed Clay is an expert at repeatedly slamming a man's head into the floor—Or otherwise breaking down whoever decides to take him on.

Ultimate fighter Ed Clay is an expert at repeatedly slamming a man's head into the floor—Or otherwise breaking down whoever decides to take him on.

Ed Clay and I are watching an old video of one of his fights, still waiting for his overmatched opponent to land his first punch. So far, he's thrown two, both of which flailed like sputtering balloons. In stark contrast, Clay has fired off dozens of punches, nearly all of them taking a direct and unobstructed trip to the poor guy's head. Just 20 minutes before this fight, Clay had been guzzling beer and gobbling chicken nachos when the promoter asked him to fill in for another fighter who didn't show.

The video shows a small crowd gathering at a Clarksville gym to watch an independent, minor league version of Ultimate Fighting, a loosely regulated sport run out of Las Vegas in which skilled contestants can employ a range of fighting styles to defeat their opponents. Unlike boxing or karate, Ultimate Fighting contests allow hitting a man while he's down. And that's exactly what Clay is doing to his nominal opponent, using his legs to wrap him in a brutal jujitsu move that strangles his body facedown on the mat, providing Clay with ample opportunities to pound both sides of his foe's head with his thin boxing gloves.

I make the mistake of asking Clay why the other fighter can do little more than blink his eyes. So he gives me an up-close and a little too personal glimpse of this punishing jujitsu move. In a second or two, my head is pressed down on his tan living room carpet. Before I could say, "What the...?"—and I can assure you I eventually completed the sentence—he had wrapped his legs inside mine and had both of his hands pressed down on the top of my shoulder blades. At the time, all I could think was that this is what it must be liked to be paralyzed. I felt no pain, but I couldn't move.

Fortunately, Clay didn't punch me in the head. That's what he continued to do, however, on video to his hapless foe, who escaped Clay only to be snared once more and again subjected to the same ravaging routine. Had Clay been in fighting shape—and not downing beer and nachos—he would have finished off his opponent much sooner. Instead, it took a round or two before the man caved, signaling defeat to the referee by tapping the mat with his hand. In these kinds of fights, there's no shame in giving up.

A graduate of Overton High School, where he was one of Tennessee's top wrestlers, Clay is probably the best mixed martial artist in Nashville, if not the state. While legal problems have temporarily sidetracked his career, Clay hopes to one day compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championships, where winning payouts can top $250,000. Only 22, Clay also trains dozens of fighters in boxing, wrestling and the martial art jujitsu to compete in no-holds-barred fights across the country. He also owns Clay Enterprises, which rakes in $300,000 in annual revenues and includes a popular gym, a line of fighting gear and apparel and a clothing line that reflects the hard-edged attitude of his chosen sport. He wants to retire before he's 30, have a family and watch his children play baseball. Clay may be on his way to becoming one of the best mixed martial artists in the country—if he ever chooses between fighting and the business of fighting.

"If he wants to fight at the top level, he can do it," says Ft. Lauderdale's Jeff Monson, who has competed professionally in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. "He has a good stand-up game, has a strong wrestling background and is very well-rounded. He's not one dimensional, and that will help him in the UFC."

After a prolific wrestling career at Overton, where he was also the vice president of his senior class, Clay went to Cumberland University on a wrestling scholarship, became sick with mononucleosis and, after returning to competition too soon, dropped out of school altogether. When he was still in his teens, he bought a line of fight equipment after taking out a $5,000 business loan. He later purchased a fight magazine. A born entrepreneur, Clay bought a car at an auction for a little over $100 when he was just 13. After fooling around with it for a few days, he turned around and sold it for over $500. Clay had little luck, however, with his new magazine. It went bust, but not before it gave him a chance to cover fights across the country, where he was introduced to ecstasy and other drugs.

Three years ago, he was convicted on a drug charge, appealed it and lost. He'd rather not relive the specifics of what happened. "I was 19 years old, I had a fight magazine, I was working all the time, there were women and stars, I was doing drugs and, boom, I got into trouble," he says. "I'm glad I went through it. It's part of who I am."

As part of his punishment, Clay recently finished a short stint in the Rutherford County Jail, where he read the Bible, wrote in his journal and pondered a career in politics. He plans to speak to children about his struggles and would also like to see reform that would make incarceration more productive. "Jail is just a stupid place," he says. "You're in a tiny little cell all day with no good books and no chance to grow. There are kids in there who have done one hit of X and are doing three years. It disgusted me being there and seeing how everyone there had no chance. I was the only person in jail who had a chance."

For the last two years, and with these legal distractions, Clay has trained, fought professionally, coached, fallen in and out of love, bought his gym at 100 Oaks and developed his businesses, all of which are on the verge of thriving. In fact, Clay has just recruited a major investor—Shane Messer, the 29-year-old boy wonder who was formerly the global IT director for Aladdin Industries. Messer recently garnered national media attention for inventing an international online hunt for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. "I think he's sitting on a $1.5 million company without a doubt," Messer says of Clay's jujitsu clothing label, gym and mixed martial arts school. "He's sitting on a gold mine."

Of course, few people think Clay can have it all. Does he want to expand his popular fighting line and mass market it as a rival to the popular "No Fear" clothing line? Or would he prefer to run the top mixed martial arts gyms in the nation, training dozens of fighters for the Ultimate Fighting Championships? Or does Clay, a welterweight, aspire to be one of those fighters himself, commanding six-figure awards for competing before thousands of raucous fans? No matter what he does, Clay will likely spend the next 10 years of his life in the realm of Ultimate Fighting, where, one way or another, he'll be involved in the toughest professional sport in the world.

Ultimate Fighting is actually a brand name. The generic term for fights in which contestants can choose their fighting style is mixed martial arts. The sport of mixed martial arts can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks, who started this vicious blend of boxing and wrestling. According to an engaging thesis on the history of the sport by Donald Walter, a student at Hampden-Sydney College and a fighter himself, the sport, known as pankration, had only two rules: no biting and no eye gouging, although the Spartans, not known for their effete temperament, didn't include those restrictions. Bouts, which could last for days, wouldn't end until an opponent raised his hand or was beaten unconscious. There were deaths, and sometimes neither fighter emerged from the ring alive. Around the time of the rise of the Roman empire, pankration dimmed in popularity in favor of sports like wrestling and boxing in the West and martial arts in the East. It wouldn't experience another resurgence for 2,000 years.

Then, in 1993, a group of promoters launched the Ultimate Fighting Championships, a one-night tournament designed in part to determine which fighting style could kick the most ass—not to put too fine a point on it. And the phrase "no holds barred" was hardly a marketing gimmick. At the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship, there were no weight classes or required safety gear. Inside octagonal cages, fighters waged several bouts in one night and, because of the lack of weight classes, there were some David-vs.-Goliath mismatches, including a fight that pitted a 415-pound Hawaiian sumo wrestler against a 216-pound French kickboxer. Surprisingly, Royce Gracie, a 170-pound Brazilian fighter, now revered as the Babe Ruth of the sport, dominated the early contests because of his mastery of Brazilian jujitsu, which his family pioneered nearly 100 years earlier.

With roots in Japan and Europe, Brazilian jujitsu is a street-smart style of fighting that includes a variety of intricate grappling moves that can subdue an opponent—no matter his size—in a matter of seconds. After Gracie's ascension to the top ranks of the fledgling sport, fighters across the country learned jujitsu. Today, it's the building block of mixed martial arts. While fighters can be successful without mastering karate, judo or kickboxing, they couldn't make it out of the first round of any Ultimate Fight-style contest without knowing jujitsu.

As Walter's treatise on Ultimate Fighting details, the sport ebbed after a wildly popular start not long after U.S. Sen. John McCain lobbied to take it off pay-per-view because of concerns over its unabashed brutality. A pariah in the Ultimate Fighting community, McCain forced the sport to go underground—where it reinvented itself as a somewhat more sanitized style of fighting. A Las Vegas casino company purchased the rights to the Ultimate Fighting brand and introduced five weight classes and 31 rules. Like boxing, bouts can now end with a judges' decision. With fights at casinos and Indian reservations, the sport is back on pay-per-view and, unlike the equally notorious Tough Man competitions, Ultimate Fighting or mixed martial arts style contests feature some of the best-conditioned athletes in professional sports. They will, given the opportunity, ruthlessly pin a man to the ground, pound him in the head and wait for him to submit. Rules or not, this ain't golf.

Few Ultimate Fighters, though, seem brutal outside the ring. Many of them are soft spoken, humble, collegial, even ruminative. They eschew violence—at least the unorganized kind—noting, when queried, that they walk away from barroom challenges to their manhood. They know they have nothing to prove. Still, most admit to being scared before a real bout. "I fight because I'm scared shitless to fight," says Jeremy Neese, who trains under Clay. "I just like making myself do these kinds of things."

"We spend our whole lives creating safe zones," says Patrick Henry, a professional motivational speaker, evoking the Fight Club themes of the sport. "Really, the only way to learn is to put yourself in situations where you're afraid to go up against someone and you do it anyway."

Having reached the pinnacle of the sport after competing professionally in three Ultimate Fighting Championships, Jeff Monson is well versed in the ups and downs of his chosen profession. A rolling boulder of a man at 5-foot-9 and 240 pounds, Monson has a master's degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota and plans to earn another advanced degree in political science. For now, though, the former Big Ten collegiate wrestler, who has trained with Clay, is content to fight against some of the toughest guys in the world, even though he doesn't really seem to be able to explain why he does it. "If you're losing a fight and you can't respond, it's the worst feeling in the world," says Monson, who has gone 1-2 so far in his Ultimate Fighting career. "It's not like wrestling, where you can kind of suck it up and the worst thing that can happen to you is that you get pinned. Here, there's nothing to save you. Nothing prevents him from kicking you in the face. If you're not on your game, you just know you're going to get hurt. And that's not a very good feeling. You're getting beat up, and there's nothing you can do."

Clay has yet to lose a professional fight or have anything other than his hair ruffled in the ring, although he knows one day he will. For someone who has wrestled, boxed and studied jujitsu, Ultimate Fighting was sort of a logical progression. "I like the idea of seeing if you're the baddest guy," he says. "It's a cool thing that I can take on 99.99 percent of the world. Every guy likes to know that they can defend themselves. I've just taken it to the next level."

Ultimate fighters love to train in groups, sparring, shouting, exchanging tips and basking in the realization that there are at least a few others who share the same bizarre passion. It's a Tuesday evening, and 10 or so of Clay's fighters—of various shapes and sizes—have gathered at his gym. They start with 15 minutes of wrestling drills, followed by circuit training. Chad, one of Clay's lightweight fighters, has an upcoming fight in Indiana, so Clay sends a series of rested (and bigger) fighters to spar with him. Friendly and humble in the company of a reporter, Clay takes on a stern, unrelenting demeanor as he paces around his fighters. Determined and quiet, Chad is struggling and clearly tired after taking on one after another fighter.

"If I have only an hour to train these guys, really that's all the time I need," says Clay, taking a momentary break from his command post. "I give them hell."

Chad's punches don't seem formidable, but his kicks snap suddenly and powerfully and seem to be heard before they're seen. They strike below the knee. Chad's picked the right sport. As a boxer he might not make it that far, but as an Ultimate Fighter or mixed martial artist he has potential. He learned the sport from a few coaches in California, where Clay says he picked up some bad habits. He's won more than 10 fights, but has also lost about that many.

"Chad fights so much; he'll fight on two weeks' notice," Clay says disapprovingly. "I don't really agree with that."

Chad is now on the ground, vomiting into a trash can. An errant punch hit him in the ribs. No one makes a big deal about it. "Are you hurt, or are you injured?" his sparring partner asks him, as if he were inquiring as to his astrology sign. "I'm hurt," Chad replies matter-of-factly, although he appears to be a lot of both.

Unable to fight anymore, Chad quietly heads home, not once complaining about the punch that sent him puking or trying to solicit sympathy. The other fighters pat him on the back and wish him well. Ten days later, he goes down hard in his fight in Indiana and decides to take a few weeks off. No one at the gym doubts that Clay will make him—and each of them—better fighters.

"The training you get here is as good as any you can get in the world," says Sean Pulizzano, a Metro police officer who views his training and fighting as a hobby. "This is just as tough, if not tougher, than any gym in the world," echoes fighter Josh Schockman.

For new fighters who have a background in wrestling or boxing, Clay makes sure they begin with at least six months of jujitsu. New pupils also learn Muay Thai kickboxing—which includes kicks below the knee—and Western style boxing, which is prized for its footwork and is also the way most Ultimate Fighters begin their match. Clay's students also learn wrestling, which is often used to take down a superior boxer before submitting him to a series of jujitsu moves. And he throws in exercises to build inner strength too.

"Ed will mentally break you down in the ring," says Ray Casias, another fighter who trains under Clay.

Despite his young age and youthful demeanor, Clay has earned a reputation nationwide in fighting circles as a talented competitor, coach, manager and promoter. Fighters across the country visit his gym to train under him or just have him take a look at their fighting techniques.

"He puts a lot into his fighters," says "Gumby" Alan Marques, who runs the Web site, onthemat.com. "He's coached and managed some pretty well known fighters and is a veteran of the sport despite his young age. He's probably more well known as a businessman and as a coach than as a fighter."

But Marques insists that's only because of where Clay's interests currently lie. "There's a difference between the level where's he's fighting now and the guys who are fighting in Vegas," he says. "I think he has the talent to do that. The talent and the brain are definitely there."

Clay doesn't look like a brutal fighter. He's always smiling and, with a fighting weight under 170 pounds, he could pass for a country club tennis player were it not for the tattoos on his biceps. He's also not reluctant to talk about his toughest foe, in or out of the ring. Women.

"You associate fighting with being tough and strong, but a woman will bring you down to your knees," he says, clearly from experience. "Women are a big danger to fighters."

Inside the ring, Clay has more control, where he fights patiently, deliberately, even thoughtfully. He seems to calibrate his punches and kicks and never wastes energy. He turns even his missteps into opportunities. In his second professional fight, Clay missed a high kick to his opponent's head, but still managed to land both his legs around the guy's neck and shoulder. Clay took him down to the mat and nearly strangled him with another advanced jujitsu move. The opponent quickly submitted.

"You put me in the ring against Oscar de la Hoya in a mixed martial arts fight and I'm going to kick his ass," Clay says.

With everyone telling him he'll need to commit to fighting full-time if he ever wants to ascend to the top level of his sport, Clay seems content to wait, develop his businesses, build his gym and get his life back on track. But there's no secret about his true passion. "Nothing beats winning a fight; it's an adrenalin rush. The whole reason why you train is for that moment. The moment when they give up."

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