Neither of the men look like fighters, aside from the cauliflower ear.
Tyler Hufnagle, 25, of Middlebury stands at 6-foot-6 with a mop of blond hair that bounces as he dances around to music playing in the arena of the Century Center in South Bend. He wears a goofy old Tazmanian Devil cartoon T-shirt and seems genuinely relaxed, unlike the fighters around him clad in designer jeans and layered with intimidating tattoos.
Around 30 fighters and their coaches and doctors are spread around a stark concrete room. Some are anxious for the fights to begin, hitting training pads or smacking themselves in the face with their gloves. One fighter reads his Bible.
Hufnagle and his 22-year-old teammate, Ricky Miller, are among the calmest. Their ease makes it hard to tell they are about to step into a brutal cage fight. The scheduled mixed martial arts (MMA) fight card is running about 30 minutes late. The fight cannot begin until the EMTs arrive to sit by the caged ring with a stretcher, just in case the worst happens.
Once the EMTs arrive the members of Bulldog Fighting — the team from Hufnagle and Miller’s home gym, Midwest Martial Arts — huddle up with their coach.They have had a physical exam and blood work done by an on-site doctor. They need to be checked for HIV and hepatitis because fighters are expected to swap blood in the cage. Officials have checked their hand wraps and taped them in place, signing them to show they don’t contain anything illegal.
The fights begin, and Hufnagle and Miller watch their teammates go before them. One goes down, face-first. When the doctors try to help him up, dazed, he appears to think he’s still fighting, suddenly lashing out at his helpers. Another fighter gets kicked in the liver seven seconds into the fight and goes down hard. The doctor follows him out to tell his family how to care for his hemorrhaging organ.
When it’s time to fight, Hufnagle makes his way over to his teammates. They circle up and as the announcer bellows his fight name, “Spider Monkey,” from outside the locker room. They all move as one, like a pack walking him to the cage surrounding the fight ring. There is no more laughing. Only the bright lights and primal chanting from the crowd “HUFF,” “HUFF,” “HUFF,” and then the bell goes off.
Hufnagle and Miller are both amateur MMA fighters competing in the Michiana Fight League, one of several hundred fighting circuits around the country.
Saturday, Aug. 2, was one of the last fights for them before turning “professional.” Turning pro mostly means that they can throw elbows and knees into their opponents’ faces amid the mixed use of boxing, muay thai, jiu jitsu and wrestling.
Turning pro also means the stakes are higher, but then again, so is the payout. Instead of making $50 a fight as they do now, they could take home $400 per fight. Considering they both average three fights a year and this is their full-time job, the increase in pay isn’t much to be excited about. However, for Hufnagle and Miller turning pro means that they will be able to start marketing themselves, competing at a higher level and improving their chances of being picked up by the UFC circuit.
For both men, the choice to fight was no choice at all.
Hufnagle, a 2007 graduate of Northridge High School, was the class clown. Few people in his hometown of Middlebury knew it, but Hufnagle was always chomping at the bit of a potential fight. For years, he longed to get into a physical fight with someone. Only his mother knew of this desire. Hufnagle speculates it may have had to do with his father passing away when he was 7, but more than anything his unruly and quick temper was to blame.
“I don’t know if it was because I had anger issues or what,” said Hufnagle.
He played any sport he could in high school — soccer, basketball, baseball and track were regularly apart of his schedule. After “trying” college for a few years he eventually decided to pursue MMA with full-time training. Hufnagle, like most of the fighters at the Midwest Martial Arts Studio, wants to work his way up to UFC fights. Turning pro sometime in January will be the next rung up the ladder.
For Miller, a 2010 graduate of Plymouth High School, fighting was not at all where he imagined himself. Throughout high school he was part of the wrestling team. One day a friend invited him to a warehouse in Plymouth where MMA fighters were practicing. Miller, then 17, was a self-proclaimed pacifist and didn’t know what to expect. Five years later, he teaches martial arts classes there, commuting 45 minutes from his home in Plymouth.
“I fell in love,” said Miller, smiling through a clenched jaw. He ground his teeth between sentences, unable to shake hunger from his mind. He had to keep his weight at or below 170 (about 20 pounds lighter than he typically weighs), for the Aug. 2 fight. In the week leading up to fights Miller spends his extra time wrapped in a plastic suit sitting in a sauna, hoping to sweat out extra pounds.
When he isn’t teaching classes or conditioning, he is working on a degree in personal training through online classes.
Both men live at home with their parents due to the extensive training and lack of financial stability that MMA fighting brings. They train more than 30 hours a week with cardio, heavy weight lifting and martial arts classes in the hopes of one day competing against the best fighters in the world.
Hufnagle and Miller watched each one of their teammates strip down to bare chests and wrestling shorts, have vaseline smeared on their eyebrows and cheeks to help prevent their skin from breaking open with each blow. They were the last two amateur fights of the night and both had swelling support.
As he walked to the cage, the announcer called Miller’s fight name, “Mr. Snuggles.” He earned the name by losing a bet but has made it work to his advantage anyway. Just imagine losing to someone named Mr. Snuggles.
His mother sat in the front row, bellowing louder than anyone else in the arena.
“I hear my mom screaming every single fight,” said Miller on Thursday before the fight. “She is the loudest person in the place yelling, ‘Hit him in the face.’” Saturday was no exception.
The fight was quick and Miller held his advantage. He took out his opponent in one round with a choke hold, but not before his eyebrow was split open. His opponent tapped out, and for one glorious moment Mr. Snuggles’ bloody face was alive with his signature demonic grin as he celebrated his win.
“Ricky fought a smart fight,” said Todd Brown, his coach at Midwest Martial Arts.
Next up was Hufnagle, the last one on the amateur card. It was easy to see why. As the lanky young man approached the cage, a huge section of the crowd suddenly came to their feet and started chanting. The Spider Monkey has fans.
In the days before each fight Hufnagle pores over videos of his opponent, learning and absorbing his fighting style. The night before a fight he lies in bed running every possible scenario through his mind of how the fight could go. When he gets to the fight the next day, he paces around the mat during his warm up and runs his thank you speech through his head, imagining his hand being thrown up in victory by the referee.
Hufnagle fought three long rounds with the crowd on his side, bringing his large cheering section to their feet as he seemed to engineer one impossible escape after another. Hufnagle had never lost any of his eight previous fights. But this fight was difficult, exhausting even. His opponent kept forcing him to a wrestling position on the floor. This is Hufnagle’s weakness. He is a strong fighter but not a wrestler, Brown says.
Between the second and third rounds, Brown tried to keep him in it, shouting to be heard over the thunderous echoes from the crowd.
“Next time you are down on the ground you have to be on top,” says Brown, half yelling to Hufnagle, who sits on a stool, a trainer applying ice to his back.
Easier said than done.
The fans stayed with him and tried to cheer him to a win. After the final bell, Hufnagle paced around the cage, awaiting the verdict from the judges. A unanimous decision handed the Spider Monkey his first loss. His head dropped for a second, then he hugged his opponent — a common gesture amongst MMA fighters. Both Hufnagle and Miller say that they are friendly with former opponents and will regularly go get a beer after beating on each other in the cage.
“You can train, and train, and train, but as soon as you get in the ring everything is completely different because it is just you,” says Hufnagle. “Yeah, you have your coaches around you, yelling stuff in … you can plan but you don’t know what is going to be thrown until you are there.”
“He needed to keep the fight standing,” Brown said later. His opponent, William Vincent, was able to target a weakness and combine his skill as a wrestler for a perfect storm.
Although the support behind both fighters was massive, the question remains whether they are good enough to make it to the UFC and make their dreams a reality.
“I have had them both since they were pups,” said Brown, leaning back in his office chair with vintage boxing gloves and dusty awards scattering the shelf behind him. A former UFC fighter himself, Brown trains Hufnagle and Miller to be world champions. He also refuses to push them to be professional until he feels that they can both hold their own in world-class fights.
“Tyler is and will be the best 205-pounder I have ever had,” says Brown. “Of all of the guys I have ever trained, he has the most potential. He is mean and nasty when it comes to fighting.”
He explains that Hufnagle is the same build as some of the best fighters in the world. However, build without technique won’t get him far. He goes onto say that while Miller isn’t as athletic he is usually a better student, making him a more technical fighter.
When the two move to professional fights in January little will change with how they are trained, according to Brown. But for both it will be a defining time that will show whether they can make the cut.
“I would rather die in a cage than do anything else,” says Miller.