Much of mankind is driven to push itself to the breaking point — some through marathons and triathlons, others through mountain climbing or conquering other obstacles Mother Nature puts in their path.
For some, the ultimate challenge is hand-to-hand combat against their fellow man, and the ever-growing sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) is peerless in that pursuit.
Blending all brands of pugilism such as wrestling, boxing, jiu-jitsu and karate, and staged in an octagonal cage 25 feet in diameter, MMA owes much of its success to the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, which created a unified set of rules for all MMA governing bodies, and to organizations such as the Atlantic City-based Asylum Fight League.
Founded by South Jersey product and former U.S. National Kickboxing Champion Carl Mascarenhas, Asylum Fight League provides a forum for amateur MMA fighters to test the waters for a possible future in the professional ranks.
An estimated 40 former Asylum protégés turned pro in the 118 events staged in the tri-state area since the league formed in April 2008. No town has held more Asylum events than Atlantic City, and Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort's Xanadu Theater will again play host to Asylum Fight League 48 starting 8 p.m. Saturday, April 11. All fights on the card are scheduled for three rounds at three minutes apiece. Fights are decided by a three-judge scoring panel if they go the distance, or can end suddenly by knockout, forcing an opponent to tap out by submission, or by the referee intervening if a fighter is deemed unable to defend himself.
"There's a lot of leagues out there that kind of just throw opponents together, but we do a lot of research on matching opponents so it almost always results in a full card of evenly matched fights," Mascarenhas says. "People like to see that. Even if we have two opponents who are not high-level fighters, if they're in a battle with someone whose skill level is equal it makes for a dynamic show."
A 10-bout under card of less-experienced fighters will precede a three-bout main event, highlighted by a super-welterweight (147 to 154 pounds) fight between hometown hero Cesar Balmaceda and Juan Galarza. A former Atlantic City High School wrestling standout who tallied a 36-4 senior-season record in 2013, Balmaceda, age 20, has a 4-1 amateur MMA record and is coming off a Feb. 14 unanimous-decision win over Brandon Perez. Galarza, age 23, is 5-1 with his last fight being a win by submission over Robert Oleynick in November.
"You'll see a couple of fights with fighters making their MMA debuts, and then we'll have the studs like Cesar and Juan Galarza — two guys who are absolute animals," Mascarenhas says. "Seeing just that one fight would make this whole show worthwhile.
"Juan is tough as nails. He's got a great ground game and his submissions are impeccable, but he also likes to stand up and bang. They're both good fighters and it's likely to go the distance. If it doesn't go the distance, though, it's because somebody made a mistake."
MMA only began skyrocketing in popularity within the last 20 years or so, which would put it in its infancy compared to boxing. It also tends to draw a younger demographic. Where the two sports also differ is that a loss in boxing, particularly to an opponent one was favored to defeat, could take a fighter completely out of contention for any future title hopes. It does not work that way in MMA, as a single loss is usually just a glitch that can easily be overcome with a strong performance in the next bout.
"It's funny in that you could be the MMA fighter of the year, and you go into one fight with your timing off by a tenth of a second, and the other guy's having his A-day," Mascarenhas says. "Suddenly it's 'good night.' But there's no disgrace in a single loss and the sport allows for a quick recovery."
Like Balmaceda, many stellar high-school and collegiate wrestlers flock toward MMA as a way to scratch that itch of continued human combat. Others come from a variety of other fight-game backgrounds, but all tend to find that adjustments in technique are needed to reach the upper echelon in MMA.
"A lot of guys also have formal training in different martial arts, and may have reached the pinnacle of whatever style they studied, then they get into MMA because they're looking for another level of discipline," Mascarenhas says. "MMA demands that they become more well-rounded. For instance, taekwondo emphasizes kicking, but a taekwondo standout may find the need to work on his ground game because he's getting taken down constantly by someone who was a standout wrestler. You have to hone a lot of different skill sets to be the total package."
Another bout on the main-event portion of Saturday's card is a welterweight (140 to 147 pound) match-up between female MMA competitors Jillian Mulderig and Kasey Mathews. Mulderig is 1-0 with her victory coming by second-round submission via a guillotine chokehold. Mathews has a 2-4 record but went the distance in all four losses, and has a second-round win by submission to her recent credit.
"Those two ladies are killers," Mascarenhas says "They have jiu-jitsu backgrounds, they have striking backgrounds, there's competitive kickboxing in their history, there's wrestling in their history. And you know what's funny? They're both pretty girls who, if a guy were to approach either one in a bar and not want to take 'no' for an answer, they'd make you feel 'no.' I mean, talk about getting your ego crushed. Not only would you get rejected, but you'd get stomped too."
The ring-card girl for Saturday's action is Britney Shannon, an adult film star who recently opened a gentleman's club in Atlantic City called The Hideaway on New York Avenue.
"We've never had a dull event, and that’s not going to start Saturday," Mascarenhas says. "It's a passion-driven organization."