By Joseph Robertia
Under the dim light of a naked light bulb in his Soldotna garage, Mark Stogsdill’s brow is covered with sweat and the wrinkles of intense concentration. He is surrounded by the tools of his trade — in the corner hangs a heavy bag dimpled from abuse doled out from Stogsdill’s fists and feet. There also is a weightlifting bench, a treadmill and an elliptical machine, but the piece of gear getting use at that moment was the large wrestling mat that covers the cement floor, upon which Stogsdill is choking another man by crushing his windpipe between the back of his thigh and calf.
“I took to Jiu-jitsu fairly easily,” Stogsdill said after his training partner agreed to submit by patting on Stogsdill with his free hand, a gesture known as “tapping out.”
It works both ways. Sometimes Stogsdill is doing the choking, other times he is in the hold, or having his arm twisted, or his knee or ankle locked into abnormal and exquisitely painful angles. It’s all part of being prepared for what, to him, is the physical chess match of mixed martial arts, also known as an MMA bout. Or even more simply, a cage fight.
Unlike other combat sports, like boxing or kick-boxing, which only allow fighters to punch, or just punch and kick, MMA fighters utilize a full gambit of skills. They punch, kick, wrestle and employ an arsenal of judo and Jiu-jitsu moves to leverage or trap an opponent into a chokehold or joint lock.
At 31, Stogsdill said that taking part in MMA fights has been a natural progression from his days as a high school wrestler, first as a freshman at Service High School in Anchorage, then as a sophomore, junior and senior at Soldotna High School.
“I’ve always searched for athletic and physical outlets,” he said.
After high school, Stogsdill wanted to continue physical competition. In spring 2002 he became a member of the University of Nevada Reno’s wrestling team, known as the WolfPack, where, like their canine namesake, athletes learn how to quickly and efficiently bring down their prey.
Home called to Stogsdill, though, and he returned to Alaska, where he looked for ways to continue to compete. He found local MMA fights, which were just starting up at the Soldotna Sports Center as the sport was beginning to spread through Alaska.
Some fighters are drawn to the sport as a way to make a quick buck, since one 15-minute fight can pay a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Others come hoping for fame, and some just like to pummel people legally. Stogsdill said that none of the above applies to him.
“I don’t relish in the opportunity to beat someone up,” he said. “It’s just a challenge before me, a personal challenge. I’m always looking for ways to stay in shape and this is just another thing to do. But whatever I’m doing, I try to do all I can and be the best I can.”
Having a plan to do your best seems easy when in the gym, but it can be another thing entirely when
in a cage with another person throwing haymakers at your head. There’s an old cliché that states, “Everyone has a plan until they are hit.” The harder they’re hit, the quicker that plan flies out the window.
Those who can keep their composure to fight through the pain and calm their nerves enough to remember their strategy often prevail, even if it takes some time and a toll on their body, as Stogsdill found out in his first cage fight five years ago.
At the time, he weighed 200 pounds, but cut down to 170 pounds in the month leading up to the bout. He did what he could to train, but one of the deficits to fighters in this area — then and now — is a lack of MMA training programs to teach aspiring fighters the skills necessary to succeed.
“I don’t have a gym where I can work out with a lot of other fighters, like in big cities and the Lower 48, and you really need that as a fighter. You need to have someone throwing punches at you, so you’ll be used to it, and you can learn to block them,” he said.
Stogsdill instead relied on what he could learn from watching MMA events on television, such as popular Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts, combined with his wrestling knowledge and whatever else he had gleaned from the few fights he had as a kid.
“I was never a bully or a scraper, but every time I had a schoolyard fight I did well,” he said.
His opponent for his first fight was no kid on the playground, though. He was much larger than Stogsdill in height and build, and had Muay-Thai experience, a Thailand-based form of fighting that utilizes many strikes with the elbows and knees. Stogsdill described the battle — which lasted through all three of the three-minute rounds — as total war.
“You have some idea of what to expect, but you really don’t,” he said. “I just knew I was going to give it my all and not give up, even if I got punched and kneed in the face, which I did get multiple times. We both had big shots and a few submission attempts, but in the end I won the decision. I proved to myself that I could tough it out and get a victory.”
Despite the win, Stogsdill said he wasn’t happy with his performance. He wanted to do better than
just tough it out, both because he expected more from himself, and because toughing it out often meant a lot of bumps and bruises.
“After that first fight, it was a full week before I felt comfortable going out in public. I had two black eyes, bulbous eyelids and there was swelling around my cheek bones,” he said. “I had won the fight, but it had taken a toll on me. I had to ask myself if this was really what I wanted to do, and if the answer was yes, I wanted to improve to make sure I never looked like that again.”
He took the next four years off to answer that question, the whole time maintaining a strict diet, continuing to work out and training as best he could with the limited number of people in this area who share his interest. He returned to the cage a few times in the last two years, winning one bout by a technical knockout, losing one by technical knockout and winning another by using his legs to choke his opponent by trapping him in a Jui-jitsu move known as a triangle.
Stogsdill said he’s not sure how far he’ll go in the sport. He has no interest in going pro, but said he would like to fight in the larger venue of Anchorage one day. While this is a personal goal, he said he must balance his training against the other things in his life that are important, such as spending time with his girlfriend and her four children, as well as his full-time employment as a youth counselor, where more than once he has had a question from a co-worker or kid about a black eye or other battle wound.
“If they corner me, I’ll give them simple, honest answers,” he said. “But I have no problem keeping fighting separate from my work life, and if I choose not to talk about it, they don’t make it their focus.”
Also, working with children all day can at times be stressful, and Stogsdill said his interest in MMA is a great way to relieve tension after a long day.
“All jobs are frustrating at times, and this gives me an endorphin release,” he said. “It’s an outlet when I need to let off steam, and it keeps me in shape and healthy, so my goal is to stick with it and get as much knowledge as I can.”