'BACK THEN, THERE WERE NO ROUNDS, THERE WERE NO RULES..."
An MMA instructor, from being bullied, to bullying, to learning the art of self defense
Folio Weekly: What's your involvement with mixed-martial arts?
Billy Mitchell: I'm an instructor, an MMA business owner, a former competitor.
How do you explain what MMA is?
Mixed martial arts is the combination of every combat sport in the world. All the rules from those combat sports apply. You can fight standing, you can use knees, you can use elbows, you can fight on the ground, you can do jujutsu, judo, wrestling, whatever there is that's a hand-to-hand combat sport. Anything that's legal in any fighting sport is legal in MMA.
When did you get into it?
When I was 11, after I got beat up. I was kind of a bully, and I was picking on a guy and I didn't know he was doing MMA. He invited me to [an MMA] school. He beat me up again. And again. Finally he said, "You've got a lot of heart; you keep getting up again. So if you wanna learn, you're more than welcome to train.
When did you start competing?
I was between 14 and 15. MMA was not big at all. There were no places to go train, it was actually held in karate studios. This was in the early '90s. UFC didn't come out until '96.
Were fights evenly matched back in the early days?
It was hit-or-miss. Back then, there were no rounds, there were no rules, there were no gloves, no weight classes, and it was a tournament. I've been in tournaments where I was 145 pounds, and my first fight was against a guy who was 350. If I beat him, I'd go on to the next guy within the hour, and if I won that one, I'd go on to the finals. Generally you had to fight three times in one night to win the tournament.
Have you seen fighting evolve since you got into the sport?
Back then, my coach told me, "You're gonna wrestle, you're gonna do muay thai, and you're gonna do jujitsu. You're gonna be good at all of them. Not great at any one thing, but you'll be good at everything." When I first started, my opponent was more than likely a boxer who only knew boxing, or a guy who did jujitsu but only knew jujitsu. There was always some specialty. For the longest time that's how it was. It wasn't until my mid-pro-level career that I started fighting guys who were starting to understand that if they didn't know all that stuff, they were going to lose.
The [state MMA] commission got ahold of it. They put some safety buffers on it. Now there's gloves. There's amateur and pro levels with different rules that ensure that nobody gets severely hurt their first time coming out. It's a sport now. Back then, we beat each other up.
Which did you like better?
They both have their pros and cons. Back then it was much more raw and much more to the point. The tougher guy won, always. Today, everybody knows everything. There's not somebody that comes into the cage that doesn't know all the skills and is willing to turn it on.
Does that raw, lawless fighting still exist?
I'm sure it does in other parts of the world. The United States has done a good job of keeping people safe, which is a good thing. When people think of cage fighting, they think it's ruthless and nuts, two people fighting in a cage. What they don't know is, you're in a cage to keep it safe, which sounds crazy, but it's there for your safety.
How long did it take MMA to turn from fighting into a sport?
It took a long time. It's taken 21 years since I started to evolve to this point, which is pretty quick in the grand scheme of things, but it's definitely the fasting growing sport still today.
What was your most emotionally painful loss?
My first loss. I won all my amateur fights and lost my first pro one because I got a big head. It was definitely a good checkpoint for me. Pro is a different level. These guys are a lot tougher. People are getting a paycheck. Back in the day, only the winner got a check.
When did you retire?
Shortly after I had my daughter. To fight at a competitive level, you have to dedicate your whole life to it. Everything. I had already accomplished a lot, I was already coaching and managing people. It was time to focus on them and less on myself.
Describe your average MMA student.
We have 60-something-year-olds come in. I've trained 3-year-olds. [It's an] 80-20 ratio for men, but getting bigger by the day for women.
What's the worst injury you've ever witnessed?
I broke a guy's femur in two pieces. Like, separated it, not a fracture. It was not good.
What was your reaction after you did that?
I just won my fight.