The great thing about making that drive up Interstate 95, and veering off at Exit 53 to travel to the heart of downtown Baltimore, Maryland, is seeing the skyline of “Cham City” as you approach it. In that moment, you see some of the juxtaposition that makes Baltimore unique among American cities.
A stone’s throw from tall buildings that bear names like TransAmerica, Pandora and Legg Mason are the shipping ports that might remind some people of the vastly underrated television series The Wire, which prominently featured those ports and other, more blue-collar areas of Baltimore – as well as areas stricken by poverty and drugs – during its five-season run.
I never tire of seeing that vivid display of asymmetrical symmetry as I make the drive into Baltimore, like I did on Saturday, April 8, to take in the 16th edition of Shogun Fights at Royal Farms Arena. The fact the bi-annual fight card took place on the same day as a Baltimore Orioles home game against the New York Yankees, a tattoo convention at the Baltimore Convention Center, and some kind of high school cheerleading competition only reinforces the fact that Baltimore is a case study in the contrast of styles that still somehow make sense when it’s all brought together.
The first thing you notice when walking into the backstage area at a Shogun Fights card is that it’s basically one giant party. Loud rap music is blaring and rattling the walls of the 50-plus-year-old arena. Very attractive women in very-tight tops and even tighter pants or skirts are walking around, usually accompanied by men wearing shirts that are almost as tight, but not quite, and who typically boast an impressive assortment of tattoos.
Alcohol is flowing freely, games are being played and you definitely get the sense that Shogun Fights owner John Rallo wants to make every fight card feel like a party, instead of just a mixed martial arts event.
Shogun Fights is truly Baltimore to the bone – from the local rock radio station DJ who serves as the ring announcer, to the crowd’s regrettable decision to sully the national anthem with a loud and resounding “OHHHHHHHHHHHHH” to pay a misguided tribute to the Orioles to the fighters themselves, many of whom are either from the Baltimore area or train at local gyms.
But there’s more to Shogun Fights being a representation of Baltimore than just where the fighters are from, or where the event itself take place. Having attended several previous Shogun Fights cards, I can attest that as some of the fighters who make regular appearances for the organization gain more experience in the cage, the quality of the fights also increases.
That belief is best encapsulated by watching fighters like Rob Sullivan finally break through after being on the wrong end of controversial decisions in his previous two fights and picking up a much-needed win. It’s in fighters like Matt Semelsberger and Donelei Benedetto, who make an unspoken agreement as the cage door closes that they will just swing for the fences against each other and let the chips fall where they may (in this case, it fell for a second-round TKO victory by Semelsberger).
However, when you hear the expression “Baltimore to the bone,” you’re basically talking about Binky “Father Time” Jones. The radio DJ who was the announcer for Shogun Fights, Justin Schlegel, described Jones as “the heart and soul of Shogun Fights” at Shogun Fights 16, and it’s hard to argue with him.
Although Jones has basically fought everywhere there is to fight on the regional MMA scene, and even made an appearance in Bellator MMA in 2011, his name is synonymous with Shogun Fights. Every fight of his begins the same way – with Eminem’s “Not Afraid” blaring through the arena speakers as a parade of children who are Jones’ students at Ground Control Baltimore, the local gym where Jones is an instructor, walk down the ramp to the cage, followed by Jones himself.
Unfortunately, Jones came up short in his fight at Shogun Fights 16 in a rematch against the current featherweight champion, Francisco Isata. But having spoken to Jones on a previous occasion, mentoring and working with youth in the Baltimore area is what truly seems to give him purpose.
Going to Shogun Fights also means you might see some familiar faces, including the UFC’s Claudia Gadelha, who was there as a special guest. The event has hosted many a famous fighter in the past, including Donald Cerrone, Matt Serra, Leonard Garcia and Mike Brown. Fighters who have also competed in the big leagues, like Jones and Mike Easton, also give Shogun Fights an air of not being far from the big leagues itself.
Easton fought in one of the card’s four title fights, and was likely considered a heavy favorite against Jesse Stirn – given Easton’s previous run in the UFC, which included a bout against former UFC bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw. But the scrappy Stirn stood toe-to-toe with Easton and lived up to his nickname of “Relentless,” and upset Easton in a split decision to become the first-ever Shogun Fights bantamweight champion.
Stirn, Sullivan and Jones all call the greater Baltimore area home, and it’s fighters like them and Shogun Fights welterweight champion Micah Terrill who wear the “Baltimore to the bone” superlative like a badge of honor – if I asked them to, that is.
In no way do I want to over-romanticize or downplay some of the very real challenges that the city of Baltimore faces, including a drug problem that does not seem to be getting any better and pervasive poverty that makes the city similar to others that have a clear case of the haves and the have-nots.
But at least for one night in both the spring and fall, a parade of athletes do their hometown proud, as do the athletes who come from other locales to take part in something that seems to grow bigger with each iteration.
I think one of Baltimore’s favorite sons, filmmaker John Waters, said it best when he described Baltimore. I think Shogun Fights can nestle itself perfectly into this as well:
“I would never want to live anywhere but Baltimore. You can look far and wide, but you’ll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style. It’s as if every eccentric in the South decided to move north, ran out of gas in Baltimore, and decided to stay.”
Photo Credits: John Meyer/Facebook