Ask Kyle Watson to choke you out and he might just accommodate your request. In fact, he’s lost count of the exact number of people he’s caused to black out — many of them guys in bars who specifically requested to lose consciousness. “It doesn’t hurt them if they’re only out a few seconds,” Watson says. “I’m pretty sure it takes two to three minutes to cause brain damage.”
But the majority of the blackouts he causes happen in the ring, after he’s gotten his opponent in a submission hold like his signature move, the triangle choke. Of the scores of matches he’s won in submission wrestling and sport Jiu-Jitsu competitions, Watson estimates six out of ten were by choking his opponent. And nine of his 11 M.M.A. (mixed martial arts) wins have been by asphyxiation.
“You can tell when they go,” he says, “because their body quivers and their eyes glaze over.” Sometimes he even has to tell the referee that the other guy has passed out. “You have to make sure the ref stops the fight before you ease up, though. Some guys will do the ‘phantom tap’ and then when you let go, they keep fighting like nothing happened.”
When Watson’s not fighting for Bodog Fight, an M.M.A. league competing in a field dominated at present by UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), he’s working his day job as the operations manager at Kaplan Test Prep in Champaign or training at McVicker’s Martial Arts Academy, also in Champaign. A couple times a month he makes the trek to Peoria to train in kickboxing and Charleston to practice with the Eastern Illinois University wrestling team.
He admits that it’s tough to compete with guys who train full-time, though.
“I know I’d be a better fighter if I quit my job and dedicated myself to training,” Watson says. “I don’t want the lifestyle though — not knowing if I’m going to make $4,000 or $8,000 for a fight.”
Actually, in any of the small M.M.A. competitions around Wisconsin and Indiana where Watson started, a fighter makes only a couple hundred dollars a night whether he wins or loses. And then there are the shady promoters who skip out without paying the fighters. When Watson fights for Bodog he doesn’t make a fortune, but he does get put up in luxury hotels in exotic locales like Russia and Costa Rica. (Bodog fights have to take place outside the U.S. because Bodog’s owner, billionaire tycoon Calvin Ayre, is currently under investigation by the Justice Department for tax evasion.)
A teenage fascination with UFC and a naturally competitive spirit spurred Watson into fighting in the first place. His high school in Raymond, Ill. — about 45 minutes south of Springfield — was too small to have a wrestling team, so he and his buddies had to settle for smacking each other around with boxing gloves. It wasn’t until college that he started training seriously.
His foundation as a fighter is in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, where he still competes (he recently placed 3rd in the No-Gi World Championships), but like a lot of martial artists, he eventually moved over to MMA where there is much more potential for money and celebrity.
Even though Watson hasn’t made it to the highest levels in the sport, he has achieved some fame, notably in a regional event called the Total Fight Challenge, where he holds the 155-pound title belt. In fact, Watson is something of a celebrity in Hammond, Ind., where the Ultimate Fight Challenge holds its matches. His name and face have been prominently displayed on posters and he routinely gets kids asking for his autograph. “It’s pretty cool,” he admits. “When you hear people calling your name.” He’s planning to be back up in Hammond on Feb. 9 to defend his title.
As much as Watson would like his Hammond fame to become national, he knows that making a career out of fighting is incredibly tough. Instead, he says, “[I’ll] keep fighting, building my reputation in the sport and someday open my own academy.” But there’s always the possibility, since M.M.A. is a growing sport, that Watson could make it to the point where he can live off his fights.
Until then, he’ll keep Kaplan Test Prep running smoothly. And in his free time, he’ll work on better ways to block his opponents’ airways.