Made in Marion: Brandon Friar
Story and photographs by Matthew Hatcher
It is 830 in the evening, and the crowd in the dim lit Slovenian National Ballroom in Cleveland has already been treated to their first taste of blood in the opening bouts of the 'Battle in The Ball Room 21'. The smell of stale smoke and popcorn hang thick in the air, the trashcans are overflowing with empty beer and soda cans and fighters still waiting for their move about the crowd like phantoms. Most of them have already fought, sweat lingers and glistens on their reddened faces as they talk and laugh with their family and friends.
Painted in dull red light which cast strange shadows on the walls around him, fifteen-year-old Brandon Friar tries to block out the sound of the crowd and concentrate on what is ahead. His coach and the corner man assigned to him give last minute advice, but Brandon is focused soley on the ring. For the past three months he has been preparing for this night, spending long hours training at his humble gym in Marion, enduring countless sparring matches, combination drills, and strength training. His name is shouted out by the announcer and he makes his way to the ring which glows like a beacon in the darkened ballroom. Now he is ready, and the ultimate test of his skills is only moments away.
Some fighters will tell you that the fight is the easy part. When the moment of truth arrives, nothing else matters. It is the months of training, the sweat, the sacrifices made to train, the constant pushing of one's self to continuously improve, that is the hard part. And like so many other things, it comes down to what you're willing to give and how bad you want it. The fight bug, as some may call it, was planted in Brandon Friar early on. His grandmother acquired tickets to an amature wrestling event at River Valley High School and she took Brandon with her. Much like the ballroom he would find himself standing in years later, the ring in the center of the room was a glowing beacon in the surrounding darkness, the air filled with the rabid chattering and cheers of an entertained audience.
“I remember there was a lot of action, and everyone came out wearing masks.” It was Brandon's first taste of a different kind of competition, where skill and speed undid brute strength. Soon after, Brandon, with the help of his father David, searched for a suitable school, and they settled on a school nearby that an old friend of his father’s ran, Maximum Martial Arts.
Maximum Martial Arts, or Max Combat Fitness, may not look like too much driving by. Located off of North State Street, it is easy to miss and looks more like a the auto-garage it used to be than a gym that has produced its share of talented athletes who have competed in combat sports all over the midwest. The smell of stale sweat and ancient motor oil linger in the royal blue mats on the floor, the heavy bags sway gently in the breeze on the summer days when the big garage door is open.
Brandon started training at the facility a little over a year ago. Like every athlete, Brandon started with the fundamentals, under the instruction of the owner Max Holloway, a mixed martial artist. Jabs, head movement, blocking, combinations, and all the other basics were drilled into Brandon until they became second nature.
"The training is always demanding. We go through circuits of strength training, drills focusing on explosive power, and lots of conditioning before we even get to the boxing drills." Brandon commented at the end of a workout, sweat running races from his brow and into his eyes.
In all combat sports the endurance and strength training prepares not just the body but the mind for combat. Fighting at the competitive level isn't just about being able to throw a hard punch or being able to take a hook to the jaw. It is a complicated puzzle of both skill and heart, strength of the body and strength of the mind.
Over time the techniques of fighting became familiar. Brandon grew accustomed to feeling of 16oz gloves on his hands, and to the feeling of being hit. Jabs grew crisper, hooks became quicker, and the desire to put what he had learned to the test swelled to bursting. His coaches agreed and in March Brandon's fight was arranged.
For the next month and a half Brandon's coaches stepped up his training. Sparring and jump rope became a staple. Working the jab and slipping was no longer a 15 minute drill, sometimes Brandon would work on single combinations for entire practices, going home sore and exhausted long after the sun had faded over the horizon. As the fight drew nearer Brandon trained harder, and through it he still juggled school and watching over his younger siblings everyday.
Training finally slowed down a week before the fight. May had just begun, the trees along the streets of his hometown Marion had burst in full bloom and the students at the high school growing anxious for the summer to begin. While his classmate's thoughts had turned towards swimming and vacations and time away from obligations, Brandon's mind was in his upcoming fight. His family had booked a table near the ring ahead of time, and plans had been made for a small party afterwards. In the afternoons after school Brandon wrestled with his younger siblings on the trampoline in their backyard, despite being an adept grappler, he often allowed them to get the best of him.
The week came to a close, and on Friday, the day of the fight, Brandon met his father, David Friar, in the parking lot of Harding High School just moments after the final bell rang, and the two of them hurried off in the old pick-up to Cleveland.
The evening of the fight was a blur. Within moments of arriving at the venue Brandon was being weighed in. The fight wasn't set to begin for another few hours but already the Slovenian National Ballroom had come to live, and buzzed with the caged energy of athletes anxious to compete. Brandon's coaches Max Halloway and Mike Cress took him through the process of registering and getting fit for gloves and head gear, and by the time the first spectators of the evening had arrived Brandon was warming up on the striking mitts.
"He's a little nervous, but if he can relax and not let it get to him he'll do just fine." David Friar commented as Brandon and Max went through punching drills.
As the last rays of golden sun fell to shadows on the street out front of the ballroom the fights began. The sound of leather smacking into flesh punctured the cheering of the audience and with each ringing of the bell Brandon's match drew closer. Once the gloves and headgear had been put on Max led him through one last warm up drill on the mitts, Mike and David offered their last bits of advice and encouragement. As the fight before his came to an end, and the victors hand raised in the air, Brandon prepared to enter the ring. Shedding off one final wave of nerves, his eyes shifted to pinpoint focus and wild excitement, and as his name was called he climbed through the ropes and entered the ring.
Brandon would later go on to say that as he entered the ring and stood across from his opponent, the outside world had fallen silent on his ears. His breathing and heart beat were the only sounds. When the bell announced the beginning of the fight, the young fighter sprung into action. In a wild electric flurry the two exchanged blow after blow. With a strong right Brandon dropped his opponent, who sprung right back up before the referee had even approached. He survived the count and after another furious exchange it was Brandon who hit the mat.
The ref approached and within a short count Brandon was back and circling his oppenent. Although the roar of the reawakened crowd fell on deaf ears, the two continued their vicious battle. Brandon was against the ropes, he had covered upas he had been trained to do and the barrage of straights and hooks ricocheted off his gloves.
The round was almost over when just as fast as the battle had begun it was over. The referee stepped in between the two and with his arms waving stopped the fight. It was over. Brandon stood in disbelief for a moment looking to the ref then to his corner man. Several boos came forth from the darkness where the crowd now stood instead of sitting, protesting the early stoppage. Moments later a doctor was checking Brandon's eyes with a flashlight and his coaches and father waited for him on the other side of the ropes.
Brandon had already taken off the gloves and was surrounded by his coaches and father as the next fight of the evening began. He was still in disbelief that the fight had ended, and for a few moments onward his coaches shared his surprise. All around fighters who had already competed continued to mill about, some sitting silently in the thin weak lighting of the venue, others laughing and wearing smiles on swollen lips.
Brandon's fight hadn't gone as he had hoped or had expected. While the taste of defeat and disappointment was still sour in his mouth, the realization of what he had accomplished was much sweeter. His training had prepared him for the fight, and with confidence he had stepped into the ring against an older and more experienced opponent. He had shaken off the blanket of nerves and doubt that many other hopeful athletes wear through a short career.
Surrounded by family and friends the thin expression of dissiapointment faded and a smile began to break over his cracked lips. Had the reff stopped the fight to early? It was hard to say. If the fight had gone on to later rounds would he have won? It was hard to tell. But one thing was sure for Brandon, he would continue training, harder now, and he would step into that ring again, the first chance he got.
With summer in full swing now, the days reaching up into the 90's, and the shade becoming scarce in the backyards of Marion homes. Brandon spends his evenings back at Maximum Martial Arts, going through the same drills and conditioning. A fight is around the corner, and he tastes the opportunity to redeem his first loss. The smell of the gym is the same, thick and overpowering, but full of memories and promise. The groan and wail of the heavy bags is loud and every now and then a passerby peeks in curious. Hard work makes the difference between a good athlete and a great athlete, and Brandon won't settle for something less than great.