The first match of the first mixed martial arts (MMA) fight held in Soldotna’s Peninsula Center Mall featured a first-time fighter — Soldotna resident Mike Busby — against experienced MMA fighter Kelly Offield.
After after the two had exchanged several punches and kicks, Offield trapped Busby against the ring’s fencing and, after a struggle, forced him to his hands and knees. Offield mounted Busby’s back, attempting to get him to the mat. The attempt was unsuccessful — Busby managed to throw off Offield and regain his feet. Busby later said the moment was a highlight of the one-round fight, which concluded with several swift hits delivered by Offield to Busby’s head.
Although he forfeited the match to Offield, Busby said in an interview immediately afterwards that the fight was the fulfillment of a life-long dream.
“I decided to step in and try it,” Busby said. “Which may have not been the best plan, but I just (wanted to) expose myself to it.”
Busby was not a member of a fighting gym, saying instead he had self-trained using a lot of cardio exercise. The toughest part of the fight, Busby said, was getting kicked in the head. When asked if he planned to do another MMA fight, Busby said “absolutely. But I would join a gym and train quite a bit before.”
“If you love it, and you still enjoy it after that, go for it!” fight-manager Stephanie Clay said to Busby, when she delivered his payment for the fight.
Busby and Offield were 2 of 12 fighters, coming from as near as Soldotna and as far as Fairbanks, to compete in the six matches held Saturday night at the mall. The fight was a production of Peninsula Fighting Championship, whose promoter Matt Plant said the mall was a good alternative to the group’s previous venue, the Soldotna Sports Center. In July, the Soldotna City Council awarded a sole MMA promoter contract to another fighting group, “6 or 5 Times Productions.”
“We basically got kicked out of the sports center,” said Plant. However, Plant said that his company maintains a good relationship with “6 or 5 Times Productions.”
“We aren’t feuding or anything like that,” Plant said. “Although that would probably make a pretty good story. … Believe me, I wish there was more to it than that. It would be kind of fun to play up.”
Plant said that for Saturday’s fight Peninsula Fighting Championship had more sponsors than it had ever had, and estimated later that 350 tickets were sold.
Some businesses in the mall, such as Ginger’s Restaurant, Beary Cool Yogurt, and General Nutrition Center remained open to serve the crowd or promote their products. Spectators watched from rows of folding chairs set up in two branches of the mall corridor on either side of the ring, or stood wherever they could find room.
Ben Dunham, a construction worker from Anchorage who came to Soldotna to lay refrigeration pipe in the addition being constructed at Soldotna’s Central Peninsula Hospital, went to the fight on a whim after seeing it advertised on a sign by the Kenai Spur Highway. Dunham said being in the mall was a different experience than fights he had previously attended in arenas because he could see the action from floor-level.
“I feel sorry for the people behind me, though,” said Dunham, adding that he is 6 feet, 6 inches tall.
Paige Best came from Fairbanks to see her friend Ben Bennett’s fight. An MMA fighter herself, Best said that malls aren’t unusual venues in other parts of the country, though she herself had never fought in one. Sitting toward the back she said the ring wasn’t difficult to see, except when the fight went to the ground.
At least one other first-time local fighter was in the line-up for Saturday’s event: Sterling resident Samantha Bobby.
“The other girl wanted to fight, and they had to find somebody in her weight range,” Bobby said. “I took a year of judo, so they asked me if I’d do it. I agreed.”
Bobby’s opponent Bayb Fanene — whom she hadn’t met before the night of the match — is a boxer with a seven-year career in MMA fighting. Bobby said that judo is an art that emphasizes grappling rather than striking, a contrast to boxing. In an interview the day before the fight, she said she had been preparing to face a boxer by practicing blocking and avoidance moves with her boyfriend.
Toward the beginning of their first round, Fanene launched a fast punch towards Bobby’s chin. Bobby rolled back, but was still hit.
“I was terrified,” Bobby said. “Surprised. I’ve never been hit before. All I could think about was that first jab to my face. The entire fight, all I could think about was that first one. After that, I didn’t feel anything.”
The second and third rounds were paused periodically for rest, with Fanene placing her hands on her hips to signal a break. In the third round Fanene drove Bobby to the ground with a series of fast punches.
“She got me right there on the jaw, and I went down,” Bobby said. “But I said ‘I made it this far. Better get back up and finish it.’”
When the horn blew at the end of the third round, both fighters were still on their feet. The judges pronounced Fanene the winner, with 30 points against Bobby’s 27.
In an interview after the fight, Fanene said that she has breast cancer, and would begin chemical treatment on Monday with a mastectomy later in the week. Neither Bobby, the promoter, nor the crowd had been told of Fanene’s cancer before the fight. Fanene said she plans to continue training during the treatment and would continue her fighting career afterward.
“I just got to get through chemo first,” Fanene said. “I feel like in about three months I’ll be prepared.”
Fanene said she expected the challenge of staying in shape during chemo would help her endure the treatment rather than presenting a difficulty. Her friend Bethany Bogart said Fanene was awaiting the treatment with a fighting attitude.
“Call her a warrior,” Bogart said. “That’s what she is.”
After the match, Bobby said she respected Fanene for keeping quiet about her illness until the fight was over.
“She showed up and fought a very good fight, and she’s a strong woman, going through this and not telling very many people and keeping it to herself,” Bobby said.
Elisabeth Clay of Nikiski studies Brazilian jujitsu at Soldotna’s Redemption Mixed Martial Arts gym and said she had won two gold medals, a silver medal, and a bronze in tournament competition. She has an ambition to become a professional jujitsu competitor.
“I was looking for something to do, because I previously did gymnastics,” Clay said, of her reason for beginning Brazilian jujitsu. “I wanted somewhere where I could get a good workout in and still learn something. And I found Redemption, and I just found a family.”
On Saturday night Clay, the daughter of fight organizer Stephanie Clay, fought an exhibition match in Brazilian jujitsu against fellow Redemption gym member and former MMA fighter Mae Britton.
“She’s very technical,” Britton said of Clay’s fighting. “If you go by technique, she’s higher than me. She’s a technical kid, but you know? It’s a match.”
Clay won against Britton by submission.
Britton said she had got into fighting in order to help herself quit smoking. She said the experience of training in Brazilian jujitsu — in which fighters are often beneath their opponents or held in tight positions — had also helped her overcome claustrophobia. She recommended martial arts as a sport for anyone: men, women, children, and adults. Anyone, she said, with the exception of bullies.
“A bully doesn’t last long,” Britton said. “Either they’ll leave the class, or they’ll stop being a bully because they’ll realize there’s more to life than just being (a bully). … A bully doesn’t enjoy getting picked on. They enjoy doing the picking, the belittling, whatever the case may be. But they don’t want that done to them. And when you’re rolling on the mats, that doesn’t happen. Somebody’s not going to let you bully them.”
Peninsula Fighting Championship’s next event will be held on December 31.
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.