Published November 06. 2011 4:00AM
John Naples emerges from behind a giant black curtain and heads for the center of Mohegan Sun Arena, the crowd watching his every move.
Naples will explain his mental approach to this moment later with two words: tunnel vision. He focuses on the huge cage in front of him. He listens to the chorus of the clever mashup that bellows from the arena's sound system:
"This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill
"Fifteen percent concentrated power of will
"Five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain
"And a hundred percent reason to remember the name."
This last line rings particularly true tonight. Naples is determined to leave his hometown crowd with a lasting memory.
Before more than 4,000 fans - 100 of them family members and friends - the Uncasville native stands bare-chested and barefoot. Just before the first bell, his opponent, Terin Swanson, shoots him a brash, confident look, which fuels the pent-up emotion running through Naples' body.
Sixty-seven seconds later, it's over.
Naples has knocked Swanson unconscious with a thunderous slam to the mat, giving the audience the most exciting coda in all of mixed martial arts - a succinct, power-packed knockout.
The rush of adrenaline that surges through Naples' body is almost indescribable - "a super drug," he says later. From the center of the cage, he salutes his supporters seated in Section 112 and then embraces the three men, two coaches and a teammate, who cheer wildly in his corner.
Naples has won his professional debut as a mixed martial arts fighter. He has done it in 1 minute, 7 seconds, in one of the most action-packed fights the crowd at Mohegan Sun will see all night.
The culmination of two months of bruising, all-in training has arrived. Naples has proven it possible to divide his days between a full-time job, college coursework and several hours of nauseating preparation needed to be a MMA fighter.
"Walking in there, I knew that was my night," Naples said a few days after letting the win sink in. "I could have fought King Kong."
Inside The Octagon
Mixed martial arts is one of the fastest-growing sports nationwide.
The full-contact sport combines a number of fighting disciplines - jujitsu, muay thai, boxing, wrestling and more - and pits two fighters against one another, often inside an eight-sided cage coined "The Octagon."
The two fighters face off in a sport that requires striking and grappling techniques and calls for competitors to fight on their feet or on the ground. The fighters wear nothing but athletic shorts and gloves that expose the fingers. Each fight can end by knockout, judges' decision, a referee's stoppage, or by a fighter "tapping out," essentially an acknowledgement of defeat.
Mixed martial arts, known as MMA, has built a national following since it debuted in 1993 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport's most-followed promotion company. The UFC recently signed a multiyear contract with FOX Sports Network after years of being televised on Spike and Versus.
Thanks to rule changes aimed at protecting fighters, marketing and other factors, the sport also has quickly stepped from behind the shadow cast by U.S. Sen. John McCain, who once called it "human cockfighting."
Approximately 450,000 customers paid nearly $50 each for UFC 135, a September fight televised through Pay-Per-View, according to online reports. A UFC fight in October 2010 featuring a high-profile bout between Brock Lesnar and Cain Velasquez generated more than 1 million Pay-Per-View buys. Professionals in this sport can earn $200,000 or more for a single fight.
Former football player
At 5:20 on an early September night, John Naples arrived at Strike Zone Mixed Martial Arts, a busy, second-floor gym tucked away at 367 Bank St. in downtown New London.
Naples, 28, is approachable and willing to talk about his craft. When he's not in the middle of a workout, he frequently flashes a smile and cracks jokes. He says that he's the kind of guy who tends to know someone wherever he goes.
By day, he works for the family business, Industrial Engineers, a crane and rigging service in Montville. He also takes classes at Three Rivers Community College and plans to become a dental hygienist. It's a running joke that Strike Zone's other fighters soon will know exactly where to turn if a tooth is dislodged during a fight or workout.
At 5-foot-6, with a natural weight around 160 pounds, Naples is thick through the chest and shoulders. But no one would call him the most gifted athlete in the gym.
"To have a shadow of a six-pack, I have to bust my ass," Naples said with a laugh.
He first came to Strike Zone in 2006 as a way to scratch a competitive itch after playing high school football at Montville.
Darryl MarcAurele, one of the gym's owners and a former state champion wrestler at Norwich Free Academy, coined the nickname "Football" for Naples. At first, MarcAurele said Naples had almost an involuntarily sense for using his brute strength to tackle his opponents.
He had little technique or knowledge of submission moves, grappling and the other minutia that sets MMA apart from other sports.
For much of his early time at Strike Zone, Naples sparred with the gym's accomplished fighters.
"I came down here thinking I was relatively tough, and you get humbled really fast," Naples said. "You get mopped up a little bit. You clean the floors with your own body."
During a September training session, Naples started by jumping rope. A few minutes later, he landed his padded gloves in combination punches against practice mitts held by MarcAurele.
The two then grappled and simulated high-intensity moves for three 5-minute rounds. The idea was for Naples to practice every possible scenario that could unfold in a fight. He also worked to control his breathing, a crucial skill during an actual fight.
Naples paired these one-on-one workouts with daily exercise at Workout World in Waterford. He often willed himself out of bed in the early morning to run sprints outdoors and occasionally he drove to Fort Shantok in Unscasville to go for a long jog.
He even created an outdoor endurance challenge of sorts in which he took sledgehammers of differing sizes to a large rubber tire.
And the sport requires absolute discipline - drinking alcohol and snacking are not luxuries Naples can afford when in training.
Naples went 4-4 as an amateur and fought all over New England as he gained experience and learned how to best train his body. He now competes as a featherweight, at 145 pounds, and he has become acutely aware of what it takes to get himself in shape. He learns a bit more through each training camp.
Those close to Naples also have had the chance to see what it takes to partake in this demanding activity - even if they didn't understand it at first.
"I was concerned," said Lori Chabot Lafayette, Naples' mother, who also works with him at the family business. "He tried to reassure me that the risk of injury is not any different compared to football or any other sport. But I still needed some convincing.
"(It takes) an inner drive ... focus ... intensity ... endurance. He is really dedicated to it."
A second family
As he sat in a chair in his living room on an October afternoon, Naples ran his fingers over his cauliflower ear - blood and fluid that had collected in spots on his ear - and attempted to answer a familiar question: Why?
"I do this because it shows me what I'm capable of," he said. "You start to learn a lot about yourself and how far you can push your limits. (During training), I would dig a little bit deeper and I'd realize I have this whole other reservoir of energy and strength.
"It's mental strength. No matter what, you have to dig deeper and find the broom closet in your brain that has a little bit of extra push."
Leading up to his pro debut, Naples admitted that he went through some tough times and heartbreak after separating from his girlfriend. His grandfather, Bob Chabot, the family patriarch, underwent surgery and eventually landed in a nursing home as he recovered.
He also admits that he puts many of his friendships on hold as he trains and balances work and school.
To make it through all of this, there is another element that keeps Naples returning to Strike Zone: his bond with his fellow fighters and coaches.
Kent Ward and MarcAurele, who both worked Naples' corner at Mohegan Sun and keep Strike Zone going, are like father figures.
Andrew Caron, a former all-league linebacker at Stonington High School, and Chris Simmons are two of his confidants. So is Will Kerr, another one of his cornermen, and unquestionably the most accomplished fighter to come out of Strike Zone.
During more than 10 interviews spread across two months, there is not a half-hour that passes without Naples spending at least a brief moment talking about his Strike Zone teammates.
Simmons said, "I would consider John to be closer than a brother. I literally can count on him through thick and thin, and the same goes for Will and Andrew. … We're always looking out for each other."
After Naples beats the 18-year-old Swanson, considered by some the favorite in the fight, he heads back to the locker room. He admits it's hard to unwind. But after sharing a few laughs with MarcAurele, Kerr and Ward, he showers quickly and changes into a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans.
In the hallway outside the locker room, Naples collects a check for $1,360, his winning share for the night, and then goes to find his family and friends. He spends the next 90 minutes accepting congratulations and soaking in the moment.
Naples says that he will continue to train. Although he has an extensive injury history - torn meniscuses in both knees, a torn left ACL, a labrum tear in his left shoulder and others - he hopes to fight again in December.
He admits that some people will probably never understand why he continues to do this. But that won't stop him from enjoying the ride.
"Any success that I've found is almost on borrowed time. I never expected to fight. From there, I never expected to find success in it," Naples said. "It's all kind of a gift from here on out. I've already gone quite a bit farther than I expected to."
WORDS TO LIVE BY
John Naples refers to this quote as his mantra.
"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
- President Theodore Roosevelt