Smashed mouths

Behind the scenes of the blood thirst that is Philly-based MMA promotion outfit, Art of War

Two MMA fighters square off
Maria Castro, right, lands a punch to her opponent during a recent Art of War card, Philly’s MMA circuit and proving ground. | Image: Art of War/William McKee

Kensington’s Johnny Pipewrench was pumped for the Art of War cage fights on Dec. 13.

“Punch him in the body! Punch him in the body!” he yelled, amongst other things, into the cage throughout the night.

Years ago, after going to a gym to lift weights, Pipewrench ultimately fell in love with jujitsu. But it was the cage fighting, which combines elements of jujitsu, wrestling, and boxing, that really drew him in. He participated in the sport for eight years, fought six fights, winning four and losing two.

“Once you get in there, everything shuts off, and you have one focus,” Pipewrench said. “You’re just feeding off of adrenaline. It’s unlike anything else.”

But cage fighting is so no-holds-barred, with its nearly bare-knuckle punches to the face (the fighters wear light gloves and go barefoot), kicks, full takedowns, and traps in the corners of the cage, that these warriors can’t do it forever. In fact, as much as Pipewrench, now 34, would love to jump back into the cage, his body can’t take it anymore, he said.

“It’s hard on you physically and mentally,” Pipewrench said. 

Watching the Friday night fights was painful in a new way for Pipewrench, who quit the sport just a few years ago. While he was psyched to see the action, he was also envious of those in the cage.

Mike and Deborah Bickings, promoters of Art of War cage fighting, have been in the game for several years, though Mike has been working in various roles in the mixed martial arts industry for about a decade. They’ve been selling out arenas with a combination or amateur and pro fighters, sexy women prancing around holding up signs with the round numbers, and an M.C. who puts the mic in front of the fighters and lets them tell their stories. Many of these men and women have families to support, and they get in the cage to make a little extra cash. But most are there because they are passionate – even addicted – to the combination of adrenaline and violence.

Jesus Martinez throws a kick toward the head of his opponent during a recent AOW match in Philly. | Image: Art of War/William McKee

“I have guys who are 125 pounds, and they could beat me to death if we were locked in a room, and I’m 6-foot-2,” Mike Bickings said. “Cage fighting is one of the most physically demanding things to do. It’s amazing that these guys can do it. The way they shake off injuries is really interesting.… They’ll take an elbow right over the eye. They’ll be cut. They’ll be bleeding, and they’ll shove it to the back burner.”

In fact, during a recent fight, a woman broke her collarbone in the first round and still came out for the second round until the judges stopped it, Bickings said.

“I have guys who are 125 pounds, and they could beat me to death if we were locked in a room, and I’m 6-foot-2.” 

— Mike Bickings, promoter, Art of War Philadelphia

Amateur fights have three, two-minute rounds. If the fight goes to the ground, the opponents can’t punch each other in the face. They also wear some pads. After three fights, they’re eligible for advanced amateur fights, which run three, three-minute rounds. 

In professional fights, elbows and knees are legal; it’s full “ground and pound.” The fighters don’t wear pads, and they go three, five-minute rounds. No eye gouges, shots to the groin, or fish-hooking (where someone puts his finger in his opponent’s mouth and yanks) are allowed. 

“My personal opinion is these guys train their asses off to get beat up – it’s literally mind-boggling,” said Deborah Bickings, who runs Art of War with her husband. “They train to get kicked in the face. They beat the shit out of one another and then high five one another or hug one another at the end. I don’t get it.”

In fact, after each fight on Dec. 13, the men and women – there was one female fight – embraced as if they were long-lost friends.

Ashley Rohrback, 27, made her debut against Mariah Castro, the defending female champion.

Bullied as a kid, Rohrback started Tai Kwan Do in second grade. Eventually she got into Muay Thai, a martial art from Thailand that involves elbows, knees, kicks, and punches. Rohrback, who has fought Muay Thai for six years, has a record of 4-1-1. “I feel like I’m a technician in standup,” Rohrback said before the fight. “I do have a ground game, but I would rather stay on my feet.”

Unfortunately, Rohrback lost to Castro, but her attitude remained positive. “Any fighter who puts themselves out there, win or lose, you’ve already come out on top because you’re experiencing things most people will never experience in their life.”

Justin Haskell, 36, of Kensington, had better luck in his Dec. 13 debut. “The hardest part of the fight is the anticipation of the fight,” Haskell said afterward. “Are you kidding me? I wanted to leave.”

He complained about the Michael Jackson impersonator half-time show. “Oh my god, I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ I see one more moonwalk I was going to fight someone else.”

This was an important night for Haskell, whose marriage of 13 years recently fell apart and who is now raising his six boys nearly solo – not to mention that about 35 days before the fight he weighed 317 pounds. By fight night, he had lost 52 pounds by eating fish, chicken, spinach, and broccoli, and by rowing and running.

“It makes you a better person all around,” Haskell said about cage fighting. “You have to face your inner fears. It kills your self-doubt.”

With hundreds in the crowd shouting, the atmosphere was electric. 

Chris Kwiatkowski lands a big right hand during a recent bout: Image | Art of War/William McKee

During a pro bout, a woman started yelling, “Come on Vinnie! Get him motherfucker! Kick his fuckin’ ass!” When people glanced at her, she screamed, “You can lick my fuckin’ clit! That’s my cousin!”

But overall, people, while hollering, were relatively under control. With so many fighters in the audience, that may not be a surprise. 

Patrick Brady of Delaware County, the Art of War heavyweight champ, was backstage warming up his teammate Andre Petroski of Springfield, who took the middleweight title that night.

At 35, Brady says he’s old for cage fighting. He started boxing when he was 18 years old but stepped away from the sport as the years passed, until he got sober in 2016 and started up again.

“I don’t know what I attribute that to,” Brady said about why he likes to get shit kicked out of him and pummel others in the cage. “It’s always been in my nature to expel energy in an aggressive way.”

“Sometimes people do it because they’ve been through hard times in their life, and instead of murdering someone on the street, they’ll put themselves in a cage and get their aggression out,” Rohrback said.

“Waking up, you still got to go to work the next day and make a living,” Pipewrench said. “But it’s worth it in the end when you get in there.”

  • Courtenay Harris Bond Headshot

    Courtenay Harris Bond is a Philadelphia-area freelance journalist, who covers behavioral health, social justice, the opioid epidemic, among other topics.