The Hold Steady: Foster (bottom) hopes to make  pro bouts a regular thing.
The Hold Steady: Foster (bottom) hopes to make pro bouts a regular thing. Credit: Photograph by Charles Steck

Ron Foster already has two jobs. He’s a police officer with the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Belvoir, and he works overnights on weekends as a security guard for an intelligence contractor. He’s also a single parent with two young children.

For most folks, that’s a work week. But this Saturday, Foster starts yet another job. He’s getting in the ring at the D.C. Armory for his first professional bout in mixed martial arts (MMA). That’s the sport generally called ultimate fighting.

“I really enjoy the sport of fighting,” says Foster, 29, a veteran of our war in Afghanistan who fought eight amateur MMA bouts during a previous deployment in Hawaii. “If I can get paid for it, why not?”

If there’s ever a good time to jump into a pastime that allows your opponent to knee you in the temple, now’s that time.

Foster, who says he’s been guaranteed $500 for fighting and another $500 if he wins, won’t be the only first-timer at the Armory. His opponent, Kyle Baker out of Richmond, is also making his pro debut.But, more notably, the card itself will be a first: Until recently, ultimate fighting was banned in D.C., and it remains prohibited in all but a handful of U.S. states. Last year, promoter and martial arts enthusiast Omar Olumee went to the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission and asked for the city’s ban to be lifted so he could put on a show. Olumee pointed out how much money MMA-friendly jurisdictions were making off live events, and he was granted a license to throw his own fight party. This will be the city’s premiere ultimate card.

“I just said that the sport is growing like crazy, so why not here?” says Olumee, who grew up in Northern Virginia and owns a local karate school. “It’s huge underground, and there are big pay-per-view audiences all the time now. The big boys of the sport [a Vegas promotion called Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC] are looking for new markets. So, I’m trying to just open the door here.”

MMA is well on its way to replacing boxing as the blood sport of choice among young Americans. Live boxing can no longer be found on American broadcast networks, save Spanish-speaking channels. But this season MyNetworkTV (formerly UPN) premiered a weekly ultimate fighting series called IFL Battleground.

Last weekend’s MayweathernDe La Hoya fight from Las Vegas—featuring one old pro who retires after every fight and another who said after the match he was done with boxing—was hailed by a lot of ring observers as the last boxing match that mattered. And not of the month or spring or year. The last match ever.

Following the bout, a split decision that went to Mayweather, commentator Jim Lampley pooh-poohed boxing’s imminent demise and from ringside threw a verbal haymaker at the fledgling fight game that threatens to replace the sport that made him rich and famous.

Not even the best ultimate fighters, Lampley huffed, are “within light years” of Mayweather or De La Hoya when it comes to fighting skills.

To the casual MMA observer—the older casual MMA observer, anyway—Lampley’s pro-boxing blast sure rang true: Muhammad Ali’s footwork, for example, could make Gene Kelly weep. Yet Chuck Liddell, by far the best-known MMA purveyor and a reigning UFC champion, has no discernible footwork. And the knockout blows found on Liddell’s highlight reel don’t look any more refined than the sort of punches thrown by your douchebag buddies on a night on the town.

Yet within minutes of his commentary, fellow HBO fight analyst Max Kellerman blasted Lampley and put MMA purveyors on the same skills plane as top boxers. Kellerman is 32. Lampley is 58.

Olumee says he’s a fan of boxing and isn’t ready to write off the elder sport. But if he didn’t spot a trend, he wouldn’t be risking money on the Armory promotion.

“Boxing is for your dad,” says Olumee. “MMA is for the son.”

And, to those in the know, there’s a lot more to MMA than tattooed tough guys throwing big right hands. That’s why Foster, who is both tattooed and quite tough and can work with his hands—punches are called “strikes” in MMA parlance—has been training for all sorts of fighting possibilities beyond the fistic sort.

Last Sunday, he was on the mats at Kim’s Karate in Springfield going through his last full-out workout before the pro debut. Three training partners, all black belts or higher in karate and/or jujitsu, took turns going at him in five-minute segments, for a straight half hour. (His debut fight is scheduled for three five-minute rounds.)

As his children frolicked in an adjacent playroom—“They come to every workout,” he says—one partner after another grappled with Foster, who spent most of his time trying to figure out ways to cut off blood to his opponents’ brains. No punches were thrown, but the workout was brutal enough to make onlookers tired just from watching. Tunes, to use the word loosely, including one called “No Chance in Hell” by the industrial-metal band Dope, blared over the studio’s sound system at 747 levels, adding to the already mega-testosteronious vibe in the gym. (Sample lyric to the song, which is best known as WWE guru Vince McMahon’s ring-entrance theme: “In my world I’ll break your face! This is my world!”)

The partners, each of whom was much bigger than the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Foster, took breaks. Foster didn’t.

As his debut approaches, Foster doesn’t fear taking a boot to the head or any other sort of knockout blow, though he’s aware that might well happen. He is only afraid that he’ll let himself down.

“I’ve trained so hard for this. I’m as ready as I could possibly be,” he says. “So if I get in there and don’t throw my hands, or if I tire after a few minutes or don’t give my best for whatever reason, that’s what I’m afraid of. If I get in there and give it everything I’ve got and do everything I’ve been taught and then lose, that’ll be fine with me.”

Foster joined the Army straight out of high school. His current commitment runs through fall 2009. If his ring-fighting career takes off, and MMA’s growth continues, he says he might go the civilian route and see how far his newly learned skills can take him.

If not, he’ll continue fighting for his country, and he hopes that the training he’s picked up during his MMA pursuits could lead to a teaching job in the Army’s combatants program, a regimen formerly available only to elite soldiers such as Rangers.

“The training in the combatants program is pretty tough, but it’s nothing compared to what I’m learning now,” he says with an embarrassed laugh. “I’ll just destroy those guys now.”