- This time, Kyle Maynard left home and made his way to Auburn, Ala., a week early.
Two years ago, when he almost made his amateur mixed-martial-arts debut, Maynard held a greater concern about all his fight meant and how much it was despised in the MMA community. He had been home in Suwanee, Ga., where his MMA interest began more than two years before as a high school senior.
But too many people didn't want him to fight. They didn't like the idea of an accomplished high school wrestler who was born with no arms or legs below the elbows or knees with an awesomely inspirational personal story participating in an Atlanta amateur event. The Georgia body that sanctions such events didn't like the idea either, so officials denied Maynard a license to fight, and the issue went dormant.
Until recently. With another push made mostly on his own behalf, Maynard is scheduled to make his delayed amateur MMA debut on Saturday at Auburn Fight Night at the Auburn Covered Arena in Auburn, Ala. The fight's announcement caused major ripples in the international MMA consciousness and reopened the debate about Maynard's place in MMA.
Maynard has tried to avoid that debate this time, changing his Internet home page away from the number of MMA websites he reads daily and moving his training camp to Auburn instead of Georgia.
Still, he's surprised his fight has caused such uproar, and this time he's not reading about it.
"With the Internet being an open, anonymous forum, people feel like they can say anything, things they probably wouldn't say to my face," Maynard told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com) on Tuesday. "That doesn't really surprise me as much.
"It just surprises me how many people fear the sport is so fledgling that if I got hurt, it would end it."
Many in the MMA community have worried this fight is simply a freak show with a money-hungry promoter pulling the strings and talking Maynard into a fight because of a guaranteed big gate.
But Maynard and fight officials say the opposite is true. Maynard initiated the idea, fought for his Georgia license, appealed after its denial and is the public-relations front man for the Auburn show. He's making many of the calls himself, setting up many of the details.
When a reporter calls the Auburn Covered Arena to ask about the buzz surrounding the fight and says his name is Kyle, the receptionist quickly chirps, "Oh, hi Kyle!" But it's not Kyle Maynard, and she apologizes. She explains that it's pleasant to get a call from Maynard because of his passion for the event and his attention to the minor details.
So he calls, what, once a week?
"He calls all the time," she says.
Still, many hold concerns that Maynard will not be safe in an MMA cage. Even though the rules won't allow him to be kicked or kneed in the face, many wonder how he can protect himself from blows, and how could he expect to win a fight except for decision?
"Would I allow a fighter with limited arms and legs in the state of Ohio?" said Bernie Profato, executive director of the Ohio Athletic Commission. "Put simply, no."
But the fight is on, ending a nearly two-year-long saga that made national news for a license denial in Georgia and perhaps even bigger news for the fight's move to Alabama, where there is no licensing body for MMA.
Promoters are not making the opponent's name public because they feel Maynard and fight officials are facing enough heat that they don't need to add another name to the list. Maynard supporters feel he has a strong chance to win because he has the strength of a much larger person but will be fighting 135-pounders.
Whatever happens, the weekend's event will gather plenty of MMA attention, and supporters say that detractors will be surprised with how competitive the fight will be.
"I was extremely concerned about Kyle fighting mixed martial arts until I got to know him better and saw all the things he can do," said David Oblas, president of Undisputed Productions and the fight's promoter. "Once you get into Kyle Maynard the athlete, you see he's quicker and stronger than most people, his arms extend long enough to protect his head, and his power to punch is tremendous.
"As the sport of MMA grows larger, we're getting more amateur fighters who don't have a damn clue. They train in their dad's garage, and because they watch 'The Ultimate Fighter,' they think they can fight. Kyle studies this; he knows what he's doing. I feel safer putting Kyle Maynard in the ring with no arms and no legs than almost all of the 0-0 fighters out there."
And this time, Maynard says he isn't fighting to show people he can. He says he's doing it to show himself that he can.
Path to MMA
Maynard was born March 24, 1986, with a condition called congenital amputation, which left no elbows or knees or limbs below them.
His story, famously chronicled on numerous television talk shows and in his 2005 book "No Excuses," includes a desire at a young age to begin wrestling. After finding a coach to give him that chance, Maynard lost all of his matches during his first two seasons of competition.
By 2004, he competed in the Georgia High School Sports Association wrestling championships and finished his high school career with a varsity record of 35-16.
His story then jumped into the national consciousness as Maynard made appearances on shows including the "Oprah Winfrey Show," "Good Morning America" and "Larry King Live." He won the 2004 ESPY award for Best Athlete with a Disability.
But Maynard wasn't only a wrestler. His passion extended to building his body, where he met similar success. In 2005, at the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio, Maynard set a world record for modified bench press with a lift of 360 pounds.
Since, Maynard has become a motivational speaker, author and student. He also continued his wrestling skills in submission grappling tournaments in the Atlanta area, from which he met several figures in the Georgia MMA community.
Soon, he would approach those figures with an idea that, admittedly, made them uncomfortable at first.
A years-long passion
Maynard's MMA interest began in earnest with a 2004 phone call from Randy Couture. The MMA legend heard Maynard's impressive story and invited him to Las Vegas and into his dressing room during a UFC event.
The next spring, still stirring from the experience, Maynard was at the Arnold Sports Festival and noticed amateur registration for an on-site MMA event. He was spotted by noted MMA and weightlifting trainer Steve Maxwell, who pulled Maynard aside and showed him some remedial techniques.
Maynard lost the fight, but he quickly fired up his computer when he returned home.
"I was awestruck," Maynard said. "I was just floored."
Maynard quickly found an MMA gym in Athens, Ga., where UFC veteran and would-be light-heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin trained. Again using the moxie that served him in overcoming other obstacles, Maynard made contact with Griffin through a mutual friend and set up a lunch.
There, Maynard grilled Griffin on MMA.
"I was just getting more and more sucked in," Maynard said.
In the three years since that lunch, Maynard was been training for and learning about MMA. He earned a blue belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu from Paul Creighton, who runs a school in Duluth, Ga.
Soon, Maynard felt he was ready to be tested in the cage.
Struggling to fight
The Kyle Maynard MMA controversy began nearly two years ago as Oblas was leaving a weigh-in for one of the fights he was promoting and his cell phone rang. Maynard, whom Oblas knew from the Atlanta area, was on the line.
"He said, 'I want to talk to you about something,'" Oblas said. "I'm thinking, 'OK.' Kyle says, 'I want to fight MMA on one of your cards in Atlanta.'"
There was silence for a few seconds as Oblas digested the request. Oblas asked if he could call Maynard back in a few minutes.
"It hit me like a ton of bricks," Oblas said.
Once he recovered from the initial surprise, Oblas phoned Maynard and began planning the fight, which was set to appear at one of Oblas' successful string of Wild Bill's Fight Night events in Atlanta on Sept. 14, 2007. Oblas began promoting the fight, and he and Maynard applied for Maynard's fighting license, thinking there would be little resistance.
Instead, problems emerged. At an August 2007 meeting, the Georgia Athletic and Entertainment Commission denied Maynard a license to fight by a 4-0 vote, citing concern for his safety in an MMA event.
"The fights are brutal," J.J. Biello, the GAEC chairman who is paralyzed from the neck down, told the Los Angeles Times soon after the ruling. "I feel for the fellow, but I've also seen fighters carried off to ambulances on stretchers. In all good conscience, I don't think Kyle can defend himself."
Maynard demanded he would appeal, and he lined up affidavits from trainers and ring doctors and videotapes to prove his point that fighting didn't endanger him more than it did any other fighter. The appeal didn't go far.
Oblas, meanwhile, had more problems coming. On Sept. 4, 2007, the GAEC fined Oblas $500 and suspended him as a promoter for three months for promoting Maynard's fight before he was licensed.
"Our argument was that if you look at every single fight in Georgia, the same thing has happened," Oblas said. "But I was punished, and I accepted it."
No excuses, redux
The idea of a Maynard fight then gathered dust. For several months, Oblas continued with his daily business and the promotion of his Wild Bill's Fight Night events.
Several months ago, the idea resurfaced when Maynard suggested Alabama as a site, which forced Oblas to reminisce on his college days. A 1998 graduate of Auburn University, Oblas had always wanted to promote a show at his alma mater, and the realization that no licensing would be necessary for Maynard rekindled the thought of his amateur MMA debut.
Oblas and Maynard scouted the location and liked the feel of the college town. They worked putting fliers on every post possible, scheduling Maynard to speak to fraternities and other campus groups about his motivational tale and why he wants to fight MMA.
It hasn't been easy setting up an opponent, either. If you win, you've beaten the guy with no arms and no legs, so of course you were expected to win. But if you lose, you've been beaten by the guy with no arms and no legs.
Maynard just wants someone who will be an honest opponent.
"Kyle wants someone who will not hesitate to punch him in the face," Oblas said.
Oblas, frankly, has faced moments of exhaustion from the fight preparation, but then Maynard will call with another idea for promotion or marketing. He wants to fill the 7,000 seats and make this a legitimate event. He wants to get a rowdy crowd to treat him like any other MMA fighter, like it would any of the other 20 or so fighters who will appear in the cage Saturday night.
The difficulty and opposition have worn on fight officials. All, it seems, except for Maynard.
"I don't know how he deals with it," Oblas said, "when it eats at me this much."
Controlling the cage
Cam McHargue first began fighting in competition 22 years ago. After 12 years, he retired from fighting and started a career as a referee and instructor with two martial arts schools that has seen him become a respected figure in Georgia MMA.
With that background and experience, McHargue has what some would consider an undesirable responsibility on Saturday. He will be the referee in the cage when Maynard fights, and he'll be the one with the task of making sure MMA doesn't destroy Maynard, as many fear.
He's glad, though, that he's the one with the opportunity.
"I don't want some quack in there," McHargue said.
McHargue has known Maynard for several years after first making contact with him in Atlanta's circuit of submission grappling tournaments. The two have sat and talked about different aspects of MMA, and like seemingly everyone else who has discussed the topic with Maynard, McHargue has been impressed with his dedication and interest in the sport.
So McHargue didn't hesitate when Oblas e-mailed asking if he would be interested in being the referee for Auburn Fight Night.
The rules, in fact, actually work in Maynard's favor, McHargue said. Because he has no knees or legs below them, Maynard is always considered a downed fighter, so his opponents cannot strike him with their legs or feet.
The necessary close combat gives Maynard a fair and very real chance, he said.
"I think Kyle's going to win this fight," McHargue said. "If the opponent tries to engage him, Kyle is strong enough to take him down. Kyle didn't have an accident part way through his life; he was born like this. He hasn't had to adjust, so he knows how to handle all the moves he needs.
"Kyle has the body and strength of a 200-pound person, and he's fighting 135-pounders. From a strength standpoint, it's just not fair."
The biggest question
So how, exactly, does Maynard fight?
Maynard laughs at the question, but he understands it. For those who haven't seen him grappling or rolling in training, it might seem strange to think about him performing jiu jitsu moves or striking an opponent.
He can do both, he says. Although submission grappling was his foundation block for training, he has built more experience. Because his opponents can't strike him from leg distance, he waits for them to move closer, blocks as much as he can with his arms and works to get that opponent to the ground for blows or grappling.
"My arms go from shoulder to elbow; it's not like I have no arms at all," Maynard said. "Five weeks ago I did a 420-pound butterfly press, so I have the power in my arms to deliver strikes. If I had to guess, I'm probably stronger than a lot of 135-pounders."
Which is his advantage. While he can't do all the moves, supporters say, Maynard has the unbalanced strength to at times submit and yes even pound.
"I mean," Maynard said, "I can punch back."
Closing in, heating up
As the fight has neared, message-board and Internet chatter has increased. From anonymous fans to respected MMA officials, many have showed concern that letting Maynard into the cage could cause him serious damage.
Not just that, some say, but it's unfair to any opponent.
"With the situation with his limbs, it certainly limits your submission attempts, which is difficult," said Nick Lembo, a legal counsel to and acting head of the New Jersey Athletic Control Board who also heads the Association of Boxing Commissions' MMA committee. "It's part of the sport, and you're changing the sport. Then also there was a concern with chokeholds, with being able to recognize that he was tapping out.
"I commend him for his efforts and abilities. He's a talented and outstanding wrestler, but when you for whatever reason medical or otherwise start taking away facets of the sport and say, 'This is not permitted, you can't do this, (and) you can't do that,' then it's not the sport."
Other state officials agree that the fight causes some concerns.
"How many times does he get punched in wrestling?" said Profato, whose Ohio Athletic Commission regulates more MMA shows than any other U.S. state. "There's just less protection from being struck. It's unfair to put somebody in there who has an automatic competitive disadvantage. I don't think I would let him fight."
But, to many, Maynard was born a fighter. Whether it was struggling for normalcy in daily actions, a chance in high school wrestling or a shot in MMA, Maynard learned how to battle. He might not have taken a punch to the face in an MMA cage, but he has faced his share of verbal body blows in the past two years.
With just days remaining before his first exam on the topic, Maynard is like most debuting fighters. He has butterflies, and he wants to prove to himself that he can win.
"Hopefully," Maynard laughed, "I go more than 30 seconds."
Award-winning newspaper reporter Kyle Nagel is the lead features writer for MMAjunkie.com.