Josh Clark, a bulky, red-haired fighter from Fairbanks, paced the cage in Sullivan Arena like a pit bull waiting for dinner. Jesse Cruz, an Anchorage fighter, swaggered in through a puff of fake smoke. A rosary tattoo circled his neck. It was near 9 p.m. on a recent Wednesday. They went to their corners.
Air horn! Round 1.
Cruz and Clark breathed spittle around their mouth guards. Fists connected with flesh. A kick. Cruz doubled over. Cup shot.
"Aaaoooooowww!" the audience sympathized in unison.
Time out, said the ref.
I sat cage-side. To my right, a writer for a national fighting magazine tucked a fat pinch of tobacco in his lip. I looked at the faces around the chain-link ring. Dude. Dude. Dude.
And then there was Sarah Johnston.
Johnston stood near the opening to the cage, eyes glued on Cruz, her blonde pony-tail streaked with hot pink. A little bit of tattoo showed from the sleeve of her right arm. She sipped a Red Bull.
Johnston, a 27-year-old single mother and former mortgage broker from Wasilla, took over the Alaska Fighting Championship three years ago. As a woman, she's an unlikely cage-fighting entrepreneur, but she has grown AFC from a family hobby to a full-time, profitable business that's drawing national and international attention as well as thousands of local fans. Fighting hooked Johnston about the time she was old enough to crawl on her dad's lap in front of cable television, she told me later. There was something visceral about it, shocking and addictive all at once.
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