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The fight is the easy part, says Cesar Llamas, as the 145-pound mixed martial arts fighter grapples his training partner to the mat inside of the cage, preparing for his big title fight Saturday in North Carolina.
It's easy for Llamas because he’s at Elite Combat Martial Arts in Galax five days a week, hardcore training, conditioning, learning every fight scenario and brawling for hours in preparation for his title shot for Carolina Fighting Promotions in Wilmington, N.C.
After eight months of training, Llamas, 34, won his first amateur fight. He has a 3-0 record, winning his second — and first professional — fight by knockout a year ago and then winning another by submission.
Typically, these mixed martial arts (MMA) fights only go three minutes for three rounds, but now Llamas has to double his endurance training for the five-minute, five-round fights.
Despite his small build — and the fact that his opponent has a 5-0 record and has trained for eight years — he isn’t intimidated.
And this fight is no joke. His opponent has won fights in less than a minute.
Fellow Elite Combat fighter Michael Kennedy said that's the key to Llamas winning — if he can force his opponent to last longer than a minute, Llamas will have him in a position he's never been in. “He may not have the endurance to last longer than that, and Cesar can take him.”
Training at the gym under world-class fighters for three years now, Llamas now has the mind-set of a warrior and is ready to take home the championship — and the cash reward he’ll earn from the title.
Llamas plans to use his strength and skills to turn the odds in his favor, he said.
“It’s the reward of winning, building my record up and getting more challenges that’s keeping me focused,” he said. “And the more I do it, the more I feel better.
“At Elite, I know every day is going to be different than yesterday, and I walk away knowing something each time.”
MMA, a full-contact combat sport, uses a variety of fighting techniques, including a mixture of martial arts traditions, striking and grappling. It may look like a brawl, but like every sport, competitions have rules and regulations.
Llamas will also be paid to show up at the competition, including travel expenses.
“It’s like I’m getting cloned,” he said, referring to the skills he's learning from his martial arts instructor and world-class athlete Dean Pyles, owner of Elite Combat. “I’m like a sponge absorbing my teacher’s knowledge, which progresses my game.”
Pyles teaches everything from strength training to cardio to fighting techniques, both on the ground and standing. In fact, Pyles said the training provided at Elite has such an exceptional reputation, some students drive six hours on weekends just to train at his facility — including those who own other martial arts studios.
That’s a compliment to Elite, Pyles said.
Some call Elite the “Rocky gym,” in reference to the Sylvester Stallone movie.
“I don’t just tell them how to fight,” Pyles said.
Out of nearly 70 amateur and professional fights, only three Elite students have lost, due to judges' decisions, Pyles said, as he points to the trophies lining the shelves around the studio.
Pyles just needs to make sure that Llamas is better conditioned, better prepared and can predict his opponent's moves by knowing every scenario.
It seems Llamas is on the right path, following a strict diet and listening to his coach. Pyles reminds Llamas that the sport is 80 percent mental and only 20 percent physical.
“I give them no breaks,” Pyles said of his intense training techniques. “I push them because I want them to go beyond where they think they can go.”
MMA is more than throwing punches. For the California native, it’s about discipline, dedication, self defense, building friendships and improving health. Llamas said it’s the strong bond between all the students that sharpens each other's abilities.
Llamas, a wood finisher for his father-in-law’s company, doesn’t look like the person who would fight just for fun. In fact, he’s never been in a real-life fight and presents a friendly demeanor outside the cage.
Before Llamas joined Elite, he couldn’t even run a mile. Now, he can run it in less than 10 minutes.
After Llamas moved from the West Coast to Galax three years ago with his wife, Nicole, he watched the pounds melt away. Three years ago, he weighed in at 180. Today, he’s down to 145.
“The first thing I wanted to do when I moved here three years ago was to train to fight,” he said. “Now, I’m just so excited I’m going to put my skills to use and test myself.
“Since I’ve been in it, my confidence level has gone way up. It keeps us in shape and you meet some of your best friends here.”
Though the hardest part is spending time away from his family, he has 100 percent support from his wife, daughter Mia and son Kendal.
“It makes me glad that I did the move. The only thing I miss is the beach,” said Llamas, whose other passion is surfing.
While the competition may be depicted as brutal, there has never been a death in mixed martial arts in the United States, Pyles noted. It’s not even an all-male sport anymore.
“This is a sport. And instead of drugs or drinking, these students are hitting the gym,” he said. “It allows them to feel good about themselves.”
Not only does it provide the health benefits, but just the knowledge gained can also help students defend themselves and their families.
Pyles said after this fight is over, he wants Llamas to keep going as far as he can. They have big dreams that one day Llamas will enter the Ultimate Fighting Championship — the major leagues of MMA.
“It doesn’t matter if he wins or loses. We still love him and there’s no shame in taking home second place,” said Pyles. “That’s how he’ll learn and will continue to progress.”
After this fight, Llamas plans to fight four times a year.
“Whether I win or lose, I’m going to continue to do it because I just love it.”