ESPN / February 18, 2011

by Cameron Conaway

LAS VEGAS — The glamour and ostentation, the nonstop in-your-face blinking casino lights, the billboards of half-naked women and the magnificent high-rise buildings. Las Vegas is made possible by the seemingly impossible.

Wrangling the Colorado River to create Lake Mead — the world’s largest reservoir — Las Vegas is a world of water created in an essentially waterless desert. Some call it unsustainable. Some call it man’s most miraculous accomplishment. Nobody would call it modest. But at Xtreme Couture Mixed Martial Arts, modesty abounds, as does the unexpected.

The training center is filled with all of MMA’s tools of the trade: a tire to pound on, tons of mat and cage space, battling ropes, human-shaped heavy bags to throw around. This is all housed in a simple white building with a small “Xtreme Couture” logo. One might even drive past the location a time or two if looking for signage befitting the enormous amount of talent inside.

Once inside, a helpful man at the front desk greeted me. He looked familiar, but I was too excited to get started with the submission grappling class to wonder who he was.

“I’m Ryan,” he said. “I’ll get you hooked up so you can get started with class.”

I looked around at the walls and saw pictures of Randy Couture, Frank Trigg, Tyson Griffin and Ryan Couture. Yes, Ryan Couture was the modest front-desk worker who, before I put it all together, said “I train here sometimes but don’t teach” when I asked him if he was an instructor.

As intense loudness can become a sort of silence, intense silence can become unbearably loud. Too much expectation often results in the unexpected. The unexpected came in the form of the pre-workout conversation I had with a fellow student. The conversation swiftly moved beyond where we were from and what brought us to Xtreme Couture. Instead, somehow, we dove into the Darfur conflict.

This student had been a U.S. Marine stationed in Sudan. A story unfolded about a bomb that exploded, about the best friends it killed, about how it left this Marine temporarily disabled. I listened intently to the horrors seared into memory, about how the media shows so little of them. I listened to the difficulties this Marine had, and currently has, in reintegrating into American society, of living life after having witnessed — among other tragedies — masses of writhing, starving babies being slaughtered in the name of “ethnic cleansing.”

Before I stepped onto those mats at Xtreme Couture, I reflected. It’s all too easy to tuck the world’s problems deep into our brains. It’s easy to fill a gas tank and not wonder where the oil came from or where it’s going. It’s all too easy to go to a grocery store, grab food off the shelf and have no idea where it came from, how it was grown or how the workers who grew it were treated.

This did not exactly prep my mind for the guard sweeps that instructor Dennis “The Piranha” Davis showed us, but it did make me realize how inconsequential sports can be, even to rabid fans like ourselves, in the wake of happenings like “old” and too-often overlooked events like those still happening in Darfur, or even the current Egyptian crisis. So enthralled was I by this Marine’s story that I barely noticed when Jay Hieron and Amir Sadollah walked past me.

Just before class I noticed a man with a neck as thick as one of my thighs watching a few fighters train. I looked again. It was Randy Couture. In person, he is far thicker, far larger and stronger-looking than he appears on television. He has the sturdy, functional build that only develops after years and years of grappling. As someone used to meeting and training with elite fighters, I did not expect to be nervous if I saw him.

Yet I froze up and could barely introduce myself to him. Randy’s been an inspiration to me for quite some time, but I sure did not expect to feel like I had stepped in wet cement when I saw him. He was intent on watching the training, and I was intent on not bothering him. I also wanted to get in some good training. My mind was everywhere. Another unexpected occurrence: With Randy filming movies and traveling so much, I did not expect that the two hours I had set aside for visiting his gym would result in my meeting him.

After grappling, I did some kickboxing training with another excellent instructor — Tim “Bring the Pain” Lane.

In the hours before visiting Xtreme Couture, my mind was purely on mixed martial arts. In the hours that I spent inside Xtreme Couture, my mind was purely on the beauty and ugliness of humanity. I thought of Georgia O’Keeffe’s quote: “To create one’s world in any of the arts takes courage.” I knew I had to recreate fragments of this experience through the art of writing so it could be shared with the readers of Sherdog.

At Xtreme Couture, I learned counters to left hooks, jabs and crosses. I left the gym wondering about the counters to prejudice, discrimination and racism.