Survival of the fittest 

As veteran officers in the San Antonio Police Department, Pablo Arriaga and Marty Rodriguez are accustomed to high-intensity, dangerous situations. Whether it’s getting a call at 3 a.m. to respond to a domestic disturbance or jumping a 10-foot fence to apprehend a car thief, patrolling the streets is physically and emotionally strenuous.

Most officers savor the moment when they can rest assured they’ve made it through yet another day without a scratch, but not Arriaga and Rodriguez. As the first SAPD officers to join the roster of the Texas Amateur Mixed Martial Arts Association, an organization that formed late last year, a day without a couple of battle scars is a day incomplete.

“The level of preparation that these athletes go through is phenomenal,” said TAMMA president Chip Thornsburg. “The amount of training they go through before we even allow them to step into a ring takes years. It’s not just two guys getting up off the couch and beating the heck out of each other.”

Mixed martial arts first earned international exposure in 1993 when Ultimate Fighting Championship, a no-holds-barred tournament, was held to discover who the best fighter was among a group of athletes who used different fighting techniques, from Brazilian Jujitsu to kickboxing to tae kwon do. In the ensuing 14 years, UFC competitors such as Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, and Chuck Liddell have raised the sport’s profile and popularity. Arizona Senator John McCain called the sport “human cockfighting” in the mid-’90s, sparking a ban in most states and on TV networks, but today UFC is watched more than ever. In 2006, the organization netted more than $200 million in pay-per-view events alone, and a large number of state bans have been lifted in the past six years.

Before Texas finally licensed the amateur version of the combative sport in 2006, mixed-martial-arts fighters had to travel to Louisiana and New Mexico to compete.

“The government was really concerned about the safety of the fighters,” Thornsburg said. “I think they just wanted to wait to see if we had it right before they approved
amateurs.”

It’s fight night and Arriaga and Rodriguez are ready to debut as TAMMA cage fighters on Cinco de Mayo under the Lonestar Pavilion at Sunset Station. Arriaga’s eyes are intense as he walks up the aisle for his match wearing a T-shirt that reads “Fighting Pigs take no prisoners.”

“Don’t let them wrestle!” one overzealous spectator yells at the ref, voicing his disapproval of the more methodical technique, known as “ground and pound,” some fighters prefer. “That’s too human!”

Arriaga has no intention of hitting the canvas with his opponent. He wants a street fight. He wants the knock-out.

As the contest begins, the men feel each other out. Suddenly, fists cut wildly through the air and make contact with body parts. Rage seems to emanate from Arriaga as he provokes his challenger to come closer. The man does and pays the price. With a brutal right hand to the jaw, Arriaga puts the man on his back and scores a first-round KO, the only one of the night. (Later that evening, Rodriguez wins his fight in a unanimous decision after three rounds, giving both officers records of 1-0). The chant of “Pablo” resonates through the pavilion as the police officer steps out of the cage and high-fives some kids who have made their way to the railing along his exit route.

“He’s the cop, right?” another fan asks his friend as Arriaga takes his victory walk to the locker room. “Man, just think what he could’ve done if he had his nightstick.”


Arriaga joined the SAPD Academy in 1994 at the age of 23. While a student at Edison High School, he said, one of his teachers, a retired police officer, would tell him stories about his time on the force.

“That’s how I got interested — just by listening to him,” Arriaga, 36, said. “After that, being a police officer was always in the back of my mind.”

Rodriguez was also inspired to consider a career in law enforcement at a young age. When he was growing up, his father’s friends, many of them cops, would talk about their adventures on the streets.

“It seemed like a thrill — putting somebody in jail that needed to be,” said Rodriguez — also 36 — who joined the academy in 1993 at the age of 22.

During cadet training, Arriaga and Rodriguez met their defensive-tactics instructor, Officer Robert Moreno. Moreno said he was impressed when both men decided to continue a training regimen with him after they had graduated and joined the SAPD. This included training as mixed-martial-arts fighters. Arriaga and Rodriguez say that over the years they have used many of the techniques they learned from Moreno in the line of duty.

“There have been situations where I’ve gotten into bar fights and everything that he has taught me comes into play,” Arriaga said. “We are vulnerable just like everyone else.”

“You deal with all kinds of people out there,” Rodriguez adds. “Unfortunately, people will try to hurt you. It’s an ugly truth, but we have to know how to defend ourselves or recognize certain things to get out of certain situations.”

The biggest difference between handling yourself as an officer of the law and as a mixed-martial-arts fighter, Arriaga said, is that as a member of the SAPD, you have to manage your emotions. When someone is trying to knock you unconscious in a cage, however, it’s a lot more feral.

“On the streets, you use enough `of your fighting ability` to control `the situation`,” Arriaga said. “In a cage, it’s enough to win. I’m going to go in there and unleash everything I know and everything that I have.”

We live in a more confrontational world than ever before, says Moreno. It doesn’t help, he adds, that the “bad guys” are getting into a lot better shape.

“I’ve seen other policemen … get pounded and beaten up,” Arriaga said. “By the time we get `to the scene` they’re hurt. Most of them just have the minimum training they got at the academy.”

According to SAPD spokesperson Gabe Treviño, there is no mandatory training program that SAPD officers must adhere to once they become part of the force, although “an officer can receive two to five administrative days off (with pay) depending on how they score on an annual, voluntary, physical-agility test.” This, Moreno says, is a major problem in the way SAPD handles the physical fitness of their employees.

“Some of the officers that we have … are in pretty bad physical condition,” Moreno said. “Very few take the initiative to train on their own. A lot of these police officers will get into confrontations where they are not physically capable of handling somebody. The weapon they have on their belt can be used against them and then it becomes a matter of life and death.”

According to the most recent SAPD Use of Force Analysis study available online, compiled for 2001 and 2002, SAPD officers used force once in every 56 arrests (1.8 percent). Statistics also show that when force was needed to control a situation, officers used their hands 852 times (79.9 pecent), pepper spray 103 times (9.7 percent), a police baton 82 times (7.7 percent), and a firearm 75 times (7 percent).

“You train as you fight and you fight as you train,” Rodriguez said. “Out here in our line of work, if you get into a fight and you’re not training, you’re in a world of trouble. It’s not mandatory and it should be.”

Tasers were first introduced to the SAPD last December. Officials said these stun guns were an option to help avoid the use of lethal force. However, on March 23, San Antonian Sergio Galvan died after an SAPD officer used a Taser on him when pepper spray failed to debilitate him. Currently, the SAPD owns 160 Tasers, says Treviño. According to Amnesty International, more than 150 deaths have been caused by Taser firings since the ’90s.

Whether a Taser was the cause of Galvan’s or any other person’s death is not the real concern, says Moreno. The number of times an officer has to reach for any weapon when the perpetrator is unarmed would decrease if all officers were at the same level of physical fitness as Arriaga and Rodriguez.

“I think what `SAPD` is doing is putting officers in a more dangerous situation by giving them more options,” Moreno said. “The simplest option would be to teach good grappling skills and restraint techniques. Then `officers` wouldn’t need all those options and we’d have a lot less people getting hurt.”

“When something bad happens everybody asks, ‘Why didn’t you do something else? Why did you have to shoot him?’” Arriaga said. “But sometimes officers just don’t know anything else.”

FIRST RULE OF FIGHT CLUB…

A quick rundown of some of the most important TAMMA regulations:

All bouts take place inside an enclosed chain-link fence, but don’t call it “The Octagon.” That name has been trademarked by UFC, who has given permission to other MMA organizations to use their design, but not the moniker.

Each fight consists of three, two-minute rounds with one-minute breaks in between each round (just enough time to locate missing teeth).

Ways to win include, a) your oponent indicates submission, either verbally or by tapping out (those Indian burns can really hurt); b) knockout (nothing says victory like incapacitating your opponent with a heel to the chin); c) referee stops the fight (he’ll do this if one of the fighters curls up like a roly-poly); d) corner throws in the towel (Thanks, mom!); e) judge’s decision (I just got my ass beat for six minutes and all I got was this lousy T-shirt?).

Ways to get disqualified include head-butting, elbow and knee-striking, trachea mauling, eye-gouging, biting, and hair-pulling (wuss).

FANCY PEDIGREE

The origins of mixed martial arts go as far back as the ancient Olympic Games of 776 B.C. According to the Olympics official website, modern cage fighting is descended from pankration, a primitive form of martial arts that combined wrestling and boxing and was considered to be one of the most brutal sports of its time. Greeks believed that it was created by Theseus during his defeat of the Minotaur in the labyrinth. The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Xenophanes described the sport as “that new and terrible contest ... of all holds.”

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