Sayers: From basement brawler to feared fighter
Without knowing any better, people could walk right up to Dane Sayers, introduce themselves and shake hands.
But after learning about Sayers' unique abilities, they might think twice the next time. That's because, for an average Joe, shaking a mixed martial artist's hands is like grabbing a loaded pistol: he could just as quickly pat you on the back as send you bleeding to the floor.
As an MMA fighter, Sayers, 22, is practiced in multiple forms of combat, including muay thai, Brazilian Jiu jitsu and wrestling. He is a weapon of mass destruction in his own right - at least in the ring. Outside, he is a Network Administrator, loving husband to wife, Megan, and devoted father to nearly 1-year-old son, Aden.
But even in his day-to-day life, Sayers eats, sleeps and breathes MMA - a full-contact, no-holds-barred combat sport combining a wide variety of fighting techniques. Much like the sport itself, which has grown from underground obscurity into a cultural phenomenon, Sayers has morphed under the limelight. And unlike some, his transformation was natural: MMA is what he was born to do.
"It is my greatest passion, I just love it so much," Sayers said. "If I'm not actually fighting, then I'm probably thinking about fighting."
With a 7-1-0 career record and No. 6 national ranking among unsigned prospects 25 and younger, Sayers has made a name for himself since beginning the road down MMA nearly four years ago. After graduating from West Fargo High School in 2006, he knew he wanted to be a professional fighter but didn't know where to begin. With a multi-sport background in track, football and wrestling, however, Sayers had accumulated key fundamentals and necessary tools that would help him along the way.
For his parents, Bonnie and Dale, the transition from high-school athlete to full-contact fighter wasn't much of a stretch.
"It didn't surprise me," Dale said. "Dane has always been a very competitive person. He's been in sports since the fifth grade."
"I didn't have any reservations at the time he started doing MMA," Bonnie said. "I looked at it as what it is: a combination of boxing and wrestling and martial arts."
Sayers literally began his fighting career from the bottom up. For four months, he toiled away with five other fighters in a gloomy, dank rented basement in downtown Fargo that had been converted into a gym. The group practiced grappling and other fighting styles as best they could, considering the environment.
"It was creepy," Sayers said. "After you went down the elevator, there was this dark, narrow hallway. And all the other rooms were vacant."
Eventually, Sayers left the dungeon and focused specifically on weight training. For nearly five months, he didn't know what the next step would be. It appeared as if his fighting career was over even before it had begun.
Then one day while wailing away on a punching bag, Sayers bumped into a man who would change his life: Ethan Boyle, a veteran mixed martial arts fighter with the willingness to help Sayers bring his fighting career to the next level.
"He had a legitimate interest in training and teaching," Sayers said. "It was fast-paced, tough training; he wasn't holding anything back.
"A lot of guys probably wouldn't want to do that, but I kept with it."
Boyle upped the ante in ways Sayers hadn't dreamed. The young fighter thrived under his new teacher's guidance, learning different techniques while specifically channeling his wrestling background to cope with the relentless punishment on his body and mind. Boyle pushed his apprentice to the brink.
Career at the top
But all Sayers' work paid off. On April 26, 2008, he found himself facing his first opponent, an experienced fighter named Nick Thiele. Thiele had the advantage as far as ring-time, and Sayers was filled with nervousness and excitement. Boyle helped steel his emotions.
"Ethan said 'you can beat this guy,' so I believed him," Sayers said. "I really wanted to win that first fight. I knew if I did, it would give me good momentum to further my MMA career."
And win he did. At 1:38 in the second round, Sayers defeated his foe by submission with a rear naked choke hold. He savored the victory, but yearned for more.
Three weeks later, Sayers fought again - and won.
"After that second win, I knew I wanted to keep doing this," he said.
It was the start of a successful seven-bout stretch in which Sayers won by submission all but one time, when the referee stopped the match in Sayers' favor because of strikes. Sayers was undefeated, and his family was along every step of the way.
"Our entire family is very supportive," Bonnie said. "We all enjoy watching him."
But even simply watching doesn't come easy. During MMA events, several fights occur throughout the night, with different individuals squaring off each time.
"We're probably as nervous as some of the fighters," Dale said. "It's kind of funny because, when Dane got started, he fought first, so we could sort of relax afterward.
"But now, with his record and reputation, he's in the last or one of the last fights: it's nerve-racking."
Bonnie laughs: "I'm just glad to see him do it in an arena where I don't have to be responsible for anything"
Even so, both parents see their son's full-contact pursuit in a positive light.
"In a lot of ways, I felt like when they're in the cage, it's a lot safer than football," Bonnie said. "In football, you have 4-5 guys coming at you, and you don't have a ref just steps away, watching your every move."
As Sayers gradually climbed the fighting ranks, he also changed trainers. When Boyle became injured during a fight of his own, Sayers moved on to the Fargo Brazilian Jiu jitsu Academy. He was there only a short time before running across the Academy of Combat Arts, his current training facility. There, Sayers expanded his knowledge and honed skills necessary for his MMA development. It made him sharp.
"You know how they say football is a game of seconds and inches?" Sayers said. "Well, MMA is a game of milliseconds and millimeters."
Up until his most recent bout, Sayers had been largely untested. A veteran fighter, Tat Romero, changed that. The Hibbing, Minn., native pushed Sayers and sparred through a full five rounds. With no stoppage from blows or submission, the decision came down to the judges: the result was split and Romero got the edge.
Sayers took his first career loss, but he looks back at it with a grain of salt: it was a close match.
"I knocked him out three times during the fight, but he kept getting up," he said. "Fighting Tat raised my stock a little."
Sayers uses all of his fights to help prepare for the next go-around. Before every match against an opponent, Sayers watched footage to grasp specific fighting styles; how a fighter fights will impact how he attacks and defends. Sayers also watches his old fights, to learn from mistakes so there aren't repeats.
He begins training hard for a fight roughly two months ahead of time, though he visits ACA several times a week in between fights to stay loose. He watches what he eats, and spars with 10 or more fighters at the gym on a regular bases. Being unprepared isn't an option, and with a chance to go five 5-minute rounds, the scrap isn't a sprint, it's a marathon.
"It's a cardio sport," Sayers said. "But it's also a mind game. It's like chess: you have to think two or three steps ahead all the time."
Good MMA fighters possess specific qualities, so many, in fact "if I explained them all it could fill a page," Sayers said. "But the most important things are mental toughness, work ethic and physical toughness."
Fighters also have to know what it's like to perform in front of a crowd.
"You know the guys that can't talk in front of large groups? I'm one of those guys," Sayers said. "But you put me in a cage and I'm calm. It's crazy."
The future of MMA
In its infancy, MMA was known as an underground "sport." The word "sport" was used loosely, as most instead viewed it as a barbaric, uncoordinated, unsophisticated brawl. Mostly untrained fighters were pitted in "cage matches" and set loose like pit bulls in a dog fight.
For a time, MMA didn't get respect from the media or the public.
But all that has changed. Now, leagues such as Ultimate Fighting Championship and World Extreme Cagefighting have shaken up the sports world and taken it by storm. Whereas traditional combat sports like boxing have seen dwindling fan numbers, MMA is drawing crowds in droves. Stars like Anderson Silva, Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell are the Tysons, Holyfields and Alis of their day.
And Sayers sees it only as the beginning.
"It's growing," he said. "It's definitely going to get bigger in the F-M area, too."
Bonnie agreed: "Now, you have the athletic board in the state involved, and fighters have to be licensed. I foresee this as something that will be in the Olympics in the future."
Sayers has high hopes for his own future, and is looking forward to the next phase of his MMA career: UFC.
"I 100 percent believe I will be fighting in UFC within the next 5 years, barring any injuries or anything," he said.
That chance may come sooner than expected. A sponsor of Sayers', Fargo bar JT Cigarro, has funded travel to Charlotte, N.C., on April 1, for a casting call on the reality TV show "The Ultimate Fighter." The popular series, now in its 12th season, pits a group of unsigned MMA fighters against one another. Through several rounds of elimination, the final victors are handed contracts to fight professionally in UFC. Sayers will be auditioning for a Lightweight spot at 155 pounds.
If all goes well, Sayers will get his chance to fight in the big show. If and when he gets there, Sayers sees himself continuing for years to come. First, however, he has to get his foot in the door. If "The Ultimate Fighter" doesn't pan out, Sayers will just grind it out in the ring.
His next local bout is April 24, at the Urban Plains Center. UFC fighter Chris Tuchscherer is presenting "Spring Brawl," and Sayers has an uncanny connection to the host.
"Tuchscherer actually started out with Boyle, too," he said.
If Sayers wants to further his MMA standings, he knows "Spring Brawl" will be a critical stepping stone.
"I don't want to lose my next fight," he said. "If I fight hard and do well, I might get my foot in the door."
His parents have no doubt he has what it takes to do just that.
"I think Dane is going to keep going as far as he possibly can go," Bonnie said. "He gets a lot of respect in the MMA community because ... he's willing to give 110 percent."
"I wish I had a tenth of the discipline he does. I admire him and it makes me want to be a better person when I watch him. He has the ability to stick in there even when it's really, really unpleasant."
With his repertoire of fighting skills, along with the support of loved ones, there is no doubt Sayers has what it takes to be a force in MMA.
It's just a matter of getting there.