The body odor permeating the confined South Philly arena runs about as deep as the 700 people packed inside. The floor is sticky. Many in the crowd are drunk. On this July evening, they’ve come from near and far with a common goal: to witness someone “get knocked the fuck out,” as one fan puts it, during a night of mixed-martial-arts cage fighting.
Inside the cage, Nathan Vantassel, a Central Pa.-based fighter with an extensive kung-fu background, is set for his first professional match. He’s going head-to-head with seasoned Philly fighter Matt Nice, a small, pasty, mustached Jiu-Jitsu-trained mixed martial artist. The bell rings. They feel each other out, exchanging brief kicks to the legs. Nice slowly backs away, watching his opponent closely and dodging short, tight punches to his face, then getting tossed against the cage. Within seconds, Nice explodes, landing two punches to his opponent’s temple. Vantassel goes limp and falls hard on his back. On his way down, he suffers two more hits to the jaw. He’s lifeless.
“Welcome to Philly!” screams a fan. A blue rubber-gloved medic opens the door to the cage and rushes in, waving his arms and blocking Nice from doing further damage to his opponent.
Nice climbs the cage, straddles it and raises an arm in celebration to the cheers of dozens of fans and friends down in the crowd.
In the midst of the excitement, a youngish-looking blond-haired man in a green tie and black suit poses for a photo with a fan in the front row. They stand next to each other, arms over one another’s shoulders, the other hand at shoulder height balled into fists.
The guy in the suit is 26-year-old Fran Evans, and tonight’s festivities are compliments of his MMA promotion, Locked in the Cage.
It’s been two-and-a-half years since Pennsylvania legalized professional mixed martial arts and Evans is betting the sport—once deemed too violent for American viewers and called a “human cockfight” by politicians nationwide—is set to explode in Philadelphia. If it does, it’ll be at least partly because of him. “Here in Philly, the scene is already really big. But the world don’t know it, and neither does the country. I need to change that,” Evans says.
Locked in the Cage’s first event was held in November 2009 at the Alexandria Hall at Sherman Mills in East Falls. Evans sold about 2,000 tickets. Since then, he’s put on shows at the Philadelphia Armory and the South Philly arena. He’s hoping to move up to larger venues like the Class of 1923 arena in West Philly, the Liacouras Center and, eventually, the Wachovia Center. “I have to be able to do small-time shows first,” he says. “I mean, I’d love to go straight to selling 10,000 tickets for a single event, but that’s not how it works. Thinking like that is how companies go out of business.” Locked in the Cage tickets usually range from $40 to $85.
It’s just a week before the South Philly fight and Evans’ phone is ringing off the hook. His desk—one of two in the 500-square-foot Port Richmond warehouse space he’s been renting for a week since moving out of his Kensington home-office—is a mess, full of old fliers, tickets to future shows, plastic bags filled with rubber bands and sauce packets from various fast-food restaurants. Hundreds of Ultimate Fighting Championship DVDs sit stacked knee-high in a corner. Three large place cards, numbered 1 to 3, are scattered across the floor. A bloodied pair of shorts sits in a picture frame, leaning against a white wall. Somewhere in the mess, Evans puts together cage-fighting shows.
There’s tons of work to do before the 11-match fight night and Evans is visibly tired. He’s been staring at a computer all day, reading profiles at MMA.tv, watching amateur mixed martial arts fights on YouTube and negotiating deals with trainers across the eastern seaboard. There are still many details to attend to, including making sure the hotels for the out-of-town fighters are set up and that everybody’s ready for the pre-fight weigh-ins in a few days.
Luckily, he has help.
The second desk in the office belongs to Paul Miles, a 30-something social media professional Evans hired a month ago. The two met when Miles—having spent his 20s moving from job to job—decided to take some time to pursue a dream. “I wanted to be involved in sports,” he says. So he a got a job working as assistant general manager for a semi-pro hockey team, and with a little extra time on his hands, became a self-described MMA nerd. Miles, who sums up his fighting career as having “jumped a kid in seventh grade after he said some shit about my mom,” started a blog all about local MMA and forced himself to learn as much about the sport as any fighter or trainer.
Impressed with Miles’ self-taught knowledge, Evans hired him as matchmaker and director of operations. Their business plan was to promote local guys and prepare them for the next level of MMA fighting.
“MMA used to be a circus sideshow,” says Miles. “Fifteen years ago, it was no-holds-barred, raw-dog shit fighting, where the biggest fighter was a guy ... who was nothing but a danger to society. But … it’s gone from two guys who fight in a cage to avoid going to jail to mixed martial artists who are some of the best athletes on the planet.”
From 9 a.m.-to-whenever, Monday-through-Friday, Evans and Miles are very business casual. They do a lot of research and take plenty of notes. They argue with trainers and managers over fighters’ weight classes, their spot on the fight schedule and money.
Evans also gets help from his childhood friends, whom he hires on a contractual basis from time to time to help promote his shows. “I’ve known Franny since he was just a little kid,” says buddy Pete Carter, who could easily win a DJ Pauly D (from MTV’s Jersey Shore) look-alike contest. Carter helps keep track of the hundreds of emails Evans receives daily and the street teams around the city, planting Locked in the Cage signs into soil along city avenues, posting them up on telephone polls and tying them to fences. Also on the street team: Local friends Marty Seider and Joe Fultano, the latter of whom photographs the events.
KING OF THE CAGE
Being stuck inside an office is relatively new to Evans. The 150-pound son of a boxer began his MMA career inside the ring. He’d racked up about 50 amateur boxing matches by the time puberty hit. “When I was growing up, we were always fighting,” he says, describing a scene from the early ’90s, in which a local kid three years his senior challenged him to a fight on the street after hearing Fran was a grade-school boxer. “I made him back up until he fell completely off the bike. Then I got a few good shots in before everybody jumped him.”
Local mixed-martial arts promoter Fran Evans, 28, hit a bump early this year with his local outfit Locked in the Cage. The South Philly arena, where he’d been holding his fights, folded. His public relations assistant left, and a match he later held in Bucks County flopped. It made him ponder his future in the business, and come to a not-so-shocking conclusion.
Training out of the Philadelphia Fight Factory—with an impressive record of 16-2—the prizefighter is a long way from his scrappy, street-fighting days in the hood: He no longer spends his Friday nights pummeling his way through impromptu melees, with nothing but the will to win. These days he prepares for fights diligently and professionally, and spends his weekends taking on highly skilled opponents for ESPN Bellator’s new lightweight tournament.