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By CLAY CUNNINGHAM
Journal-Democrat Staff Writer
DALE – As mixed martial arts continues to gain popularity across the country, two Spencer County residents are attempting to bring more attention to the sport locally.
For years, Kyria McBrayer, a Cannelton graduate who resides in Dale, had no connection to MMA and was barely aware of its existence. That changed in 2005, when she began a relationship with Dan Christison, a professional fighter she met online.
Upon meeting Christison, whom she would marry in 2007, her liking of the sport became so strong, it inspired her to map out a plan that “would bring martial arts to the community.”
From that came Indiana Fighting Championship, an MMA and kickboxing organization which has held six fights between combatants primarily from Indiana and Kentucky since 2011. They will host a seventh this Saturday at the Cannelton Community Center.
Though he was heavily involved in bringing the organization to life, Dan credits his wife with being the driving force, joking “You don’t really get the opportunity to say no to your wife on too many occasions and still get to sleep soundly.”
To help fighters prepare, Christison established “The Sandbox,” a dojo on the top floor of the Dale Community Center in 2009. It is here where he trains both IFC fighters and several others who have come to simply learn the basics of MMA.
While the dojo’s name is partially inspired by his nickname, “The Sandman,” Christison says it also comes from his desire that it be seen as a place where prospective fighters can “come and play.”
Though they are both pleased with how IFC has expanded since its inception, the Christisons have endured several setbacks since forming the organization.
For starters, Kyria, a self-described “control freak” said it’s been difficult to keep a steady fight card because injuries and conflicting schedules with fighters have consistently left her and her colleagues to adjust on the fly.
“There are just so many factors into (booking matches) that it’s hard to plan ahead,” she said.
The biggest problem, however, is what Dan believes to be a misconception that the sport is nothing but brutality.
Christison has fought all over the world in MMA organizations such as Ultimate Fighting Championship and the International Fight League, compiling a professional record of 20-7 from 2001 to 2010. This experience has given him an intimate knowledge of what it takes to succeed at a high level.
Because of this knowledge, Christison said it can be frustrating when people are seemingly drawn to the Dojo purely out of bloodlust with little regard for how technically sound a fighter must be.
“There’s a lot of hard work that comes with this,” Christison said. “A lot of people have the capacity to do this but they would rather go home and drink a beer. (And it’s a shame) because this area has a lot of base athletic talent.”
And while there is sparring, a regular two-hour session at “The Sandbox” is hardly an action packed affair, as Christison goes over various fighting techniques with students, which they practice both alone and with a partner, in a process that is heavy on repetition.
It’s through these occasionally monotonous sessions that Christison hopes his students, who at a March 7 training session ranged from 15 to 38, will learn that winning a fight, which he referred to as “a three-dimensional chess match,” requires an equal dose of mental and physical strength.
While some have resisted putting in the work, a devotion to Christison’s methods have paid off for several of his students.
A regular at the dojo, Santa Claus native Richard Harris has been working with Christison for six years and will have his second bout with IFC this Saturday in the 185 class.
A former bodybuilder, wrestler and Heritage Hills football player, the 38-year-old Harris has been honing his craft for years and says putting in all the necessary work has made his MMA participation all the more rewarding.
“It’s gives me something to keep me motivated,” Harris said. “If people would give it a chance they would see it’s more than just violence, it's about competition. It's no different than football.”
One sign that things may be looking up for IFC came recently when the usually strenuous affair of having to make a last-minute adjustment to the fight card turned into a serendipitous bit of good fortune.
After a fighter had to pull out of the Cannelton event, McBrayer-Christison got in touch with Ryan Ewbank, a competitor and member of the U.S. Army currently stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
Not only was Ewbank able to step in, he’ll be competing in front of several family members, as his mother, unbeknownst to McBrayer-Christison, lives in Cannelton and was actually a high-school classmate of hers.
“The MMA community is huge, but it's also really small,” McBrayer-Christison said.
In addition to holding more regular competitions, McBrayer-Christison said she’d like to eventually hold events that are exclusively kickboxing, though she has no plans to pull kickboxing from MMA events. And while IFC is always looking to expand, no one has any intention of uplifting it from its local roots.
Aside from a love of competition, the Christisons are drawn to a tight-knit sense of community that is established between mixed martial artists and their fans and believe that with continued work, such an intimate connection can be made locally.
“It’s very important for me to stay local,” Kyria said. “I like the family feel and I don't want to get so big that we lose that.”
Doors for Saturday’s event will open at 6 p.m. with the fights starting at 7:30.
There are currently 12 MMA and eight kickboxing events scheduled, though the card is subject to change.
For more information call McBrayer-Christison at (812) 661-9438 or visit indianafight.com.