A Message from Missoula’s MMA Fighters: All Blood Spilled Must Be Wiped Up

Editor’s note: Make it Missoula has partnered with the University of Montana’s Online News class, taught by Jule Banville, to create a new Citizen Journalism feature that’s all about local views and issues. We’re excited to provide these students with a platform so they can objectively explore and report about the topics they think reflect the lives and times of Missoula and its citizens.

By RUSSELL GREENFIELD, UM Student Journalist

On the night of Aug. 13, Jason Zentgraf, a Missoula mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter, entered the caged ring at the Swinomish Casino in Anacortes, Washington.  Across from him stood his opponent, a veteran fighter and former UFC contender, Mario Miranda.

Zentgraf raised his hands and stared at his opponent. The bell sounded and the battle started. Zentgraf, the assumed underdog, knew he was in for a tough fight, but decided to meet Miranda in the center of the ring calm and relaxed, letting his training take over. Three rounds later, both men stood side-by-side in center ring tired, bruised, and anxious, waiting for the judges’ decision.

While this may seem like a typical brawl scene, getting to a point where you fight a former four-time UFC contender means you show a commitment that can cause you pain and injury. And also bring glory and fame.

Jason Zentgraf warms up for practice by throwing combinations on the bag. Photo by Russell Greenfield.

Zentgraf, unlike a lot of his college-aged peers, spends his Sunday mornings at Great Northern Fight Club on South Street across from Campbell Park, throwing liver shots and jabbing people in the face.

Five years ago, he hadn’t heard much about MMA. It was through a friend who’d signed up for MMA practices that Zentgraf got the opportunity to try it out.  He was attracted immediately. “It’s the mental aspect. It humbled me and taught me how to be more respectful,” he says.

Repeated success defines Zentgraf’s amateur — and now professional — career.  Within three years, he’d already become one of Montana’s most prominent amateur fighters. With an 8-0 record and two, two-time amateur championship belts, one in Montana and the other in Washington, going pro wasn’t even a choice for Zentgraf. “Promoters just couldn’t keep finding me amateurs that wanted to fight me,” he said. “It was either wait around or move on.”

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The mixed martial arts scene in Missoula has been growing at a rapid clip since the early 2000s. In 2003, the Dog Pound Fight Team opened as one of the first gyms primarily dedicated to training MMA fighters.

Matt Powers, owner and head coach of Dog Pound, says they weren’t really welcome in Missoula at first. “People just thought we were a bunch of thugs when we started,” he said, “but with the UFC and the TV series ‘Ultimate Fighter,’ the public became more educated and saw we were athletes.” According to Zentgraf and Powers, Dog Pound split up because of differing philosophies and goals in 2008. “Guys just wanted to go in different directions,” Powers says. From there, the Great Northern Fight Club was born.

Zentgraf catches Tom Goots in an arm bar submission during a jujitsu free-roll practice. Photo by Russell Greenfield.

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The training it takes to obtain and maintain the status of a professional MMA fighter is something Zentgraf says only those with a strong mental desire can achieve. Since going pro, he’s had to make major life changes.

A full month and a half before a fight, “I start with changing my diet. I check everything for fat.” Instead of butter in the pan, it’s Pam spray. “I never use mayo or eat skin on meat, and about a month out I stop drinking alcohol,” he says. During a slow month, when he has some time off, Zentgraf walks around weighing a bit over 200 pounds, but as a middleweight contender, he has to drop down to 185.

Watching what he eats is only a fraction of what goes into his pre-fight prep. Besides attending the University of Montana as a full-time student – he’s a senior in applied health sciences — Zentgraf trains and coaches himself and 30 other fighters every day in what they call “the dungeon.”

In the basement of the Sports Exchange on South Third Street, accessible by a narrow flight of stairs, the Great Northern dojo is comprised of two dimly lit rooms. One is full of hanging punching bags, the other, open mats. Pipes snake through the ceilings and sides. Stepping on the dojo’s main mat, the sign on the wall is clear: “All blood spilled must be wiped up.”

It’s here on these mats that Zentgraf and his team members train no fewer than 10 hours a week. That’s a slow week.  Zentgraf also teaches a children’s class twice a week and an MMA class at Gold’s Gym every Saturday at 11:15.

But when it’s within a month of a fight, Zentgraf primarily hones his own skills, not just to win, but to make sure his fight is one to remember. That’s especially true in Missoula, when his family is out there watching. Both his parents and grandparents have made it out to a few of his bouts. “My mom is supportive but worries, I can tell. My father really likes MMA and has no problem with me doing it. And my Grandpa loves me fighting.”

Three of Jason Zentgraf’s amateur middle weight title belts hang on the walls of the GNFC dojo. Photo by Russell Greenfield.

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What draws athletes like Zentgraf to the sport and motivates them to remain committed differs among fighters. Tom Goots, an amateur fighter for Great Northern, says it’s the team members who keep him going. “It’s the brotherhood, man. I love all these guys. They are the hardest workers, all great good guys. And they are also warriors. Look at them, man.”

Goots’ sentiment isn’t isolated. Some Dog Pound fighters like to show their commitment by getting a “DP” tattoo, but Powers, their coach, says it’s something they have to earn. “If you train, cut weight, then fight in the ring, you can get the DP tattoo. Win or lose, we just wanna see the fighter try their hardest.”

Each fight proves to be a new lesson for Zentgraf. He feels his time in the ring has humbled him and taught him an appreciation of people around him. It keeps him out of trouble. “When I’m downtown and someone talks trash trying to start something, I just walk away. I know I could probably kick their ass, but what’s the point? I have proven myself,” he says.

He wasn’t always so confident. When looking back to his very first bout against DP fighter Tim Welch, who’d later be a GNFC team member for some time, Zentgraf remembers exactly how he felt. “I used to be nervous and jittery before a fight. Now I’m completely calm,” Zentgraf says. “My favorite part of the fight is the crowd, I love to keep the crowd entertained.”

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That’s exactly what happened the night of Aug. 13. Although the experts predicted a quick defeat, Zentgraf became the buzz on TVs screening the live pay-per-view event on GFL Fight Night Entertainment, with the announcers sounding shocked. Zentgraf landed punches all over his target, never showing any clear weakness.

One of two Great Northern Fight Club training rooms in the “dungeon.” Photo by Russell Greenfield.

When the bell rang, the fight could have easily gone to his opponent. “His strategy was to keep it on the ground and take me down to get extra points. I almost knocked him out a few times,” he says. But the decision didn’t go Zentgraf’s way: “He took me down enough times to win it.”

Zentgraf was not disappointed. He had represented himself and his club admirably and showed he could tango with the pros. He also came out with yet another lesson. “I learned to never leave the fight in the hands of the judges. I need to always finish the fight. That was the only fight out of 12 I have never finished.”

In the next few months, there will be plenty of opportunities for Zentgraf to finish his fights. He’s looking to go north of the border into Canada for a bout, as well as checking into fights at various casinos around the Seattle area.

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Russell Greenfield is a senior majoring in journalism at the University of Montana.