Trucking into the cage

| February 03, 2008

Todd and Tamera Sturgis, team drivers – subject and director, respectively, of the film Under Pressure: Diary of a Cage Fighter’s Wife

Todd and Tamera Sturgis make a unique trucking team. Driving for Nationwide Magazine & Book Distributors out of Irving, Texas, the Sacramento, Calif.-area natives haul such well-recognized titles as People and Sports Illustrated magazines. Todd’s a sometime stand-up comic, and Tamera’s modeled for the “Stacked & Packed” series of calendars as well as in other venues. But as in trucking, it’s Tamera and Todd’s collaborative effort as director and subject, respectively, in the documentary film Under Pressure: Diary of a Cage Fighter’s Wife that truly sets them apart.

In 2003, collegial banter became reality. Todd, a then-budding fan with his best friend, Bill Vincent (to whose memory the film is dedicated), of the mixed-martial-arts combat you can see today on Spike TV’s The Ultimate Fighter, had long bounced around the idea of getting into the octagonal cage that is the sport’s ring. As he and Bill watched Ultimate Fighting Championship and other MMA-league videos, he says, “Bill was always egging me on, like ‘You could take that guy.’”

Sturgis had been a wrestler through high school and in college at Chico State in the Sacramento area, but he’d been a long-haul driver for close to a decade and was 40 pounds overweight. “My wife exercises on the road,” he says of Tamera. “She eats healthy, jogs.

We’ve had different exercise machines on the truck.” Todd, however, typically just drove and slept. Without a clear goal, his ambition in the area of fitness just wasn’t sufficient to keep him in shape.

When he told Tamera of his plans to train for an MMA bout, she took it for just more talk. But he persisted. As Tamera tells it, “So I said, ‘How about this: you get into fighting shape and then we’ll think about going into the fight process.’”

Todd promptly, in summer 2003, joined the Extreme Sports Fight Club in Marysville, Calif., and began training. “That wasn’t what I had agreed to,” says Tamera. But she went along with it and began documenting his training with a digital video camera.

Todd’s first trainer believed fighting was its own training. “I wasn’t even in shape,” says Todd. But the trainer came from a street-fighting background, as do many, but by no means all, MMA fighters. “He’s tough as nails,” Todd says. “Some part of me wishes I was like him. At the same time, lock me in the cage and I’m ready to go. But I don’t have to do that every practice.” At the 10th practice, Todd suffered a cracked rib that put him down for weeks.

Meanwhile, Tamera was having trouble just watching him. “More and more I was thinking, wow, this is ridiculous. This has been brutal, and this is just the training. How am I going to be able to watch him fight if I’m having trouble watching him train?”

Upon the injury, she sought out Valerie Fanshier, the wife of another fighter, James Fanshier. Valerie had been through the same process Tamera was making her way through. Tamera felt the weight of the shared experience, and a greater story began to emerge. “At that point,” she says, “more people, friends and family, were aware of what Todd was doing and I’d been documenting. They were telling other people, and I thought, wow, there’s a lot of interest growing around this.”

Her husband’s goal of winning in the cage dovetailed with one of her own, just then manifesting itself: she would turn his story into a film. The end result, Under Pressure: Diary of a Cage Fighter’s Wife, debuted last August in the cinema at Jubitz Travel Center. The flick is both a personal saga and a documentary of the tight-knit but lately exploding world of mixed martial arts, a sport still unsanctioned in many states. Like the burgeoning interest in the sport, the film is remarkable for the raw emotion and heartfelt intensity expressed. With voiceover, live action and in-depth interviews with fighters, trainers and the families that surround them, Tamera’s directorial debut paints the MMA world in three dimensions, exploring both the impetus for and consequences of the fighting spirit.

On-screen, as Todd shapes into a worthy fighter, Tamera follows the contemporaneous struggles of James Fanshier (a middle-school teacher by day) and another fighter, Jaime Jara, whom Todd knows through Sacramento-area wrestling circles. Both are fighting for popular area MMA group TeamX. The drama of TeamX’s rise in popularity as a breeding ground for top fighters plays out in the cage, as Jara suffers a broken orbital bone in a fight for the mid-tier league Gladiator Challenge’s heavyweight title in one of the film’s many dramatic high points. Something of a grudge match between members of rival teams, the fight is over in fewer than 10 seconds, as Jara’s challenger, Scott Smith, lands a punch to Jara’s face and he goes down. The fighter’s mother and the rest of his family watch in horror, and Jara plans for a rematch.

Meanwhile, Tamera’s fears are eased as, eight months into his training, Todd comes to a realization that his gym is doing nothing for him but exercising his strengths. “I was a good wrestler,” he says. “But I was not learning boxing. All I was doing was trying to survive.”

With Tamera’s encouragement, Todd moves to the Sheridan, Calif.-based No Limits Fight Team, where he embarks on a more methodical route in his training on his way to the film’s finale, his first official fight.

Will he win? See for yourself. The film’s available at www.mycagefighter.com, and Tamera’s hoping for larger-market distribution in the coming months. Watch the site for updates.

Todd’s retired from the cage these days. “Off and on I’ve thought about doing it again,” he says. “But I can’t really train, being a truck driver. It’s so hard to run so much, being out on the road, and watch your diet.”

Plus, he says, the couple’s spending their weekends promoting at events, such as the North American Mixed Martial Arts Expo, the first convention of its kind, in Anaheim, Calif. – a high point on their continuing journey.


The MMA ‘Surge’
Competitive mixed martial arts is a phenomenon in a definite upsurge in popularity, led by the dawn in 2005 of The Ultimate Fighter, the Spike TV reality show that trucker Todd Sturgis, a big fan of the sport himself, describes as having brought the drama of any good match to legions of new fans. “It became the No. 1 show on all TV networks for 18- to 24-year-olds,” he says, “and that’s including NBC, CBS, HBO, Showtime and all the other networks.” Today, the show is poised for its 7th season.

The wider MMA world is a loose conglomeration of organizations, with the Ultimate Fighting Championship and World Extreme Cagefighting, owned by the same parent company (WEC fights are regularly broadcast on Versus), at the top. All the organizations have their own weight-class titles, a structure similar to boxing world. In the Sturgis’ cage-fighting film, you’ll see fighters competing in the Gladiator Challenge and King of the Cage organizations, both of which routinely graduate fighters to the larger organizations.

Sturgis says the recent profusion of leagues is ample evidence of the growing acceptance of the sport by the mainstream. A few years ago, he says, “there were just four [organizations]. Now there’s 25 or so – the Midwest has four or five, the West Coast has five or six, Hawaii has one.”

Feeding the organizations, in turn, are local gyms spread across the United States. It’s this view of the sport, from the ground up, that gives the the Sturgis’ film its real power. It’s the gyms and their trainers and fighters that make it all happen.

Follow the Links:
Ultimate Fighting Championship
www.ufc.com

World Extreme Cagefighting
www.wec.tv

Gladiator Challenge
www.gladiatorchallenge.com

King of the Cage
www.kingofthecage.com

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