The chant sounded similar to one I’d heard before while watching countless UFC events on television, but its intensity was ratcheted up considerably. After all, most of the people who chant a fighter’s name during an event at the MGM Grand probably don’t know him personally, but when that fighter plies his trade in front of a hometown crowd at the Exposition Hall at Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Wis., there is a much stronger connection.

Such was the case at Madtown Throwdown 29 Saturday night, when undefeated lightweight Tyler Hellenbrand faced Robert Couillard in the night’s co-main event. Hellenbrand, the Madison-based top-ranked 155-pounder in Wisconsin, prevailed over Couillard via unanimous decision to move his professional record to 6-0, and if he wasn’t inspired by the crowd’s strong support, well, the man probably has ice water in his veins.

Aside from the price of admission, this connection between fighter and crowd is probably the main difference between watching a big-time MMA event and watching a local one, and that connection was on full display Saturday night.

Madtown Throwdown began promoting shows in 2004, and owner Pat O’Malley and his partners have done well to create an MMA event to rival most others at its more independent level. Most of the promotion’s fighters are from Wisconsin or Illinois and are looking to build their resumes locally before moving on to bigger promotions, but this certainly does not make for boring bouts. The back-and-forth Hellenbrand/Couillard affair was, without a doubt, the fight of the night on Saturday. The night’s headlining bout featured UFC veteran Eric Schafer, who handed fellow light heavyweight John Poppie his first professional defeat, finishing him with knees and punches inside the distance to close the show on an exciting note.

But, again, it’s not just the fights that make local MMA shows so much fun, it’s the whole environment.

The crowd for Madtown Throwdown 29 was probably not as populous as O’Malley would have liked, but I knew as soon as I walked into the Expo Center that these folks were there because they love the sport of MMA. After all, they were foregoing a Green Bay Packers playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings to be there—a true indicator of these fans’ dedication to MMA in Wisconsin if there ever was one. My fellow spectators were enthusiastic and excited even for the night’s four amateur bouts, never taking their eyes off the fighters as they exchanged strikes and locked up for takedowns.

O’Malley, ever in work-mode, stalked the floor as the show began, making sure everything was in order. A former fighter during MMA’s “dark ages,” the owner of Madtown Throwdown has spent several years turning his show into a high-quality event. I first met O’Malley when I interviewed him for a podcast I used to produce about Madison. During that interview, O’Malley said that during his fighting career, he had been treated like a king some times and treated like garbage others. Turns out, he said, everyone loves being treated like a king, and he has instilled this philosophy in crafting a product that any other independent MMA promoter would envy.

The arena was clean and offered terrific views of the cage even from the standing-room spots. The cage came equipped with three sizable spotlights to illuminate the action, and the fights were overseen by referees and judges appointed by the State of Wisconsin (which began regulating MMA in 2010). Each fighter came out to his own entrance music—including amateur flyweight Andrew Bucy, who in a bit of a unique turn came out to Rush’s “Limelight”—and was afforded the full array of corner supplies for in between rounds. This last part actually caused a bit of consternation for O’Malley early in the event, when he discovered that the corners had not yet been equipped with stools. Ever the vigilant promoter, he quickly reminded his subordinates of the way things needed to be, and the situation was quickly remedied.

With many of the trappings of a major MMA show in place, all that was left were the fights, and did they ever deliver. Amateur or professional, all 20 fighters on the card put forth their mightiest efforts, fighting in front of the few hundred people at the Expo Hall as if they were fighting in front of thousands in Las Vegas. Needless to say, the action alone was worth the $50 of a reserved-seat ticket.

And then there were those things you really only see at a local show to make it even more valuable. Like the guy who would always cheer for the local fighter, but never bothered to learn any of their names, instead preferring to just yell out the city where the fighter was from. Or the eight-person, all-female cheering section that went absolutely nuts for Morgan Sickinger, who won his fight over Matt Wikoff by submission.

Most powerful of all, though, was the palpable connection I felt between fans and fighters, and how those connections make the fights so much more emotionally significant for the people watching. Tyler Hellenbrand got by far the biggest pop of the night when he was introduced, and it seemed like the entire crowd was waiting with bated breath as he attempted to work his way out of a very tight triangle choke midway through the fight. He would prevail, as mentioned before, and the local crowd was absolutely eating it up.

That connection can sometimes have negative consequences as well, like with amateur Dillon Schultz, whose sizable group of friends and supporters were seated directly behind me. They were rabid with their cheers as the fight began, but as Schultz’s opponent, Christian Vasquez, began to break him down, so too did he break the morale of Schultz’s fans. Soon, their shouted words of encouragement turned to cries of desperation, and Schultz was finished just a short time later. He wasn’t too badly damaged and would join his friends in the crowd after getting examined by the event’s medical personnel, but no one wants to start their night by seeing their buddy get beaten up.

Some of the fighters who competed at Madtown Throwdown 29 might never make it to the UFC, and so for them, these moments in front of Expo Hall crowds probably mean so much. These fighters have not yet been corrupted by fame, and so it was not uncommon to see them wandering the floor Saturday night after they had finished competing. The mutual appreciation between fan and fighter was never on better display than during those brief interactions when a random guy tells an amateur welterweight how great he did and the two strangers shake hands and share their mutual love of MMA.

So next time an independent MMA promotion is putting together a show in your city, I strongly encourage you to make the investment and check it out. While Tyler Hellenbrand’s future in MMA is up in the air (he’s certainly off to a great start), the crowd on Saturday night made him feel like a hero. For $50, I’ll be a part of that any day of the week.

Photo: Madtown Throwdown Owner Pat O’Malley addresses the crowd (Eric Reinert/The MMA Corner)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.

  • Wisconsinpitbull

    Ask Pat O’Malley just how many fighters HAVE gone on, from their beginning roots with Madtown Throwdown, to reach the stage on both National and International MMA events. Red Schaeffer is a UFC veteran, as is Nick Thompson (who was unable to fight due to last second issues), but beyond those two there have been scores that have fought outside of the Midwest, for nationally recognized promotions. A number of prior MTTD fighters have tried out for TUF as well!

  • Eric, thanks for the kind words. We had an attendance of just under 800. A small showing for a January show but considering what we were up against (Packer playoff game) we were pleased with the gate. We’ve had more guys move forward to international events than any other show in the region (over 50 this far). The beauty of the Madtown Throwdown is that these fighters are willing to fight the best competition they will ever face, on a regional show. None want to make it to the highest level feeling like they didn’t earn it. The other factor that is regularly underestimated, is the fans. Without them, none of this would be possible and my job would be pointless, so thanks to the entire community for 8 1/2 years of endless loyalty to the Madtown Throwdown. Can’t wait until May 11th!