Rock Island, Ill., has some of the worst roads in the United States. Fortunately, they all led to one place over the weekend–the QCCA Expo Center, home of Caged Aggression IX: Return of the Champions, a groundbreaking two-day amateur MMA event.

Perched on the bank of the Mississippi River, the plain-faced expo center stands as an icon of teamwork and unity for local environmental groups. On the inside, smooth concrete floors, naked steel trusses and a high wooden plank ceiling weave an image more akin to an aircraft hangar than a sporting venue. For mixed martial arts, however, the stripped-down appeal felt just right. Seating in the 4,600 square foot auditorium began with a circle of V.I.P. tables, moving out to a section of fixed chairs and on from there to standing room, which was occupied both nights. It all added up to a scene you’d expect to encounter at a pre-1970 Bob Dylan concert. That is, before the lights came on.

The doors opened 90 minutes prior to showtime, and fans mingled about with spirited anticipation. The staff was highly attentive and treated attendees like gold from the moment they walked through the door. But what was to be expected here? Was this another small-time amateur show better held behind the closed doors of a poorly lit basement? Would three-minute rounds make for a surplus of uneventful decisions, or even worse, would there be an endless string of squash matches due to poorly trained wannabe fighters? There was good reason to brace for disappointment of some degree. After all, advertising a lineup of 50 top Midwest fighters, nine title tilts and two full nights of fighting makes for a substantial amount of hype to back up.

The moment arrived and the auditorium was transformed. A towering video screen lit up the far wall, with additional strategically placed monitors coming to life throughout the venue. An eight-sided cage sparkled beneath professionally rigged club lighting as dozens of spotlights and green lasers pierced the air. It was a nice bit of Vegas glitz, and much more than one would expect at an amateur event. However, it still wasn’t enough to quell my general apprehension.

While delightful to the senses, the sight of all these bells and whistles made me wonder if they were a compensation, and thus put an even finer point on the question—Am I going to be embarrassed to be seen here? In the end, I was embarrassed only to have asked the question.

Caged Aggression IX rolled out fight after fight of raw violence mixed with refined technique, shaking the 60,000 square foot expo center to its foundation. It would be an understatement to say that the fighters “brought it,” and many of the fights were so active that the two extra minutes per round I was used to went unmissed.

Both nights, the aggression delivered a bounty of epic moments. Moments like Anthony Nache’s blistering 23-second TKO of Adam Gilligan to claim the lightweight title, and Eric Shelton’s dazzling come-from-behind fourth-round submission victory over Justin Reed.

“Man, I didn’t really have a strategy. I just wanted to come in here and get it done…I love you all,” Shelton told the crowd.

And others like Andrew Bucy’s divine armbar transition to complete an early first-round finish of Andre Avila and retain his flyweight title. And the gutsy back-and-forth battle between Robert Reed and Rory Schwass where not only knees, but teeth went flying. Truly, something for everyone.

The selected walkout music fit the throwback venue to a tee, featuring everything from Jimi Hendrix to John Fogerty to Lynyrd Skynyrd, all sounding across a high-quality P.A. system. Detailed video profiles of the fighters preceded each bout, just like you’d see in the majors. A highly professional staff never missed a beat and could often be seen hustling to get into their positions. It was not only relieving, but refreshing.

The turnout was impressive, a standing-room-only enthusiastic crowd of all ages. Fighter support was phenomenal, with the atmosphere at times feeling more like a Devils-Rangers game, if not the orchestra pit of a Metallica concert. They love their locals in the Quad Cities.

Everywhere, there was evidence of the amount of labor that went into this landmark amateur MMA production—a production that made a lot of professional MMA shows look bush league. In all, the ambitious undertaking of promoters Mike and Kim Goodwin went off without a hitch, providing a weekend of entertainment worthy of the gods.

Fans would witness no Diaz-brother middle fingers, no Chael Sonnen microphone grabs and no kicks heard ’round the world. Rather, only solid, entertaining fights with well-matched opponents. In fact, Saturday night’s main event title finale between Royce Arnold and David Harris was one of the most evenly matched fights I’ve ever seen. It was—on the part of both fighters—an epic display of heart and grit, with action running the gamut of mixed martial arts style and technique. Before it was over, both men’s faces were rife with battle wounds, and when the final bell sounded I was certain that others besides myself would have paid a new admission to see a sixth round.

Making a surprise guest appearance Saturday Night was Barb Honchak. “The Little Warrior” talked about her upcoming Invicta FC fight with Vanessa Porto and introduced the women’s title fight between Kim Woods and Jenna Fox. Honchak also cornered for several fighters in Saturday’s lineup.

It all came together in a successful MMA double-feature weekend, and one which heralded the birth of the Supercard. But as cliche as it sounds, you had to be there. To “embrace the grind,” as one staff member’s t-shirt read. Shows like this are what create future legends and give stability to the sport we all love. Yet, few are as full of pleasant surprises and eye-popping moments as Caged Aggression IX. It was eight hours of unbridled energy and a flash on the MMA screen that those of us who made the journey—and experienced the Caged Aggression—won’t soon forget.

Caged Aggression IX Awards

Friday Night
Knockout of the Night: Anthony Nache
Submission of the Night: Stephen Gladhill
Fight of the Night: Robert V Reed vs. Rory Schwass

Saturday Night
Knockout of the Night: Jordan Sanford
Submission of the Night: Andrew Bucy
Fight of the Night: Royce T. Arnold vs. David Harris

Photo: Caged Aggression IX Logo

About The Author

Robby Collins

Robby Collins considers himself a johnny-come-lately to the sport of MMA. He was introduced to it less than three years ago but has since delved into the sport at all levels. As an aspiring fiction writer, Robby adapted his skills to promote his latest passion and landed with The MMA Corner by way of personal initiative and auspicious timing. Robby has dabbled in karate and wrestling, and is currently learning to kickbox.

  • Robby Collins

    Author’s note: Special thanks to Sherry for making me feel like royalty, Kim for getting me set up with the internet, and Phil and Danny for adding another dimension to the show. Final shout out to the beautiful and classy Jamie and Katelynn, for making the cage so much easier on the eyes. (we all appreciated the photo opps, too)