VALDOSTA, Ga.-Women's shrill screams pierce a din of shouts in a crowded South Georgia bar. Inside a black-wire cage sitting on the bar's dance floor, two men struggle for leverage, sweaty and shirtless.
"Underhook, underhook," someone commands.
"Your head is low, your head is low," a friend yells.
Mark George shoves his black-gloved palm against Stephen Eakin's face, forcing it away. It's only the first round of a mixed martial arts bout and George's face already is flush. Sweat beads roll from his short-cropped black hair. His brown eyes sag. His belly balloons, then contracts.
George, known to some as "Beeker," weighs 258 pounds, about 30 pounds past his prime. Most of George's mass lays in piles of muscle that coat his ox-like neck, shoulders, arms and chest.
A six-hour drive away from the Vegas Nightclub in Valdosta, in some Chattanooga and North Georgia bars, George's name calls up memories of the past, days when he was known as a man who threw bricks when he hit.
In Valdosta, those bricks just aren't landing.
"Should've done more cardio," he'll say after the fight. "I'm heavy. I'm way too heavy."
George's opponent is younger, 27 to George's 43. As the round plods on, George's hands slow, throwing lazy punches that loop through the air, glancing blows that don't connect.
"Tink, tink, tink."
The judge hammers a metal bell and George slumps to his corner stool, head down. The first round is over and so is he. He waves to the ref, who looks at him, shakes his head.
"No, no, no, no, no. You're lying," cries his training partner, Bobby Peavler, standing in George's corner. Turning to the ref, Peavler almost pleads, "He's lying."
He's not. He's throwing in the towel.
George now has his first professional mixed martial arts loss, another moment in his life that was supposed to lead to something better, to get him over the hump and on his way, but instead left him in the same familiar place. Promises unfulfilled.
George is the kind of guy who nearly everyone's seen or known. He's the guy in high school who came late to class but slid by on charm. He's the overly talented sports star who could skip practice and still play varsity. The cutup, the popular guy whom everyone liked.
For some, the athletic talents were good, just not good enough. Others couldn't seem to get out of their own way, always making the wrong decision when the right one was staring them in the face. Still, most of those guys put together a life, got a job, a marriage, some kids.
In the deepest part of them, though, lives the bright gleam of those former days.
Around Chattanooga, where George grew up, he is the local tough who's tossed pro wrestlers, some with natural-disaster nicknames like Hurricane, out of bars. Before any formal training, he won seven or eight local amateur boxing tournaments in the first round, knocking men silly.
The nickname Beeker, however, goes back to junior high, when two girls told him he looked like Beaker, the skinny-headed, tousle-haired lab assistant on "The Muppet Show."
As a former pro fighter, his biggest moment came on an HBO undercard fight prior to Evander Holyfield beating Bert Cooper by TKO in November 1991 at the Omni in Atlanta. George lost that bout.
He's also the guy who drank a bottle of Jim Beam the night before a fight against a previously ranked heavyweight, stepped in the ring in Rome, Ga., and punched the fighter so hard, so many times, that the man turned his back and covered his head to stop the assault.
But that was 20 years ago.
These days many know George as a bail bondsman - he knocks on your door and you or someone you know is going back to jail.
Some of those who hung around George in recent years would remember him as a guy who liked to snort methamphetamine and maybe some cocaine after a few beers.
Before using he had always looked down on drug use, seeing it as a weakness. That was until he hit his own low, when boxing had dried up and his talent was used up on quick $200-a-round paydays. The lights faded and the years passed, his 20s were long gone and the one thing he really cared about, his kids, were with their mothers, who didn't want him around.
Jailed three times for missed child support payments and seemingly the target of any tough in the bar who wanted to prove himself, George drew trouble like dogs to the dinner table. Bouncer jobs at local bars strung him through a lifetime of nighttimes and ready access to the drugs that fueled them.
One night when the weight of his blown opportunities made things feel like they couldn't get better, someone George thought was a friend sprinkled out a line of white powder, handed him a two-inch straw and said, "Sniff this."
"I sniffed it and that was it," George said. "It was an instant love affair."
"This" turned out to be meth.
He dipped in and out of drug use over the next dozen years. Even when he started fighting again in 2009, he backslid but swears he's been clean ever since he decided to get into mixed martial arts.
Along the way George landed a long-haul truck-driving job. That lasted a few years but kept him away from his four kids: Desirae, 16; Olivia; 15, Marcus, 13; and Jackson, 9.
About three years ago, George remembers driving near Flagstaff, Ariz., and listening as two truckers talked smack over the CB radio. The pair's argument rose to fighting words, mostly bluffs over something he can't even remember now. Finally he'd had enough, so he keyed the handset and told the pair they were real tough with their words, maybe the two should meet up and fight it out.
"Who the hell are you?" one of the truckers chirped back.
That question stuck.
"I just got to thinking, that's been the theme, 'Who the hell are you?'" George now says. "Going down that highway and I'm thinking, 'I've never seen a heavyweight in the world that I was afraid to fight.'"
He saw each of his kids and thought what he could leave them. He still had his punch. He might have a future.
But is a punch enough? When a now-44-year-old man climbs into a cage to fight a man half his age, does anyone care?
His body has only so much left, especially when his goal includes having that body mercilessly pummeled by hands and legs that hit like concrete blocks.
People in the fight business say his window of opportunity is rapidly closing. What do you when your last shot at the dream is done, when the window is nailed shut?
What George did was score two impressive wins. He won in 2009, his first year back, and again the next year. But the Valdosta loss last December revealed his weakness, his age and lack of discipline. George insists he'll get it back and he'll train harder.
"The ex-wife tells me every time she's mad at me that I'm old and I can't do it," he said. "She tells me that I'm chasing a dream that's unachievable and that's not true, that's not true."
Next Saturday, he'll try to prove her wrong in his first fight since Valdosta.
In the Valdosta bar, workers tear apart the fight cage, clearing the floor because people want to dance.
Leaning into a high-back barstool, slipping on a dry T-shirt a few feet from where he just quit an important comeback step, George is surrounded by his brother, Bryan Greene; his uncle, Tommy George; Peavler; and Kevin Terrett, a longtime friend who came down to watch the fight.
George draws a crowd wherever he goes - to the gym, to a bar, on the street, at work, in a fight. And he'll always have this crowd - his friends and family because, win or lose, the attention feeds him as much as the drama and spectacle of his comeback.
The group slides around George as he sits in the corner booth, facing the rest of the bar crowd.
"He kept kicking my knee," George practically shouts over the bar noise.
The group nods, watching him talk.
"I'm 20 pounds overweight," he says.
"If I'd had the cardio and could come out in the second without the knee hurting ...," he says.
He pauses, then looks down, lifting his leg.
"He took the damn hair off that knee, didn't he?" he says.
Shortly after his Arizona epiphany, George called up a friend in the fight world to discuss his options.
Andy Foster fought George once and that was enough. The secretary of the Georgia Athletic and Entertainment Commission and a former boxer knows fighters.
"Beeker hits real hard. I mean really hard," Foster said. "I never have been knocked out of a ring before, ever. And he knocked me out of the ropes and into the floor and I decided I wasn't going to spar with him anymore."
When George called asking about getting back into boxing, Foster pointed him in another direction - mixed martial arts.
Dotting the South and across other regions of the country, small bars and local civic centers house these fights. Younger men with less professional experience than George will start in small-venue bouts. Payouts hit a few hundred dollars once a fighter gets out of the amateur racket.
But it's here where a future pro fighter must grind, hoping to rack up a string of victories and maybe some interest from a scout or promoter who'll pull the fighter up to bigger paydays. And one day, maybe that fighter will go a level beyond, with a chance at TV and maybe a championship bout.
Pay isn't great in mixed martial arts, but it's better than regional low-level boxing, which handed its crowds over to martial arts years ago, Foster explained. And with George's high school wrestling background and bar-fighting experience, Foster thought the man could hold his own.
But it was up to George. He had to get in shape. The trucker's life, with its fried and fast-food road dinners or plates at greasy spoons along the route, had packed on the pounds and slowed his feet.
Todd Reeves, a local personal trainer and mixed martial arts enthusiast, had heard of a guy called Beeker years ago. Back in grade school, the boyfriend of Reeves' older sister told stories about a beast who had whipped four guys at once in a bar parking lot. Another time, the beast got smacked in the back of the head by a 300-pound man and, in seconds, had the ogre in a chokehold. Minutes after the dust-up, the two were drinking beers together.
Then he met the legend. "This 'big, goofy dude, a truck driver with a gut out to here'" - Reeves sweeps a hand wide over his own belly - walks into the gym. But there was some of the legend left.
"As soon as I saw the guy punch, I said, 'I've never seen anything like that before in my life," Reeves remembered and said his hands still sting each time he holds mitts for George to hit.
The old fighter surprised him even more once they started training. His bench press went from 235 pounds to 400 pounds in the first month. His mile-run time dropped from 10 minutes to seven and, within three months, he had shed nearly 60 pounds of fat.
Beeker was back. The fight world just didn't know it yet.
On that June 2009 night, Mehdi Hassan probably didn't think the old man across the ring could hurt him the way he would. But the pair would slug each other nearly senseless in a matter of minutes and the taller, larger, 25-year-old man would fall.
The Columbus, Ga., venue, complete with an actual boxing ring, was a good deal larger than most new mixed martial artists see in their first outing. George was supposed to be Hassan's punching bag, the next steppingstone to bigger, better fights.
Recordings of George's two wins and seven losses as a professional boxer are hard to find, either buried deep in some fight fan's videocassette collection, perhaps in HBO's archives. But in the Internet age, his recent clashes await any viewer online.
There is no sound in the Hassan fight clip, but the images tell all. Early in the second round, George and Hassan are obviously worn down and each drops his tired arms between swings.
Hassan steps by George, who pivots and loops a haymaker left hook square into Hassan's face, rocking the fighter's head backward. George lands three punches for every one Hassan tries to throw. But Hassan doesn't go down.
Both stumble and stagger, bellies heaving. They lock and lean against the ropes. But George isn't having it. In a flash, he separates, bends slightly, then rockets a right hook into Hassan's face. The man crashes to the canvas.
For a moment George stands over him, nearly straddling the fallen fighter until the ref waves him off and calls the fight.
A crew bends over Hassan for the next three minutes and finally loads him onto an orange backboard, slides him underneath the bottom rope and out of the ring. The damage wasn't permanent and Hassan is still fighting.
But Hassan had a 1-0 record before his loss to George. Sure, the kid was younger and bigger, but experienced? Not really.
George was sure to lose the next fight, right?
Getting a televised match in The Ultimate Fighting Championship is every serious mixed martial artist's goal. It's not quite the NBA or NFL, but it's the closest thing fighters have.
Like other pro sports, there are levels in the mixed martial arts world. When it first hit the sports scene in the mid-1990s, purists dismissed it as another version of local Bad Man or Tough Man contests - inexperienced fighters sloppily trading blows for a few hundred bucks.
But the burgeoning amateur fight scene in martial arts studios across the country meant kids grew up in karate classes, not boxing gyms. They would change the fight world, joining with viewers hungry for gritty fights beyond the boxing world, which many saw as corrupt, fickle and suspect.
UFC filled that void and, in a few short years, an explosion of local, regional, national and international fights emerged.
Jason Guida, 32, fought in the UFC and, to make it anywhere in mixed martial arts, you must beat someone who's proven himself. Guida's no star - his record sits at 18 wins and 26 losses - but to someone like George, looking to knock off the midlevel guys, he was a target.
"The best are on TV, but you've got to beat the gatekeepers and Jason Guida was definitely a gatekeeper," Foster said.
About seven months after beating Hassan, George went back to Columbus, Ga., to meet Guida. This video has sound. The cheers and moans of the crowd echo as the fight unfolds.
After landing at least one "ooooh"-inducing punch that snaps Guida's head back in the first round, George quickly traps Guida in a corner early in the second. George looks for an opening, a clean shot, a chance to punch.
He steps back, lays his hands on his hips and sucks in a deep breath. Then he steps back in, thunders a fist into the side of Guida's head and steps back. Guida falls back again on the ropes, sliding down the pole and plopping to the mats, his head down.
"I about fell out of my chair," Foster recalled.
Mickey Swafford runs the Chattanooga Jiu-Jitsu Academy. For 15 years, he's studied the mixed martial arts fighting style and estimates he's trained about 30 local fighters.
Swafford said George's boxing and wrestling background puts him in a good position because most mixed martial artists can't hit as hard as a trained boxer.
Mixed martial arts has real appeal right now for amateur fighters who want to make a run at some recognition and a possible payday, he said.
"There's a blue-collar aspect to MMA; you can work your way up," he explained.
In other professional sports, say basketball, for instance, it's unlikely someone could pick up a basketball for the first time at age 25 and make it into the NBA, Swafford said. But it's still possible with fighting, just not for long.
"We've got kids in the academy now that started training when they were 4. When those kids are 20, you won't have a chance. You can't catch up," he said.
Even with an open window of possibility, there is little chance of success without solid preparation. Before a bout, Swafford's fighters start a six-week training camp - jiu-jitsu classes for an hour, then straight into two-hour mixed martial arts sessions with live sparring four to five times a week.
A month before his scheduled third fight in July 2010, with two wins already under his belt, George was ready. He ran five mornings a week and trained with light weightlifting and punching drills and practiced grappling in the afternoons with Reeves.
Then a week before the Atlanta fight, the other fighter backed out, a common occurrence in low-level fights. It's a problem that frustrates fighters who work at building their records.
At the same time, George found out his teenage daughter Desirae was pregnant.
It was all too much and he disappeared. For more than a week no one could find him.
George had escaped, gone deep in Murray County, Ga., to drink beer with a friend and forget the world, the pressures, for a while.
He should have found another fight and quickly, Swafford said.
"It's even more critical for him because chances are he's going to get a shot on short notice," Swafford said. "If I was 44 years old and I was looking for one big shot, I would be in shape on Wednesday to get a call to fight on Saturday."
When George resurfaced, the trouble continued.
Over the next few months, he moved out of an apartment where former drug buddies pestered him but listened raptly when he held court on the couch, complaining about his lot, his missed chances. They only enabled his ego, letting him think he'd made it already, or they pulled at the threads tying him to his drug-addled past.
For a while he slept in an office at a friend's gym, then moved again, finally landing in a small one-bedroom apartment.
Fights were promised through low-level promoters and fell through. Reeves didn't hear from George for weeks at a time. George's waist expanded, his cheeks fattened.
Then the Valdosta fight came up. On notice of less than four weeks, out-of-shape but needing Christmas money and another fight before the year was out, George took it. A $1,200 payday before expenses could buy some nice presents for his four kids.
But he was too heavy, his knees hurt, his cardio training was weak, he didn't stick to his game plan. The reasons, or excuses, run on.
"I defeated myself," George said minutes after quitting the Valdosta fight. "What I need to do is get serious, really."
Reeves and others say George has the talent, but his commitment is questionable. They don't say it around him.
When confronted directly, George will admit he's his own worst enemy. But he shrugs it off. His mind is strong enough to do what needs to be done, he says.
After Valdosta, months ticked by, George licked his wounds, reconnected with his kids and started back slowly, training up. By May, he had another fight scheduled.
Twenty-seven-year-old Nick Smiley, an East Georgia fighter with two wins, two losses, 245 pounds, will challenge George at Smiley's old high school in Statesboro, Ga.
Reeves thinks this time George is serious. He about gave up on the local legend a couple of times last year. He trains George for free, bouncing him between gyms with free access from friends.
On the windowsill of his apartment, George still has a small fight poster of himself, oiled and glistening, six-pack abs, now long gone, and surrounded by flames. It sits next to a framed shot of him and his newborn granddaughter, Emmaline Owens.
"There has never been born a man who can physically whip me," he said. "I don't ever feel them hitting me, and that's the truth."
George will admit he's older, that it takes him longer to recover, and that he's got fewer chances to make the next level. But he takes a dark pleasure in beating younger opponents.
"I get up and beat them down and I'm 44," he said. "When I get hit, it's different. That adrenaline gets started; I'm in great control, mindset's good. I just enjoy the action so much."
Reeves patiently waits, listens and nods as George extols his abilities. But Reeves admits that George's greatest weapon, his punch, can turn into a crutch. While the punch can put people down with a single strike, and worked that way in his two mixed martial arts wins, there's got to be more.
At George's age, he must stay in shape; he must control the fight, Reeves said. Conditioning is vital if he fights past the first round.
Swafford wants George to succeed. If he makes it big, the exposure will only help draw attention to Chattanooga-area fighters.
"Does he have a shot in MMA?" Swafford asked rhetorically. "Define what does 'have a shot' mean? Does he have a chance to make a little money, to get a little bit of exposure for himself, maybe get that little heyday, that shot in the spotlight that boxing didn't give him? Absolutely he has it."
On the UFC undercard - the bouts leading up to the headliner - fighters make $3,000 to $5,000 per fight and a bonus on top of that if they win. Top-level fighters keep their day jobs, doing everything from teaching school to fighting fires. The biggest paydays, however, can top out between $500,000 and $1 million.
It's conceivable that a promoter could call George up to the UFC, or a level below, to fight an up-and-comer, figuring George will get beat and pad the new kid's record, much like in his old boxing days, Swafford said.
"That's a win-win situation," Swafford said. "What happens if he goes out there and connects one time?"
Swafford snaps his fingers.
"Instantly he's on the map."
Foster agrees George has a chance, but said the next year is critical because that's about as long as George has to make something out of his fighting. After that, promoters would be hard pressed to take a chance on a 45-year-old fighter, Foster said.
"He maybe could go a little bit longer than that, but you just race against the clock at some point," he said. "You can't fight time, you know what I mean?"
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