By BYRON EDELMAN, for INLAND360.COMAustin Arnett has noticed something strange the past couple of fights: The world around him is slowing down.
He sees punches coming, and “I’ll visualize I’m going to throw a jab, and get a takedown,” said Arnett, an incoming junior at Lewis-Clark State College. “And when you get there, and it happens, it’s like you’ve done it before.”
The kinesiology major has been ramping up his mixed martial arts training the past two years — traveling to Las Vegas to work with world-class Brazilian jujitsu instructor Robert Drysdale; visiting Spokane to learn grappling and takedown techniques from Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters Mike Chiesa and Lyle Beerbohm; and about a year ago, he told his dad, a former fighter, that he thought he might someday want to get his pro card.
His dad, Frank, suspected this day would come sooner or later.
And now it’s here — his son’s first professional fight.
Arnett, 20, will make his professional debut Saturday evening at the Rumble On The River Pro-Am event outside the Clearwater River Casino and Resort.
Frank (who runs Martial Arts America in Lewiston) frets, but he knows his son has done everything in his power to prepare.
“He’s pretty focused,” Frank Arnett said of his son, who has a 14-3 record as an amateur and has been, for the most part, injury free as a fighter (besides a couple of broken hands training). “He really attacks (his training).”
Arnett makes his MMA debut this weekend against the 145-pound John Martinez. Besides Arnett’s discipline, which has allowed him to shed 20 pounds from his normally 165-pound frame, here are three additional reasons many in the region may root for Arnett (who has dreamed of becoming a professional athlete since age 5, when he thought he would grow up to play in the NFL).
Reason No. 1: He’s a student of the sport. Arnett studies MMA the way most college students study Facebook.
When he’s not sparring in his father’s studio — a place he visits twice a day, six days a week — Arnett can be found surfing the Internet.
But he’s not screwing around. He’s learned a lot from the Web.
“(YouTube’s) a great learning tool,” said Frank, the Pacific Northwest’s No. 1-rated karate point fighter in 1990. “He’ll even watch boxing, watch combinations, and see how they move, and actually study the fights and incorporate them into his own training.”
“It’s a good way to scout,” added Austin. “If you’ve seen someone before, you can game plan for them.”
Reason No. 2: He’s not part of “the club.”
For every athlete who’s suffered the politics of sports, Arnett is someone you can identify with.
When Arnett was 11, he tried out for the Asotin Little League All Stars.
The night after tryouts, he went to bed early. Then, around 10 p.m., his family’s phone rang.
Several minutes later, Frank reluctantly visited his son’s room — painted in Seattle Mariners colors — to deliver the bad news.
“Austin, you didn’t make the team,” he told his son, who started crying and said, “What? Why, Dad?”
His dad explained, more or less: “The coach who called said you were the final cut. It came down to you and the head coach’s son, and you were the odd man out.”
His mom, Jackie, thinks the cut led her son to solo sports like golf, which he played at Clarkston High, and advanced to state three times between 2007 and 2010.
Perhaps not coincidentally, “I like individual sports,” Arnett said, “because I know it’s all on me. I don’t want to worry about someone else. I just want to worry about myself and know if I do it right, I’m going to win.”
Of ultimate fighting, a sport he someday hopes to rise to the highest level in, Arnett sums it up this way:
“You step into a cage, and they lock you inside there,” Arnett said. “And it’s just you and this other guy, locked inside this 24-foot space. You learn a lot about yourself. Either you’re going to turtle up and quit so you can get out of there, or you’ll go out there and you give it all you’ve got. I think everybody that does it, they learn something about themselves, and what they’ve got inside.”
Reason No. 3: He has a sensitive side.
Carson Frei, a recent graduate of Lewiston High, trains with Arnett. As his primary sparring partner, the two routinely exchange shots to the face, and yet Frei has nothing bad to say.
“He’s a nice kid,” said Frei, two years Arnett’s junior. “He puts some big-brother whoopings on me, so of course I’ve got to respect him.”
Mark Coates, a Lewiston High student with a 5-0 record as an amateur fighter, also trains with Arnett.
“He’s really supportive,” he said of Arnett, who, during a recent practice, spent as much time coaching Coates as he did sparring with him.
“Most fighters don’t want to be known as sweet, but he’s just really good natured,” Jackie said of her son. Asked if Arnett ever got into fights growing up, she said, “He was never in any trouble.”
Arnett laughs when asked if he’s not your typical fighter: “I think people think I’m not a fighter. They have this image that a fighter’s going to be covered in tattoos, and they’re going to have piercings and be all crazy and psycho, but when you really get into it, and you look at the guys on UFC, they’re not like that at all. … They’re super humble, nice, good people.”
Which gives Arnett something in common with his idols.
If you go
What: Rumble on the River Pro-Am mixed martial arts event
When: 8 p.m. Saturday (doors open at 6:30)
Where: Clearwater River Casino Hotel parking lot, east of Lewiston, along U.S. Highway 12/95
Admission: Tickets available on ticketswest.com or at the Clearwater River Casino gift shop. Reserved and general admission tickets available for $50, $30 or $15.
Edelman covers sports for the Lewiston Tribune. He can be reached at (208) 848-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.