A Seaside native returns home to promote mixed martial arts – the sport that changed his life.

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Fight Club

A Seaside native returns home to promote mixed martial arts – the sport that changed his life.

“When you can buckle yourself down to something challenging, you get a new sense of confidence,” says MMA fighter and coach Angelo Henry (center).Nic Coury

It’s just before 7am on a Wednesday in Seaside, and E-40’s “Plush” plays softly in an open garage. Two young men are grappling, interlocked on the ground, as Seaside native Angelo Henry, 25, circles them, shouting.

“Sometimes you gotta give to get! Sometimes you gotta give to get!”

Henry is talking about position. The fighters, Frank Farmer and Robert Davis, break a grueling stalemate and suddenly tumble together to the edge of the mats, nearly upending a 5-gallon bucket of onions. They stop, tap fists, then meet again at the center of the mats.

Farmer and Davis are practicing mixed martial arts (MMA), a burgeoning sport that’s popular nationally but has yet to gain a foothold on the Peninsula. The nearest team is in Salinas.

Henry is trying to change that. “This is a wide open space that’s totally new for mixed martial arts,” he says.

Henry has spent much of this year recruiting local talent through friends and at gyms. In August, he finally got together a team: Levels MMA, a diverse crew of 26 young men and one woman, most in their early 20s. They practice 10 times a week, at 6:30am and 7pm, in preparation for a Nov. 22 competition at Seaside’s Embassy Suites – the Peninsula’s first-ever MMA event.

Henry, who helped organize it, is calling it War by the Shore. “We’re at war with prejudice, we’re at war with gangs, we’re at war with violence, we’re at war with idle time,” he explains.


Violence and idle time are part of his past. In 2005, at age 16, he moved from Seaside to Palo Alto with his mother and started training at a local gym. Three years later, he joined an MMA league.

Henry considers that one of the best decisions of his youth. But he was also making plenty of bad ones, regularly cutting classes and fighting. In 2008, trouble finally caught up with him: Henry got into an argument with two men, and words quickly escalated to fists.

Henry says he acted in self defense, but because the fight happened on the front lawn of one of his rivals, his lawyer advised him that wouldn’t hold up in court. He was also told the two assault charges could bring him at least four years in prison. So Henry pleaded guilty and served eight months in jail.

“In a place where I couldn’t physically move anywhere, I learned to mentally move,” Henry says. “I came out a lot more mature.”

Out of jail, Henry still struggled to find a purpose. He fought some MMA matches, but his heart wasn’t in the training. It wasn’t until sometime in 2012, after seeing a few of his friends killed in gang-related homicides and others get lengthy prison terms, that Henry had a moment.

“One day it just clicked: This is real. You choose your life. The moves you make tomorrow could determine your future,” he says. “I started seeing the moves in front of me.”

MMA gave him the structure and focus he needed. He went 3-0 in 2013 before losing in the California amateur light heavyweight finals. (Check out his run at http://bit.ly/angelohenry.)

Last February he moved back to Seaside, foregoing competition in order to get a team together and kickstart a local MMA presence.

War by the Shore, co-organized by team manager JR Martinez, will feature 10 fights, with 15 fighters from Henry’s team and others from as far off as Kansas. Henry’s hoping for 1,000 spectators.

He says MMA employs more than just fighters, whom sponsors pay as little as $50 per fight. Other jobs include trainers, promoters, managers and marketing teams. “I want to create opportunity,” he says.

And while the brutality of the sport – quick kicks to the head, blood streaming into eyes and punishing punches to the face – might make some bristle, Henry doesn’t equate it with violence.

“Violence is an act of confusion and insecurity,” he says. “MMA develops a new way of thinking, a new mentality.”

That sentiment is echoed by Elizabeth Alvarez, the sole female member of the Levels team. “I think it reduces violence, because in MMA, the first thing you learn is respecting one another,” she says. “If we’re going to fight, we’re doing it in the cage.”

Marina resident Nhan Phan, 23, who just moments earlier had an opponent locked in a hold that could snap an arm in two, smiles sheepishly when he talks about MMA’s influence on his life.

“All the battles I’ve fought, it’s helped me strengthen my faith,” he says. “I’m fighting for God’s plan.”

On Nov. 22, he’ll also be fighting for Henry’s plan. Proceeds from the event will help him open a gym in Marina, so his team can stop training in a garage.

WAR BY THE SHORE happens 5pm (fights start 7pm) Nov. 22 at Embassy Suites, 1441 Canyon Del Rey Blvd., Seaside. $35/pre-sale; $40/door. Call 254-9111 for info.

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