IRVING, Texas -- Drake Dudley tries to not move his face while his father smears it with Vaseline, but something across the ring is troubling the young fighter.
"He's wearing small gloves," Drake says, his voice distorted by his mouthpiece.
"He's wearing the same ounces as you -- 14s," says his father, Kirk.
Smaller gloves would mean less padding over the other boy's fists.
"Should I circle more or go inside?" Drake asks.
"Try to hold your center of the ring," Kirk says. "Always look for your strength shot."
Outside The Lines
After its obscure start, mixed martial arts is now a genuine national phenomenon whose popularity appears to have no boundaries. The latest outlet for this unquestionably violent sport is the Internet, and its newest participants are children -- some as young as 6 years old. Many parents are approaching mixed martial arts as an alternative not just to boxing or karate, but to baseball, football and soccer. Sunday on "Outside the Lines"
(9:30 a.m. ET, ESPN), T.J. Quinn examines the impact and the possible ramifications of children's MMA. Bob Ley hosts.
The air sits heavy and hot inside the Irving Police Athletic League building, and the activity around the ring is steady and loud. Drake, a mixed martial arts prodigy, is an occasional visiting celebrity. He's been fighting for seven years now, since he started participating in, and usually winning, jiu-jitsu tournaments when he was only 7. Since then, usually during weekends spent hopping from local to national to international tournaments, he has competed in wrestling, Thai boxing, judo, boxing and mixed martial arts. His combined record in those sports is 403-63. But right now, his casual sparring match with Alex, a 13-year-old boxer, is the only thing on his mind.
Kirk knows this will be a test, but this is part of what they do. It's been months since his son was in the ring, and he knows there will be some rust. Alex is a better boxer who has had far more fights. He's also a lefty, difficult to counter for someone like Drake, whose experience against southpaws is limited. Plus, this is Alex's homecourt -- his father runs the gym. Still, Kirk knows that the last thing Drake needs is a built-in excuse to fight poorly.
Boys in the gym abandon their swaying heavy bags or toss their leather jump ropes on the ground and gather around the ring.
Round 1 begins.
Courtesy of the Dudley family
Drake, 14, with his father, Kirk, has been fighting since he was 7.
Alex moves better. Drake shows moments of flash, slips a punch, moves to the side, throws a wide right hand. Occasionally, those rights land on Alex's head, and they land hard. Drake is not as good a boxer, but he is quick and he is tough.
"Good, Drake!" Kirk yells.
The boys around the ring jeer and urge Alex to beat the visiting big shot. After the second round, they slap the apron, sending thunder through the room.
That's what the sight of blood can do to a group of young men. Blood. On the other boy's glove. From Drake's nose. The boys around the ring howl. Drake hasn't bled in … Kirk can't remember how long.
Between rounds Kirk tries to wipe the blood from Drake's face with a borrowed towel.
The bleeding won't stop.
The bleeding won't stop the fight, either.
"Way to fight through it," Kirk says after the sparring session is over. He lifts the white towel speckled with crimson from Drake's face, and the flow starts again.
The blood thickens on Drake's cheeks, dabs of half-dried blood on his shoulders and his arms.
"You didn't have nothing to fix it with," Drake says. "You just let it keep bleeding."
Kirk stays calm, still wiping.
"What else can I have? Keep your head back."
"You can have something to clot my nose with."
"I can't bring ice, Drake," Kirk says, wiping his son's shoulders now. "I can't do everything."
"You can bring a tissue."
"I had a towel, son. What do you want?"
Drake is quiet for a moment.
"I beat Alex," Drake says. "I won the first round and I won the third round."
"I know," Kirk says.
Drake's head is back, his father still holding the towel in place.
Drake asks why the boys were taunting.
"Don't worry about it."
"I don't worry about it."
MENTOR OR TORMENTOR?
The half hour Drake and Kirk drove from their home in Flower Mound to Irving is one of the shortest trips they'll make. A week later, the two will climb into Kirk's truck and drive five hours to Oklahoma so Drake can get his work in against experienced mixed martial artists. They will scrap until someone submits and then start again. And when Drake has finished, he and his father will get back in the truck and drive home.
When Drake was 8, his dad took him to Brazil, the ancestral home of MMA. A coach there looked at the boy who did everything and called him "ultimo."
When Drake was 8, his father pulled him out of school, put him on a plane and took him to Brazil, the ancestral home of MMA. It was on that first trip in 2002 that a Brazilian coach looked at this American prodigy, the boy who did everything, and called him "ultimo" -- the ultimate. Drake was a young American competing in the cradle of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and he came in second in an international competition. His next two trips there, he won.
"Ultimate" Drake Dudley. It stuck.
For every fight, Kirk was there with a video camera and a notebook. The videos are all over the Internet, showing a timeline of Drake's fighting life. Kirk started Drake on this path; he pushes him back on it when Drake wants to wander. The comparison was inevitable: "The Tiger Woods of MMA."
But not every father-son partnership creates a Tiger. Kirk has seen the fathers who scream at their sons after those boys fought their hearts out but committed the sin of losing. He swears he will never be one of them. Tournament veterans say they can't remember ever seeing Kirk yell at Drake. On the other hand, they also have a hard time remembering Drake losing.
Of course, a lot of work goes into making anything great look easy. It was hard to get him to step onto the mat in the early days, no matter what the sport. "If you could have seen him crying when he was young -- crying before he entered tournaments," Kirk says.
But what if he let up, let Drake spend a day playing videogames in the den? What might they lose?
"That's always been the toughest thing for me because my inclination is to push. It's been that way for myself in my life. Do you want a kid to realize his potential in things? Can he find a way to unlock the key, that it's not about beating that kid but beating your own fears while you're doing this?"
DRIVEN TO SUCCEED
Drake has soft features like Corina, his mother, olive skin and wide brown eyes that come from her Spanish and Mexican heritage. Kirk's face is hard and square, deep-set blue eyes under a sharp brow, spiked hair perfectly flat across the top. His father was an ironworker and then a paint contractor, moving the family all over southern Texas.
Drake's family members know their lives revolve around Drake's talent and Kirk's drive.
"He's not growing up where I grew up," Kirk says. "He's not facing the problems me or my friends or people I grew up with had. Ten times worse."
In his late-teens, early 20s, when other kids were going to college, Kirk worked as a painter -- first for his father, then another man -- then started his own company in Angleton, Texas, painting new homes.
He lived with some friends at the Quail Manor apartments, between the cemetery and the Union Pacific railroad tracks, where itinerant workers of all trades stayed to work on the housing boom coming south at them from Houston. "We would finish with a job, we'd come in -- used to play a lot of basketball, then we got into boxing," he says.
They hung a heavy bag from the porch. When other workingmen would drive home to their empty Quail Manor apartments, Kirk and his pals would flag them down in the parking lot, see if they wanted to put on a worn pair of Everlast gloves and try a few rounds.
"Basically it was toughman contests, all sizes, all shapes," Kirk says. "Black, white, Mexican, Hawaiian -- didn't matter. We drew up a ring in the parking lot and we'd go at it. There was a field right by that parking lot -- I got knocked into that field a couple of times."
Eventually, they all started driving to Texas City on Monday nights, almost an hour away, where some guy had the key to a school and young scrappers and old Vietnam veterans who knew judo would go at it, years before anyone had ever heard of "Fight Club" or "ultimate fighting."
Kirk married Corina in 1986, built his business and eight years later, they had Drake. As Drake grew, he became progressively more quiet and shy. He shrank in crowds. "He was a great kid," his father says, "he just didn't go after things very much."
So Kirk took him home and pushed the living room furniture aside, or took him out to the trampoline or the pool, and started teaching Drake the moves they saw when they watched mixed martial arts together on television.
"I taught him how to sprawl. I taught him a jab and a cross … a few positions, an arm bar, a back choke, and we'd play like that," he says. "Drake was like 3 or 4 years old, and he could hit me as hard as he wanted or elbow me where he wanted."
Eventually, he took Drake for jiu-jitsu lessons, but always private ones, never a large class. Kirk downplays his own fight background, calling himself a "white-belt father" with no real training. But, back in 1999, he opened a gym and kept it going for two years. He called it the Fighter's House. Drake would train there, sometimes sparring with boys Kirk would invite from other gyms.
"The goal for me as a father to a son was to give him something that could build his confidence," Kirk says. "I grew in pretty rough schools, and it was kind of difficult in those years taking whippings when I didn't really know what was going on. I didn't know how to defend myself and that was kind of tough. Of course, Drake's grown up in better school systems than I did, so it's not even remotely close."
After two years of training, Kirk heard that a local instructor, Eric Mattingly, was going to hold a jiu-jitsu tournament. Kirk put Drake in his Dodge diesel pickup and started driving.
"I really didn't tell Drake about it until we were about halfway there. I just kind of slipped it in, 'Hey, they've got this tournament …'" he says. "I didn't want to spook him. I'd say, 'Come on, jeez, show some nuts, Drake.' Anything you'd try to get him to do around people, he wouldn't do it because people were looking."
He refused to fight. Even seeing boys his own size there and having trained almost exclusively against larger kids, Drake would not change his mind. He and his father walked to a pizzeria at the end of the shopping mall. A coach who knew Drake saw him there and urged him to fight.
For some reason, even with a stomach full of pizza, Drake changed his mind. "Something really got into me and I decided to do it," he says. "And I pretty much mowed through everybody."
There were only three matches, but Drake forced all of his opponents into submission. It might be the only tournament in Drake's career that Kirk didn't film.
"I really didn't think he was going to fight," Kirk says. "I didn't even bring the camera."
The only record is in the notebook that Kirk has kept ever since: Saturday March 24. Afternoon. Eric Mattingly's dojo. Drake's first entry in tournament style play. Won trophy. Best move 50-50 and knee-up to mount.
Nearly 500 entries like it were to follow.
LIKE A SPONGE
It is MMA season in Drake's life now, each day's training given to a different part of the sport. When a match starts and the fighters are standing, the 5-foot-7, 130-pound fighter is a boxer, a Thai boxer, a kick-boxer. When they lock up, he is a wrestler, a jiu-jitsu artist.
During jiu-jitsu instruction on this day, he tumbles silently on a mat with his coach, Allen Mohler, who owns the gym. Kirk is the only other person in the room, standing by the mats with his notebook out, checking notes to himself about what he wants to see Drake work on. No one speaks for minutes at a time. Mohler tries a move, Drake counters. They pantomime a bout: arm bar -- tap. Choke hold -- tap. One move and then on to the other. Heavy breathing, the smack of skin against the mat. Now they're both sweating.
"He's beginning to get a lot more confident with his moves," Mohler says. "His moves flow a lot more."
Does Drake have a future as a mixed-martial arts professional?
"If the money was right," Mohler says, "I'd be all behind him."
Courtesy of the Dudley family
Drake works out with Jason Sampson, a 26-year-old former college wrestler who is turning himself into a mixed martial artist. Sampson calls Drake "a sponge."
Drake begins to work out with 26-year-old Jason Sampson, who wrestled in college, took up jiu-jitsu and is now turning himself into a mixed martial artist. Sampson and Drake work on the MMA moves Kirk thinks his kid needs to improve.
"He's a sponge," Sampson says, smiling. "Plus his dad's hard on him -- that's a big plus."
For a while, Kirk and Corina took Drake out of school and enrolled him in an online home-school program. With all the travel, it made sense. Drake did fine, but he missed his friends. He went back to public school last year.
He was old enough to be an eighth grader, but he was ahead in some subjects and behind in others. Kirk and Corina kept him back a grade, so Drake will be 15 when he enters high school. At the end of this past school year, his lowest average for any class was 91.
At dinner the night before his last day of classes, the four of them, including Drake's 4-year-old sister, Vianni, hold hands in silent prayer, then start in on the Thai food they brought home. Kirk asks how Drake's exams went.
"I got 90 percent in Texas history," Drake says. "Got 101 in science."
Kirk cocks his head, but he's already starting to smile. "How do you get 101?"
"I'm that good."
STAYING IN BALANCE
In nearly every conversation about their son, Kirk and Corina talk about balance. He doesn't just fight and train -- he is learning the guitar. He's been working on Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love," and almost has it down. He loves Jimi Hendrix. Does a passable version of the opening lick to "Purple Haze." Drake and his parents are all aware of what happens to some kids who spend their lives on one thing.
Courtesy of the Dudley family
Drake says golf creates a nice balance to his life.
"You see a lot of these kids, and they get tired of everything," Drake says. "You see this kid who's really good at baseball or soccer and after a while they just quit, and their dads let them quit. But my dad has done a really good job of changing things up. It never gets boring."
When he enters high school in two years, Drake says he wants to try out for the golf team. "I think that would be fun -- be with teammates and everything," he says, teeing up at a driving range near his home. This past week, Drake shot a 1-under-par 69 to win the boys 14-15 age group of the Northern Texas PGA Ewing Automotive Junior Tour event at Lake Park Golf Course in Lewisville, Texas. He thinks the two sports are a nice balance: "Fighting, you're out there to kill a guy. Here, you're just out there being a gentleman."
But the family understands that whatever balance it seeks, it revolves around Drake's talent and Kirk's drive. What is the cost of all this? The private lessons at gyms and at their home, the trips every weekend, the flights to New York, Miami, California, Brazil? Kirk won't say how much he has spent.
"We've traveled, but it's like, for me, I don't have a lot of vices; and I look at some of my friends, they do the hunting thing and they do the fishing thing, and what's a $50,000 boat? What about all the fishing equipment and all of the thousands of dollars spent on hunting?" he says. "Well, I basically have circumvented that and spent that money on my son."
There is also a cost beyond money. "I've sacrificed a couple of things here and there -- nothing that was really major," Drake says. "I've sacrificed around my friends a little bit more than I would have wanted to, or maybe gone to bed a little earlier than usual because after a hard workout, you're looking to get good rest."
It's worth it, he says. Maybe if one of the top professional circuits comes calling when he's older, he would have interest in becoming a professional MMA fighter. But he might be able to get a wrestling scholarship to college, study architecture.
What would happen if he ever went to Kirk and said he was ready to give it all up, do something else? "It probably would depend on what kind of mood he was in," he says, laughing. "Sometimes he would say, 'All right, well, you might want to think that over a couple more times,' or sometimes he would laugh and think I was joking.
"I think in the end he would support me. He's always been a really supportive dad. My whole family has always been supportive of me."
Kirk takes longer to answer the same question. "We would sit down and we would review things, and I would try to help him see the positives. I would try to help him stay in and help him to try to realize that the talents that he has are something to move along with. I've seen kids walk away from things and come back and do better when they came back, and I've seen kids walk away from things that they had God-given abilities and talents for and you just have to shake your head and say, 'Man, I wish they wouldn't have.'
"I could promise you, I wouldn't just say, 'OK, you can go now.' I wouldn't feel that. I couldn't do that."
Where, exactly, Kirk and Drake eventually will end up remains to be seen. They are a work in progress, with neither certain about who is pushing and who is pulling, about when to be aggressive and when to lay off, about what it all really means and where everybody is going, about the difference between wanting and needing, and which should win out.
"I also know some of those dads wished they would have pushed their kids at certain points in their lives because these kids could have been something special in certain fields, and they didn't have that nudge and that support," Drake says. "Pushing to me is not a dirty word if it's done in a balanced way." Reporter T.J. Quinn and producer Andy Lockett are part of ESPN's Enterprise Unit. Their work appears on "Outside the Lines."