People have argued for decades as to whether God has favorites in any sport. For mixed martial arts, He would be hard-pressed to find a team to root for more than Team Wildman.
In MMA, fight teams originate from certain gyms, normally with a leader or coach and a team of men and women that range from amateur to professional fighters. TW fights out of MMA Premiere Fitness in Centennial, having relocated from California last year. The team was relocated by enigmatic frontman Thomas 'Wildman' Denny, because, as he tells us, "God was calling me to Colorado."
Denny is more laid-back than people would expect, sporting both the traditional tattoos and muscles that speak of a history in the sport, but balancing that out with a warm smile and engaging demeanor. Meeting at his gym, he quickly gathers together members of his fight team, and while each member is free to answer any questions, it's clear that Denny is in charge.
Denny acts as coach, manager and, according to his team, friend. Josh Cavan, a former semi-professional hockey player who is about to make his professional fight debut later this month, says, "I've been looking for a team like this, for a coach like him, my whole life."
The idea is echoed by the other four fighters who sit in the circle. Their histories are as varied as their fight records. There is a youngster just getting started in his career, a quiet family man, a former prisoner, a flamboyant loudmouth, and any of a hundred other ways to describe these men who only represent a fraction of the total team. But when pressed on what unites them all, one word comes up again and again. "Our faith in God," says Chino Montoya, a quietly intimidating member of the team.
The faith comment isn't lip service, according to the Denny; it's the foundation of the group.
"No matter what else we have going on, at the core, at the center of it all, is God," Denny says, pounding the mat with his fist as he speaks.
These are not the typical young and middle-aged men that go to church every Sunday. One of them, Jeff 'Audio' Estrada, has almost no skin that isn't covered with either a tattoo or a piercing.
That mixture of Christianity and fighting, added to a leader like Denny, has led some to wonder, both in private and in public, if the team is more akin to a cult. When pressed on that issue, Denny throws his head back and laughs.
"There are guys on the team that don't even believe in God. We don't force anything on anyone. It's what I believe, and some of the rest of us, but we won't make anyone change. You can't make someone change or believe something. They have to want to," Denny insists.
"Brian Baker is one of the team, and we relocate out here, and because of the altitude, he goes in and we find out he has leukemia. If he doesn't do that, doesn't come out here, he's dead. If that is why God put me here, brought me here, then boom, it's over and I found the reason for it," Denny says.
Beyond the perceived miracle, the team has had success in 2010 that any team would be jealous of: 31 wins and only eight losses. That number is about to change wildly, though, as Denny has taken a drastic step in attempting to bring his team to the forefront of the MMA scene.
On January 29, Denny will present Full Force Fighting, Volume I, in Denver. The event is different for a number of reasons: First, it will be on a stage in the historic Paramount Theater downtown, something that is rarely seen in a combat sport. Second, there's a dress code, which in MMA is pretty much unheard of. But the news that has brought the most attention is that TW is putting seven fighters on the card.
It's a gamble that could either propel his team into the limelight or push it back to the drawing board. Already, trouble has plagued the event, with one of his fighters currently looking for an opponent after his backed out -- and there's the unfortunate situation with the jewel of the team, Marcus 'Bad Intentions' Edwards.
Edwards, whose undefeated streak was going to be on the line, was removed from the card after he was suspended by the boxing commission for jumping on the cage after his last victory. It is a tough lesson for the young fighter to learn, and a blow for the team that was so heavily focused on his appearance at the event.
Denny shrugs it off. "Marcus learned his lesson. He handled it with class, and he'll never do that again. But no one person is more important than the team, and we have plenty of great fighters on the card."
Beyond those, though, is the larger problem with the event. With Denny being the frontman and his team heavily represented on the card, there are questions about the legitimacy of the fight.
"I've heard that -- fans that think just because I'm on the posters that I have the ability to affect the card. I brought in Seth Daniels with Fight to Win Promotions to set the card; I had nothing to do with picking the fights. I told him that we want the toughest fights possible for my team, and that's what he did. I can't affect the outcomes of those fights," Denny said.
Nothing shakes the faith of the man, or the team, it seems. When asked to explain to the casual fan why he should attend the upcoming fights with TW, the answers are typical except for one.
Tito Solis, who will be making his TW debut at this fight, pauses a moment, then says, "Because I've got more to lose than the other guy."
This statement alone speaks to the nature of the team. In each of their pasts there is tragedy or disappointment, and Thomas Denny offers a group that appeals to them with a focus not only on faith, but on team unity.
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The question remains, though: Is God a sports fan? And if so, does he like violent combat sports like MMA? For Denny, the answer is easy.
"God is in everything I do."
Now Denny will see if that faith pays off in success for his team.