CEDAR RAPIDS — Beau Laughridge and Brent Stepanek may not be brothers by blood, but their fight game has been ignited by a de facto sibling rivalry.
The pair have endured a decade of side-by-side mixed martial arts training, testing their competitive endurance limits and pushing each other to be the best.
The brotherhood has now staked its claim.
Laughridge and Stepanek led a quartet from Cedar Rapids’ Hard Drive MMA gym to the American National IBJJF Jiu-Jitsu Championships July 6-8 in Las Vegas, and both returned with national championships.
“I told everyone I was going there to win it,” said Laughridge, who won three fights — all by submission — and claimed a middleweight title in the Blue Belt Master 2 division. “I believed that 100 percent. I had ran it through my head so many times and told myself I was going to be victorious so many times that when it came time to get out there, I felt like I was on auto-pilot.”
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Laughridge, 36, was also awarded an unopposed second gold medal in the ‘No-Gi’ bracket, where fighters typically wear shorts instead of a kimono.
The titles were a satisfying reward for a fight career that transitioned three years ago from traditional MMA fighting to a refined specialization in Brazilian jiu-jitsu — a combat sport that focuses on grappling in order to take the opponent down to the ground and force a submission — under the tutelage of Hard Drive owner Keoni Koch.
“I started finishing a lot of my (MMA) fights with jiu-jitsu,” Laughridge said. “That is when I started having confidence in it. Once that confidence starts snowballing, it has a compounding effect and you just can grow by leaps and bounds.”
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Stepanek, 35, was a two-time wrestling state qualifier for Cedar Rapids Jefferson (2000-01) before earning a spot on the All-Army wrestling team at the outset of a seven-year military career. During a two-year deployment to Afghanistan, Stepanek was introduced to boxing, which quickly morphed into mixed martial arts.
“Once it’s in your blood, it’s hard to get rid of it,” Stepanek said.
Following his discharge, Stepanek returned to Cedar Rapids with an uncertain future.
“I was in a bad way,” Stepanek said. “I was depressed and a lot of guys I was in charge of were getting hurt in Iraq. I was just kind of in a bad depression. I just was looking for something.”
Stepanek found the Hard Drive gym, where he eventually became part-owner and spent a decade competing in mixed martial arts and training with Laughridge.
“It was one of the most gratifying things I think I’ve ever done in my life, one-on-one,” Stepanek said. “It gave me that feel for wrestling.”
In Las Vegas, the 6-foot-2, 255-pound Stepanek suffered a narrow first-round loss in the Blue Belt Master 1 division of the No-Gi ultra-heavyweight tournament to Matthew Troy Pehrson of Utah, a recent Worlds champion.
His first jiu-jitsu defeat, Stepanek rebounded and worked his way into the final for a second bout with Pehrson. Stepanek dominated the rematch, 5-0, and claimed the national championship.
“I really wasn’t shook,” Stepanek said. “I remember what I said to Beau when I went out there. I said, ‘I’m going to beat him.’ I just had to change up a couple of things. I made him wrestle me instead of going to the ground for him. I wrestled him, took him down past his guard … I gave him a little bit of Iowa wrestling style. ‘Iowa love.’”
Stepanek will now turn his attention to training for the World Jiu-Jitsu IBJJF Championships, where he plans to drop down a weight class. Laughridge is also contemplating an appearance at the world championships.
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Until then, the duo will continue to train and coach at Hard Drive — located at 716 Oakland Road NE — which provides instruction to students as young as 5 years old on youth wrestling, kickboxing, jiu jitsu, MMA and fitness classes.
“We expect to win, we really do,” Stepanek said. “I feel like I am the best in world at what I do. He feels like he is the best in the world at what he does at his weight.”
All four fighters competed under the Carlson Gracie Team through Hard Drive’s affiliation with Roufusport MMA Academy in Milwaukee.
Hard Drive blue belt No-Gi jiu-jitsu fighter Courtney Koch — a former Linn-Mar and University of Iowa track athlete — placed third in the women’s lightweight adult division, while Devoniere Jackson finished second as a middleweight in the adult division.
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