116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
MASON CITY — Mixed-martial arts heavyweight Mark Currier feels like he has something to prove.
Currier, 25, is coming off a loss at Bellator 284 in August. Now, he’s back in Mason City fighting for North Iowa Fights where his coach, Mike Estus, also is the promoter.
Estus, a Bellator veteran himself, has several of his own fighters on his card, which takes place at the North Iowa Events Center in Mason City on Saturday at 6 p.m. Estus started North Iowa Fights in 2016 and this Saturday’s card is his third event of 2022.
“I’m hoping to showcase that I belong at that higher level,” Currier said of his desire to return to one of the world’s biggest MMA promotions. “People have been saying I don’t deserve to be where I’m at and I’m tired of hearing it. I’ve only been training for nine months, but I’m not an easy target.”
Currier, from the Ames area, began fighting after being bullied as a kid. He said he would come home from school with black eyes and a bloody nose.
As he got older, he grew to be 6-foot-5 and 260 pounds. And after he turned 18, Currier couch surfed and was technically homeless.
“I started training by watching YouTube videos,” Currier said. “Now I have a coach and a team and it’s a game changer.”
Estus’ gym is located in the garage behind his house. The room’s floor is covered in wrestling mats and MMA cage fencing borders half of the training area. Posters of Estus’ old Bellator fights hang on the walls next to photos of UFC veteran Nate Diaz, showcasing Estus’ Stockton, Calif., roots.
During fight week, the team even has UFC flyweight Carlos Mota in the gym. Mota is a former North Iowa Fights fighter who fought on one of Estus’ cards earlier this year. Estus’ gym has a strong relationship with the Brazilian and is certified under Mota’s coach’s Francisco Bueno BJJ Association.
As practice was set to begin after dark, various fighters lumbered in. Among them were Currier; Estus’ stepson, Austin Robinson, who is set to headline the fight card; Holly Dight, a former ring-card-girl-turned-fighter; and Andy Guillen, a fighter from Fort Dodge who recently moved to Mason City to start a new life after being released from prison earlier this year.
Everyone said the gym is like a family. Currier and Robinson live with Estus.
“I need a dormitory behind my house now because I haul fighters around everywhere,” Estus said.
The family aspect and the direct connection to North Iowa Fights is what has drawn around 20 fighters to the gym. Most of them train four to six days per week, working on boxing, kickboxing, jujitsu and strength and conditioning.
Robinson, 24, has fought for Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA) and hopes to get back there soon after a win this weekend. He said his team is everything he could have asked for and that they are his family.
“It’s a therapeutic escape for me. I go there and everything else erases. I’m in the moment with my best friends doing the sport I love,” he said.
And Robinson’s actual family is in the room, too. His stepdad is his coach, manager and promoter. So balancing the dynamic between loving stepfather in the home and tough coach in the gym always is a factor.
“It is tough sometimes. When we’re in the house, we’re talking game plan strategy and I can rebuttal, but in the gym, that’s his domain,” Robinson said. “I don’t question. He says do it, I say how long? It really is like code switch. In the house, he’s my stepdad and friend, but in the gym, he’s my coach.”
Over his career, the business relationship with his stepfather has brought criticism online and sometimes that has caused Robinson to doubt himself, but ultimately he said he knows his skills come from his own hard work day in and day out.
“It bothers me and it also doesn’t,” Robinson said. “I put in the work and it’s up to me to be in the gym and get better. People throw Mike in my face. But it comes down to me. Mike has the knowledge. But I have to use it on the mat and in the cage.”
For Dight, 30, she was originally just looking for a way to work out after her yoga studio shut down, but now the Window World office assistant hailing from Charles City has cage-fighting experience.
“I’ve always been competitive,” Dight said. “And I never planned on actually fighting. But the more I went, step by step, I learned more and I kept going and building my confidence and all of a sudden I was rolling with the boys and sparring and now I love it.”
“I keep a record of 23 guys that Holly has tapped out so far,” Estus said. “She’s never got to grapple with another girl. She’s been doing this for nine months and she hasn’t grappled one girl yet.”
But she will be grappling another woman on Saturday night. Due to her opponent pulling out, Dight will be taking part in a grappling-only match instead of MMA, which means no striking.
“I wish I was hitting someone but this grappling match will be fun,” she said. “I do this because I like it. It’s not my full-time job. It’s a hobby I invest a lot of time in. But I’d like to see how much I can learn because there’s so much to learn. But it would be cool to see an LFA fight in the future.”
Guillen, 27, had heard of Estus and the gym in Mason City from his days training in Fort Dodge. So when he was set to be released from prison in June after being sober for four years and serving a nine-month sentence for driving without a license, he called Estus to ask if it was all right to come to Mason City.
“The day I got out, I was in Mike’s gym that night,” Guillen said. “I’ve only been here four months, but anything I need help with here, Mike will help me. The Mason City fight team adopted me and it’s great. I call Mike and Mark just to talk. They’ve become good friends.”
Guillen had originally been a fan of MMA since he was a kid. He liked watching UFC vets Dan Hardy and Matt Hughes. His father also was a boxer in Mexico. And though he is fighting at 180 pounds on Saturday, Guillen once weighed around 300.
“I’m a recovering drug addict and it was really bad before I got clean,” he said. “It was hard. I didn’t want to do any exercise. I started lifting and running and I hate running, but I do it everyday because I hate it. It’s the best part about it.
“I learned to enjoy stuff that I don’t like doing. It makes everything easier.”
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