Dane Bonnigson had just finished turning another opponent loopy with a series of punches to both sides of the head when the ring announcer stepped forward to congratulate him and ask if he'd like to say anything to the crowd.
With adrenaline and testosterone flowing and the championship belt strapped to his waist, Bonnigson unlocked his gritted teeth and delivered a powerful message as veins throbbed just below the surface of his skin.
Well, not quite.
"Nah, I'm just happy, man" was Bonnigson's expressionless response.
Soft spoken, heavy handed.
Fair or not, there are sometimes connotations - often unflattering ones - attached to guys with bare heads, powerful physiques, and who use mixed martial arts as a legal recourse to bust heads. Bonnigson matches the physical descriptions, but to hear him say it, he doesn't actually enjoy fighting, which might be difficult to believe considering he's beaten all nine of his opponents en route to winning a couple of amateur light heavyweight belts.
"I guess that sounds weird," he said.
Not too weird though. On average, school teachers don't enjoy fighting much. Bonnigson, 29, a native of Castalia, Ohio, says life-altering success in the octagon is the only way he'll make what he terms a hobby into his career. As is, Bonnigson teaches seventh and eighth- grade history classes at Woodmore - along with serving as the school's unofficial disciplinarian and head coach of the Wildcats' varsity wrestling team.
YouTube postings of Bonnigson's fights are decorated with comments from students raving about "Mr. B" as the fighter and as the guy who, when driving to and from training sessions, slides an audio book into the CD deck to satisfy his craving for the subject he teaches. When male students show interest in their teacher's exploits, Bonnigson becomes a recruiter and suggests they join the wrestling team to develop a grappling foundation. When the kids are present, Bonnigson refers to his upcoming "competitions, carefully avoiding the word "fight."
"I figure it's more politically correct," he said.
Working in such honorable positions at the school means Mr. B sometimes has to defend his other daily positions, positions that include the former Eastern Michigan and Margaretta wrestler lying on the mat applying a rear choke hold or him bouncing around and swinging at someone else's melon. There's also the position where Bonnigson raises his arms high while ring girls seek out his appropriate belt loop. To win his most recent fight, err, competition in December in Akron, Bonnigson knocked out his opponent in 14 seconds, becoming the first North American Allied Fight Series fighter to have successfully defended his title from the previous year.
"The reaction that many people give is they're surprised when they observe him in his fighting pursuits," Bonnigson's boss, Woodmore principal Ralph Myers, said. "This is the same guy they see in the teaching classroom. It's quite a surprise to them."
Bonnigson, and for that matter Myers, are relieved Bonnigson hasn't had to explain any visible injuries to his students on Monday morning, as the only time he's been marked - a couple of black eyes; but you should have seen the other guy - was over summer vacation.
Working as an educator in a tight community like Elmore, Bonnigson figured stories of his lifestyle would inevitably pop up in the rumor mill. But he stayed quiet, at least prior to his first match.
"I didn't know if it was going to go good or bad, and I didn't want to look bad if I got beat up," he said.
It took just six seconds for Bonnigson to re-establish his humility as he put his opponent to sleep with a humiliating hard right - the first punch Bonnigson said he had ever thrown at another person. At Bonnigson's suggestion, Myers, who was largely unfamiliar with the sport, watched a taping of the fight on TV. Myers now jokes he'd be willing to partner with Bonnigson should a tag-team division ever be added.
"I think it's helped that the popularity of it has grown immensely in the past few years to the point that people understand it is a sport and you have to train very hard for it," Bonnigson said. "And I think it helps that my demeanor is not one of an aggressive fighting type person."
Soon fighting will no longer be a hobby for Bonnigson. After ripping through the amateur ranks and ending all but one of his nine contests in the first round, Bonnigson will bring his teacher/fighter shtick to a professional circuit that has been anticipating his arrival for a while. Unlike amateurs, professional fighters are permitted to strike with their elbows, feet, and knees. The flip side is they get paid - even more for winning. Bonnigson could have made the leap a while ago but waited until he felt fully ready.
Bonnigson has yet to select a date for his first pro fight but notes it won't take place any sooner than early March because of the high school wrestling season. In the meantime, he'll continue to drive his daily triangle through northwest Ohio - an hour-and-a-half combined drive from his home in Bowling Green to Elmore for work to Holland for training and back to BG at about 9 p.m. to grade papers and build lesson plans. Until last month, when he graduated from BGSU with a master's in educational technology, Bonnigson was fitting in time for his own course work.
As for his near daily stop in Holland, Bonnigson praises his instructors at Donnelly's USA Martial Arts along with training partner, NAAFS heavyweight champ Rick Day, for increasing his skills, which admittedly were elementary before he enrolled in the club last March after a year of basically training himself.
"From the first day he came in I was going to be shocked if he didn't come train with us," Mike Gray, a trainer at the club, said. "I knew that was the kind of guy we typically have here."
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