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Lansing Mall comes to life through mixed martial arts

Zach Beavers
The public piles into Lansing Mall to watch DeLeon's MMA event.

Doesn’t seem like the normal place to hold a fight car, but local promoter Ron DeLeon has found a haven in the Lansing Mall to stage his MMA events. And fans are coming out to watch.

A line stretched out through the parking lot in mid-March. Nearly 1,000 people funneled into one entrance for the sold-out event. Security held the doors closed to avoid a stampede of patrons barreling into the venue to escape the wintery cold. It was not a scene that the Lansing Mall has seen in awhile, if ever.

It was an amateur Mixed Martial Arts event titled “Assignment Understood”.

Ron DeLeon announces from inside the octagon.
Zach Beavers
Ron DeLeon announces from inside the octagon.

The event was created by promoter Ron DeLeon, and his second held at the Lansing Mall. His first event, held in January, hosted 500 people. DeLeon almost doubled the attendance from January, and the event sold out so fast that he is already working on putting another event together.

31 year old Al Durham, a Lansing resident, was one of the fighters involved in the event. It was his first time inside the cage for a promoted fight. For Durham, it was all he could’ve asked for.

“I did it for the first time on Saturday, and it was the best night of my freaking life,” Durham said. “Best 57 seconds of my life.”

DeLeon kept the event local. The sponsors local businesses, and the people working the event included much of his family. “My wife worked the front door, my daughter ran the concession stand, my other daughter was the official timekeeper, and my brother brings the fighters out to the cage,” DeLeon said.

Zach Beavers

A pileup of 150 cars on I-96 west of Lansing delayed the show. The Mercy Ambulance van meant to be on standby for the event was involved, as well as one of the fighters. “We can’t start the show, legally, without the paramedics present,” DeLeon said.

Eventually things were kicked off. DeLeon opened with a tribute to those that died between his last fight and this one, included were the names of the three MSU students who were killed in a mass shooting on February 13. DeLeon, holding an MSU flag, fought back tears as he delivered the tribute.

DeLeon put together 10 fights for the evening, with five on the main card. Belts were handed out by DeLeon to a couple of the winning fighters. The fights went off without any hitches and fans of the sport shouted tips at the men in the cage. Each fight went by rather quickly, a normality of amateur MMA.

For DeLeon, the reason he puts these things together is not for any money or fame. He does it to see people perform on a platform that they never have before. He does it to give people, himself included, memories that will last a lifetime.

Durham is just a regular guy. He works in Lansing. In the summer you can catch him mowing lawns for his business, Guy with a Mullet Landscaping. On March 18, inside the Lansing Mall, he was a victorious amateur MMA fighter.

Zach Beavers

Durham defeated Travis Winters in the first round of the fight by submission, via a guillotine choke. Durham showed how important the moment was to him in his celebration. He dashed around the cage letting out a warrior’s shout with his mouthpiece still in place.

The moment was a perfect summation of why promoter DeLeon is in this business. “That’s why I do what I do. That man is 31 years old, and he could not stop thanking me,” DeLeon said.

“I could not wait, I’ve been wanting to get in there since 2019 or 2020,” Durham said. “I was running in there, I was so amped up. I was fight ready all winter.”

It has been a long journey to get to that moment for Durham. This all started for him back in 2018. He was living in Los Angeles and was 260 pounds. He got into martial arts and lost 100 pounds before gaining some weight back in the weight room. His coach in Los Angeles suggested that he should try getting in the cage. His first fight was scheduled for July 2020.

“When the world shut down I moved back home,” Durham said. “My coach moved into Lansing and started a gym. My game got a lot sharper. I became a coach at the gym, and to be a good coach you should probably get a fight or two in.”

Durham’s coach is Gray Maynard. He has competed in the Featherweight division of the UFC since 2007. He also was a member of the wrestling team at Michigan State from 1998 to 2003 where he was a three time NCAA All-American.

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For Durham’s fight, nothing material came from his victory. He gained experience that will help him be a better teacher and coach. He provided himself, as well as DeLeon, an indelible memory. In an unexpected twist to the proceedings, he forged a friendship with his competitor, Winters.

“I really liked that guy. We met at weigh-ins. Immediately as soon as I met him, he said we should go get some beers after this,” Durham said. “I thought ‘Damnit, dude, why did you have to make me like you?’”

Durham was happy he didn’t have to hit Winters that much. Winters was not defending his head very well, Durham pointed out. Durham was relieved when Winters was open for a take down. Durham made him submit without either of the two getting bloody.

A picture of the two fighters hugging each other afterwards is framed inside Durham’s office. The moment he had been waiting years for will now sit with him forever.

“Martial arts is such a respect based sport. Two grown men have been training for x amount of time to beat the piss out of each other,” Durham said. “There is nothing like that, and he was so nice. He’s a single dad raising two daughters on his own. He’s an army vet. I was ready to fight, but I didn’t want to hurt the guy, he was really cool.”

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