Vashon cage fights draw a big crowd and lots of attention

Two fighters battle it out at Saturday’s cage-fighting event. - Elizabeth Shepherd/staff photo
Two fighters battle it out at Saturday’s cage-fighting event.
— image credit: Elizabeth Shepherd/staff photo

Cage fighting, a fast-growing and controversial sport, made its first appearance on Vashon during Strawberry Festival, drawing a huge crowd but also triggering complaints, a brawl and visits by authorities.

Twenty-eight fighters, eight of them Islanders, entered a fenced ring, where they kicked, punched and grappled their way to medals and bragging rights or defeat on Saturday.

The event, featuring the sometimes bloody sport of mixed martial arts, included 14 matches that resulted in a few injuries, a fight in the audience and a visit from the police and the state Liquor Control Board.

The event was not sanctioned by the Vashon Chamber of Commerce, which manages and organizes the Strawberry Festival. Neither the chamber president nor the chamber executive director had heard about the fights before they took place.

But the event’s success was evident in its turnout of 400 people, each of whom paid $15 to watch the fights. It was a much bigger crowd than anticipated, said Sam Bard, an Islander and event organizer.

“I feel like everyone had a good time,” he said. “We’d like to come back next year, and the feedback we’re getting from people is that they had a great time and they’d like to see us again.”

Bard wanted to bring cage fighting to Vashon, he said, because it’s an emerging sport that appeals to a demographic that’s underserved by the Strawberry Festival — 18- to 30-year-old men.

Of the eight Islanders who competed, three won their bouts, Bard said. The only injuries were some bumps and bruises and a split lip, he said, all of which were handled by the event’s doctor.

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to get some exposure for the sport and the fighters and provide some entertainment at the festival,” he said. “I would describe mixed martial arts as the most exciting, fastest-growing sport on the planet.”

Some neighbors, however, were upset about the event, which included loud music, some with foul language.

“It started at 4:30 and the noise and language have been godawful,” said Madeleine Burns, a former Islander who was visiting a friend who lives near the event.

Chamber officials, too, expressed some concern.

“It’s not the kind of activity that we would want to promote or encourage on Vashon, but there are obviously people who enjoy this, and there are people who want to watch this happen,” said Linda Bianchi, the chamber’s president.

“I don’t think this could ever be sponsored by the chamber, but I don’t think we could stop it from happening if people want to do it,” she added.

Organizers had put on similar cage fighting events at local colleges, casinos and fairgrounds, Bard said, but still weren’t quite prepared for the crowd that came to see Vashon’s three-hour event.

“There were some unexpected problems,” he added, including a scuffle of 15 or more people that broke out in the crowd but was quelled by the four security guards hired for the event.

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue officials called the police when they saw the fight, said King County Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. John Urquhart, but the fight was over by the time police arrived.

“I’m hoping this doesn’t leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth,” said Tad Bremer, another one of the event’s organizers. “It sucks that a few bad apples ruin the whole bunch.”

Early on in the event, state Liquor Control Board officials stopped by and noticed people drinking in the crowd, said Justin Nordhorn, enforcement captain of the King County region of the state liquor board.

Organizers had not been able to check everyone’s bags when they entered, said Bard.

Officers “got over the PA and let people know there was no alcohol allowed,” Nordhorn said. “Everybody got into compliance right away. The folks there were very receptive to our officers.”

Bard acknowledged that he’d heard a complaint from a neighbor about the volume and content of the hip hop music played during the fights.

“We’re going to try to fix that for the next event, and get edited songs rather than the explicit ones,” he said.

The event was held outside Island Funeral Service, located on the south edge of town.

The funeral home’s manager, Dennis Petersen, allowed organizers to use the property free because he has known Bard for many years, he said.

Petersen was out of town last weekend, he said, and was surprised to hear the size of crowd that turned out and that the event was a series of violent fights.

“I thought it was a kickboxing demonstration,” Petersen said. “I didn’t know it was going to be people beating each other up in cages.”

He said allowing the use of the property was his business’s “way of supporting what goes on at festival,” though he added he wasn’t sure if he’d allow the event to take place outside the funeral home next year.

“I’m not so sure we would do it again because of the fact that it developed into much more than what we could feel comfortable with, with parking and stuff like that,” he said.

Petersen assumed, he said, that the event was a part of Strawberry Festival and therefore approved by the Vashon Chamber, so he felt comfortable letting the event take place at the business.

While the fights did take place during Strawberry Festival, organizers did not use that term, which is trademarked, in fliers promoting the event, and therefore did not break any rules. The event’s low profile was intentional, Bremer added.

“We didn’t want to offend the people at the Strawberry Festival,” he said. “And with events like this, you don’t need a lot of advertising.”

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