At 47, Julius Bishop knows he is a bit old to be a mixed martial arts fighter.But with age comes wisdom. Which is why when Bishop climbs into the ring, he doesn't think of all the years that separate him from his younger opponent. Instead, he thinks of all the lessons those years have taught him.
"Experience goes a long way," Bishop said. "You know things they haven't achieved yet."
So far, it's a strategy that has served him well. Bishop began mixed martial arts fighting two years ago. Since then, he has competed in three heavyweight fights and won all three. On Saturday he'll try to continue his winning streak when he faces off against Sergio Vela in the "King of the Casino" title fight at the Seminole Casino Immokalee.
The event is sponsored by Babe's in Fort Myers and organized and promoted by Pitt's Pen, a Lehigh Acres mixed martial arts school. Owned and operated by Mark Shopp, Pitt's Penn has been running amateur mixed martial arts fights at the casino about every three months for the past two years, Shopp said.
Although the fight between Bishop and Vela is the headline fight of the night, there will be anywhere from eight to 10 other fights as well, Shopp said. Fighters hail from across southern Florida, including Fort Lauderdale, Cape Coral and Lehigh Acres.
"This is basically a stepping stone for them to get to a higher level, to get them to pro," Shopp said.
Vela, a resident of Lehigh Acres, is a student at Pitt's Pen. Bishop lives in Moore Haven and trains at Big Cypress Martial Arts.
"They both have winning records," Shopp said of Bishop and Vela. "They both have been fighting for years. It's an exciting fight."
If you go
King of the Casino Mixed Martial Arts Fight
When: Doors open at 7 p.m., fights start at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10
Where: Seminole Immokalee Casino, 506 S. First St., Immokalee
Admission and information: $30 for standing, $40 for general, $60 for V.I.P.
To beat their opponent, mixed martial arts fighters can use a variety of striking and grappling techniques borrowed from a variety of disciplines. Bishop began boxing when he was 32 but was later injured in a non-boxing related incident. After he recovered, he wanted to find another sport that appealed to his love of fighting.
He jokes that "anything barbaric" was always appealing to him.
"I always liked the martial arts and I just finally got a chance to get into it," Bishop said.
Even fueled by his passion for the sport, the training is demanding. In addition to working his full time job as a security guard at the Ah Tah Thi Ki Seminole Indian Museum in Clewiston, Bishop must carve out two hours a day to train. His boxing background means he already knows how to land a punch, but because mixed martial arts involves so much grappling, Bishop has added jiu jitsu to his fighting repertoire. That has helped him balance his skills, especially if the fight goes to the ground.
Even if Bishop never entered the ring, mixed martial arts would still appeal to him.
"It's good for exercise and for self-defense," Bishop said.
It appeals to many others, too. The Ultimate Fighting Championship, the world's largest mixed martial arts promotions company, was founded in 1993. Since then, the audience for the sport has steadily increased. Now, the UFC is considered the fastest-growing sports league in the country, with an estimated 31 million Americans counted among its fan base.
It helps that there's money to be made in the sport. When Shopp started fighting more than a decade ago, fighters were lucky to earn $500 to $1,000 for a match, he said. Now, top fighters can make up to $1 million. True, that's nothing compared towhat a top boxer can make, but Shopp believes boxing can't thrill an audience in the same way as a mixed martial arts bout."People like excitement," he said.
Bishop, however, is focused on the fight. He's training even more than usual to get ready to square off against Vela and admits that he would love to be crowned King of the Casino. After all, there's already something regal-sounding about his name, so it's not such a stretch: "Julius Caesar — it sounds good," Bishop joked.
Yet it's not the thought of the title that pushes him to keep fighting. After he was injured, he spent several years in rehabilitation. The thought that he is now able to be "the older guy" and still keep fighting "is really incredible to me," he said.
"If you really love it, that's what keeps you going," Bishop said. "And I just have the drive."
In his 20 years of fighting, Shopp can only recall a handful of fighters who have had enough determination to stick with the sport. After all, who wants to spend eight hours toiling away at your day job, only to then let another person hit you in the face for two hours, he asks.
"It's one of the hardest sports in the world," he said.