A crowd of more than a thousand people cheer and scream as “Holding Out for a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler played over the loudspeaker at the Alex Madonna Expo Center Saturday night.
One man stays focused jumping up and down in a black-hooded sweatshirt and bright neon green, blue and pink shorts, waiting to enter the ring and “wow” the crowd with his energetic fighting style.
As the bell rings, the 5-foot-9-inch Mike Gahan runs toward his 6-foot challenger and begins to ferociously attack with fast punches and kicks. One kick makes contact with his opponent’s face, stunning him. Then, Gahan overwhelms him with a barrage of kicks and punches, making the crowd go wild.
Gahan, a wine and viticulture senior, entered the ring for his third professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fight and emerged victorious.
“I try to put on a show,” Gahan said. “That’s my style. Everyone who watches my matches says I am a ‘wild-man.’”
Gahan might be a “wild-man” in the cage, but when he is not fighting, he can be found studying. He juggles classes and training from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., five days a week, because he wants to continue his professional MMA career.
“It’s definitely a tough balance,” Gahan said in a calm, relaxed voice, different from his personality in the ring. “I can’t complain, though, because I love doing it.”
Before Gahan found his love for MMA, he was a catcher for his high school baseball team in the Santa Ynez Valley. This ended when he blew his shoulder out.
After high school, he left the Central Coast to attend Cheshire Academy in Connecticut. There he played football as a linebacker and running back, only to realize he did not have the size to have a real future in the sport.
Gahan’s next move was closer to his family in California. There, the next sport that got his attention was kickboxing. Gahan began training as a kickboxer in 2009 at The Pit in Arroyo Grande, and later competed in amateur kickboxing matches.
The Pit was the home gym to Chuck Liddell, a Cal Poly alumnus who made a stir in the amateur kickboxing circuit in the late ’90s with his record of 20 wins and two losses. When Liddell began fighting professionally, he became a world-renowned fighter and a UFC Light Heavyweight Champion.
“At the point I came to (Cal Poly), Liddell was champ of the world,” said Gahan. “(Because of) that and the gym down there at Arroyo Grande, I decided to sign up. It was one of the best decisions of my life.”
The crowd at the Expo center that cheered louder for Gahan than for any fighter of the night proved to support the decision. His fight got fans out of their seats and showed it was the most entertaining fight of the evening.
Gahan said he wanted to enter the cage and control the fight, which he did from the start until he knocked out his opponent, Johnnie Medina, 56 seconds into the second round.
The crowd was peppered with fans wearing Gahan shirts, who cheered and screamed as Gahan’s arm was raised and the announcer said, “And the winner is: Mike ‘Dynamite’ Gahan!”
After the victory, San Luis Obispo resident Jesse Martines wore his Gahan shirt while he waited to congratulate the fighter.
“He looked really good out there,” Martines said. “He has to be a beast wearing those shorts. He needs to wear those again.”
Gahan doubling as an entertainer is reflected in his choice of attire. During his weigh-in at Mr. Rick’s in Avila Beach, he wore bright pink zebra print shorts, which fans and onlookers found comical.
Gahan said he likes to keep the crowd pumped up; whether by wearing neon-colored shorts or using an explosive fighting style.
“I concentrate on getting the first punches off, and establish dominance,” Gahan said. “I want to land the first punch and make him think, ‘I don’t want to be in here anymore.’”
Gahan’s skills have led him to have a professional MMA career record of 3-0-0. Each one of his victories took place at a Fight for Wrestling event.
Fight for Wrestling is an evening of MMA fighting to raise money for the last two Division I wrestling programs in California, Cal Poly and CSU Bakersfield. Fight for Wrestling IV was Gahan’s third time fighting for the benefit.
His debut professional fight took place last year in Mott Gym at a Fight for Wrestling event. Gahan won the fight by a TKO in the second round with a devastating kick to his opponent.
His second professional win came at the next Fight for Wrestling benefit at CSU Bakersfield. Gahan severely injured his opponent, and the match ended with a doctor intervening.
The doctors did not interrupt Saturday’s match as Gahan showcased his powerful attacks in the cage, landing forceful slapping kicks to his opponent’s body and crushing blows to the face.
As the match came to an end, Gahan’s mother Kim Gahan watched from the crowd while her son took his victory lap around the cage as the crowd roared. Soon after, Gahan had to go to the doctor’s tent to get a cut on his left cheek stitched up.
Kim waited patiently outside the tent to congratulate her son as a larger group of fans arrived chanting: “We Want Mike!” Kim said she was very proud of her son’s victory and growing fan base.
“Tonight (Gahan) kicked ass,” Kim said. “It is not my favorite sport, but I have to back him.”
Four hours later, Gahan was still entertaining a crowd of fans at SLO Brewing Co. wearing a pink tuxedo body suit, similar to the one made famous by Brian Wilson of the San Francisco Giants.
Gahan enjoyed a well-deserved beer, but returned to his intense schedule of school and training on Monday.