Holding a stop watch in one hand, timer Dustin Rhodes is transfixed on a spirited mixed martial arts bout taking place in the chain-linked center ring of Universal Training Facility.
"Now's the time. Dig deep," yells Rhodes, himself a black belt in jiu-jitsu. "Keep going. Go, go, go! Looking good!"
The man Rhodes is urging onward is Thomas Denny, a Hesperia resident whose take-no-prisoners approach to ultimate fighting has earned him the nickname "Wildman." This day, Denny, with the protection of padded training gloves, is punching and kneeing sparring partner Sam Mateo. While only a training session, both fighters are immersed in sweat on a sweltering summer day.
On Saturday, July 26, Denny will fight one of the biggest fights of his long career in the ring. The nationally-televised CBS EliteXC Saturday Night Fights event will pit the veteran against an impressive new MMA fighter, Nick Diaz.
Mike Phillips, who writes about MMA in the Victor Valley for the Daily Press, was on hand to observe the training session.
"It's huge. Huge," Phillips, who maintains a Web site dedicated to the local ultimate fighting scene, said of the upcoming event.
And the fighter agrees.
"I'm more excited for this fight than any fight in my career," Denny said following the workout. "I'm ready to shine."
While Denny doesn't train with hanging sides of beef, there are other similarities to "Rocky." Coming into the fight with a record of 39-13-0, the 37-year-old is facing the talented Diaz, a 24-year-old with a record of 17-7. And the odds are with the younger fighter.
"No one's expecting me to last past the first round," said.
But that doesn't bother Denny. In fact, it pumps him up. When asked how he likes the odds, he answered, "I love them. I think a lot of people are going to make a lot of money on me."
The reason is simple: Denny believes he can win because his technical strengths will be hard for Diaz to overcome.
"I think I'm a bad style for him. I hit hard. I have a lot of cardio (cardiovascular conditioning). I think I'm bad for him."
To the untrained eye, Denny certainly looks ready. Possessing a six-pack's worth of hard-body abdominal muscles and seemingly not a speck of fat, Denny has earned his tip-top conditioning the hard way. Earlier in the day, he ran five miles, lifted weights, and then took a well-earned nap.
He also eats a diet that is "lean and clean" by concentrating solely on fruits, vegetables and lean meats. The fighter completely ignores breads, rice, pasta and other starches.
"I'm on a very strict diet. I'm very fit right now."
Normally fighting in the 170 pound class, the 5'9" Denny will lose 10 pounds this week and weigh in at 160 before the fight.
Such hard work and sacrifices comes easily for Denny, who admittedly grew up in "a bad family environment." To take out his frustrations he began boxing at the Chino Youth Center when he was 10 years old. After boxing for a few years, he left home at 14 and got into kick boxing before he turned 18.
"I had a boxing record of 12-0 and a kick boxing record of 15-0."
He got married and the couple had a few daughters. He worked a fulltime job to help support his family.
One day a friend said, "Have you seen this UFC stuff [on TV]?"
He started to check it out. Soon he was pursuing jiu-jitsu and while in Brazil was introduced to Mixed Martial Arts.
"I fell in love with the sport."
For a while Denny fought underground. His first paid event was a three-event competition. During his first first of the night, he knocked out his opponent in under two minutes. He earned $100 for his performance.
"It was the best $100 I've made in my life. It opened doors."
He joined the Irvine gym of noted MMA coach Colin Oyama. He would soak up all that he could there for 16 months.
"I'd train for two hours and drive home. I made a lot of sacrifices. It's done me wonders."
Along the way, he opened his own MMA-based gym, first a facility on I Avenue in Hesperia and most recently the 6,000-square-foot Universal Training Facility at 12176 Industrial Blvd., Ste. #2 in Victorville.
While the ultimate goal is to do almost anything to make opponents submit and give up, the gym has nearly 200 members of all ethnicities who support each other's quest for ultimate fitness and strength. About 40 of the gym members are MMA fighters with some 20 who compete in the circuit.
"We're very much a family atmosphere," Denny said as he sat near a daughter, Katerina, and wife, Tiffany. "We're very much into unity. We have a diverse culture. We have no color here. We're all trying to become champions."
With a thriving gym and a big fight just days away, Denny couldn't be happier.
"I love it," he said. "I get to travel all over the world. I get to punch people in the face without getting arrested."
But it hasn't come without his own pain.
"Nothing in my life has been simple and easy. I've grown up in a rush. I'm 37. I wouldn't change a thing. I have no regrets."
According to Yahoo! TV listings, the EliteXC Saturday Night Fights will be aired on CBS Channel 2 from 9 to 11 p.m. on Saturday, July 26. Check your listings.