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Congratulating Charlotte’s MMA Fight Lab on surviving five years

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

At least 10 times a promoter from Atlanta, New York or another slick city has told me he would bring boxing to Charlotte. As he filled the air with pretty words I’d envision thousands of fight fans beneath ballroom chandeliers, well-dressed bartenders slinging drinks and local boxers finally getting a chance to make some cash.

After one card or two the promoter is gone, unpaid bills the only evidence he was here.

So we ought to wish Fight Lab happy birthday. Fight Lab promotes mixed martial arts, not boxing. This makes their job more complicated, not less.

Their first MMA card was five years ago this month. They’ll promote their 36th Saturday night at Grady Cole Center.

Fight Lab is made up of local men who promote local fighters. One of their bigger draws is Derek “H-Bomb” Hyatt, a former amateur boxing champion from Gastonia. When H-Bomb, 30, started fighting amateur MMA bouts he’d bring 15 fans with him. When he makes his professional debut Saturday, he’ll bring 90.

Ah, but H-Bomb’s opponent was injured training and on Tuesday pulled out. How do you take care of the 90 fans who want to see him?

Michael “Cornbread” Allen coaches and trains Fight Lab’s fighters, offers commentary at the fights and is the matchmaker. In his spare time – Cornbread doesn’t have spare time. He’ll work the corner for his fighters next week in Temecula, Calif., has to negotiate with the California fight commission and arrange flights and, now, suddenly, find an opponent for H-Bomb.

Cornbread, 36, used to run a mixed martial arts team in Asheville. He keeps track of fighters on a Rolodex as thick as a heavyweight’s arm. Now, on four days notice, he has to find a credible 145-pound opponent for H-Bomb. Promoting is so much fun.

“It’s the most fun you can have in a job,” Cornbread says.

Fight Lab was started by Kenny “Pit Boss” Letts, 45 and two Charlotte investors. Pit Boss is the CEO.

He, Cornbread and Tom Bakley, 38, the Chief Operating Officer, run the organization. Bakley’s nickname is The Cooler. Like the Pit Boss, he came up in the insurance business.

They didn’t have nicknames then.

“Our first show I thought we were going to make 50, 100 grand,” says the Pit Boss. “We made $2,000.”

They’ve promoted at Grady Cole, Coyote Joe’s and the roof of the EpiCenter, at Silver Hammer Studios, Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro, S.C., and Shaw Air Force base outside Sumter, S.C.

They operate from a vast old building near downtown Charlotte where fighters train and often live. Inside are a cage, a ring, weights, mats and a wooden door with a sign: Latte Shop.

Open the door and there’s a De’Longhi espresso machine. The Pit Boss makes the best latte I’ve experienced in a building with a cage.

The most tickets Fight Lab has sold for an event is 1,492. With sponsors, security, fighters and corner men about 2,200 people attended.

About 75 percent of their customers are men, and at least 70 percent have attended multiple shows. Repeat fans get to know repeat fighters such as Joey “El Dingo Loco” Carroll. You don’t know what he’s going to do. But you know you’ll remember it.

H-Bomb stands outside the cage in which MMA fighters fight. I ask him how he reacted the first time he heard the door shut behind him.

He thinks for a moment.

“Well, I was happy and scared at the same time,” H-Bomb says.

He’ll be happy and scared Saturday. Cornbread found an opponent in Connecticut. Fight Lab flew him to Charlotte Friday.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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