Chris Lytle remembers a time — not all that long ago, really — when the toughest fight a mixed martial artist faced was the fight for acceptance.
“About 2005, 2006, different people looked at it like you were crazy — ‘You fight in a cage?’” Lytle said. “They’d take a couple of steps away; they thought you were a lunatic.”
Fast forward to 2023, and MMA is rapidly overtaking boxing as the most popular combat sport in America. Folks in Franklin can get a firsthand look at why tonight, when Operation Rolling Thunder, a full card of grappling, kickboxing and MMA matches takes place at the the Johnson County Armory.
Doors open at 4 p.m. for a 5:30 p.m. start; a limited amount of tickets remain. The event has the backing of Festival Country Indiana, and Franklin mayor Steve Barnett is among those expected to be in attendance.
Promoted by Griggs Entertainment, tonight’s card was the brainchild of Franklin Jiu Jitsu Club owner Jason Ramey and Brian Alvey, who works out at the club’s gym on Holiday Lane in Franklin. Alvey also founded Warrior 110, a group that tries to help veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury by using jiu jitsu as a positive outlet.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” Alvey said. “I just know it works. I’ll leave that to the guys with the alphabets behind their names to be able to articulate that better than I, but the therapeutic process to it is just amazing. I’ve benefited significantly myself, and so we’re just trying to share that with everybody else.”
Helping draw more attention to the card is Lytle, who earned the moniker “Lights Out” while competing on MMA’s biggest stage, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), from 2000 to 2011. He’ll take on another Indy-area UFC veteran, Andrew Holbrook, in the jiu jitsu grappling main event.
The 48-year-old Lytle, who has taken a step back from competing but works as a commentator for bare-knuckle boxing matches, was happy to support the idea of a live event in Johnson County because of the friendships he’s built while working out at Franklin Jiu Jitsu Club.
“I love the gym here,” Lytle said. “The guys here, it reminds me of when I first started training back a long time ago. It’s not a bunch of BS or stupid stuff — these guys want to come in here and work out. I like what they’re doing.”
The club, which had about 25 or 30 students when it moved to its current location in June of 2021, now has about 125.
Jay Hunsucker picked up jiu jitsu back in the early 2000s at the age of 49. An avid weightlifter at the time, he stumbled upon Don Thomas leading a workout in the aerobics room at his health club and got curious.
“I literally left the health club, went to the video store, and I rented UFC 1, 2 and 3,” Hunsucker said. “I watched those, and saw what Royce Gracie did, and I came back the next day and I told Don, ‘I’ve got to learn this. I have to learn to do this.’”
Hunsucker then started teaching jiu jitsu classes at Franklin College, where it eventually became an actual physical education class. Once enough non-students started joining in, he realized he was going to have to find another place to teach. After some time in a downtown church, he and Ramey settled into their current spot.
Now 70 years old, Hunsucker is still very much involved in the sport. He’s on a brief hiatus while he recovers from an injury but has every intention of getting back on the mat as soon as he can.
“It’s always in the back of my mind,” Hunsucker said. “I’m not stopping.”
More and more local residents are developing a similar love for the sport. Jalen Ward, a 2021 Franklin Community High School graduate who was a state qualifier in wrestling, joined the club a year and a half ago and will be competing on the card tonight.
The 20-year-old says that while a lot of his wrestling skills transferred over to jiu jitsu, he’s still learning every day from some of the more veteran fighters in the club.
“I want to shine a spotlight on the gym, because it’s a good family,” Ward said. “They brought me in and put me under their wing, taught me everything I need to know jiu jitsu-wise. … Good people, great group, and it’s a good thing to be a part of.”
To a man, club members point out the fact that there’s no age barrier with jiu jitsu. Ramey and Alvey, still doing it at the respective ages of 46 and 50, see the likes of Hunsucker as a blueprint for their own futures.
“Jiu jitsu is something where you can train at your own pace,” Ramey said. “You can go as hard as you want to.”
“I’m able to get on the mat and go at it 110% with an opponent, but in a controlled environment,” Alvey added, “and it doesn’t result in me drooling in a Dixie Cup the rest of my life.”
They’ve developed a love for the sport and are eager to use the club’s moment in the spotlight tonight to get others to do the same.
“Our number one goal is to introduce mixed martial arts to the Franklin community,” Ramey said. “Secondly, it’s just to get some attention to our gym. … We’re hoping it’s as successful as it seems it’s going to be.”
IF YOU GO
GE Fights/Operation Rolling Thunder
When: 5:30 p.m. (doors open at 4 p.m.)
Where: Johnson County Armory, 325 Minuteman Way, Franklin
Tickets: $35 general admission, $70 cageside, $650 VIP table; limited amount of seats remaining