CASPER, Wyo. — Jared George scrawled his name across the top of a printed form, his face so close to the page it was nearly touching. His step-father knelt at the other side and filled out the rest, which asked about various medical conditions.
Did he have high blood pressure? No.
Did he have diabetes? No.
Had he ever suffered a concussion? Luckily, despite all the fighting, no.
But the form never inquired about the condition that’s shaped his entire life, the condition that made him a fighter.
A few minutes later, George stripped to gray boxers and stood on a scale for the weigh-in inside the Industrial Building at the Natrona County Fairgrounds. Outside of competition, he often flashes the same smile that got him out of trouble at school. Now he stood nearly expressionless, his hands on his hips, his hair shaved close to the scalp, as the officials watched him.
He had been training for the following night’s mixed martial arts bouts for his whole life. This was his official debut, the beginning of the 20-year-old’s plans for a career in the sport, and he was nervous.
His weight cleared. He was officially slated for the following night’s Infamous MMA 1 fight in the light heavyweight division. He sized up his opponent for the next night as they faced each other for a photo.
But the view a few feet off was a blur. He could tell his opponent was larger. He couldn’t see details like the definition of the man’s muscles, but could tell they were large. The shape of his opponent’s torso hinted he might rely more on strength and quick bursts of energy rather than longer endurance, George guessed.
For George, these details are crucial. Because he’s legally blind, he’s even more reliant on strategy than fighters who can see every detail during a bout. But George doesn’t view his blindness as an impediment — it’s what brought him to the sport in the first place.
When he was bullied as a kid for being blind and overweight, he learned to fight. When he was told he couldn’t play school sports because he’s blind, he started learning MMA.
“It’s going to be my livelihood,” George said. “It’s my dream. It’s been something that I’ve wanted for a long time.”
FIGHTING FROM THE STATE
George has always been a fighter, his mom, Kelly Cunningham, said.
She was 19 when he was born six weeks early. Doctors told her they didn’t know how he’d survived because there was no amniotic fluid in her womb. He needed kidney surgery at age 1. By age 7, he was blind from keratoconus, a disease that changes the shape of the corneas.
While legally blind, his world isn’t total darkness. He sees the world as if through a magnifying glass that’s being held too far away — the center of his sight is blurry but becomes clearer at the periphery. The other kids in his grade school knew this.
He had to duck or change course when he saw older students in the small northern California town of Burney where he grew up. They shoved him, hit him and threw rocks at him on the playground. They bullied him because he was overweight and blind, but always made sure the adults didn’t catch them.
So George learned to fight. It came naturally and eventually started getting him into trouble.
He enjoyed fighting and tried to channel that interest through organized sports. At age 12, he started MMA training. He knew by then he wanted to be a professional fighter.
People laughed at him, or worse, shrugged off his aspirations. They didn’t think it was realistic, especially for a blind boy.
Their doubt steeled George.
“I’m a little hard headed, so I guess I wanted to prove them wrong,” he said.
He probably would have found himself in worse trouble as he grew up, he said, but then his mom moved the family to Wyoming in 2011. She wanted a better life for her two kids. There were no extracurricular activities at their school, which was underfunded, and sports programs were few and far between, she said. She was worried about George getting in trouble.
So she packed the car and headed to Casper, where her boyfriend, Keith Jensen, lived.
His first day at school, he sat near the front of the bus to avoid other students. He was afraid they were going to pick on him, just like the kids in California.
“Hey, red hat!” he heard from the back of the bus. He assumed it was someone picking a fight. But it was Caleb Enders, who invited the new kid to sit by him. He thought he looked lonely.
Now, seven years later, they call each other brothers.
BEATING THE ODDS
Enders is the one George wants in his corner. George makes adjustments mid-fight on his own, so he doesn’t need a lot of advice. But Enders acts as his eyes, pointing out things George can’t see.
Now, Enders helps drive him around town and to the odd jobs the pair work together. His best friend is also his training partner. The sessions are usually impromptu wrestling matches when they’re hanging out.
Despite her son’s independence, Cunningham still wants to jump in the ring sometimes, especially when he was fouled in a recent boxing fight. (George took a break from fighting for several months and started training in boxing last fall to prepare for his return to MMA.) The fight’s promoter had to tell her to sit down three different times, she said.
She still worries about him every time he gets in the ring, whether it’s boxing or MMA.
“But I believe in his ability,” she said “Fighting is what puts his soul afire, and I can’t extinguish that dream.”
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com