Caged Heat

Rage in the Cage promoter Roland Sarria lets loose the Valley's modern-day gladiators

During the fifth fight of the night, when Richie Hightower downs first-time cage fighter Ryan Potter with a swift kick to the groin -- a big crowd-pleaser, judging by the thunderous applause -- Sarria revels in the opportunity to crack a few ball jokes. "Well, at least we know he's got huevos!" he says.

"I don't understand it," Flannery gripes backstage after Sarria cuts short St. Madness' first intermission set because of some mosh-pit dancing in front of the stage and orders the sound man to switch to records -- the first track being Mötley Crüe's stripper anthem "Girls, Girls, Girls." On the mic, Sarria is urging the crowd to "get a few cocktails" before the next fight begins.

"They keep saying this is a family sporting event," Flannery says, cracking a thin smile through the evil KISS makeup. "I just don't get it."

Fighters first join Sarria on a smaller stage to trash-talk opponents. "I think some of 'em have been hit in the head a few too many times."
Mark Skalny
Fighters first join Sarria on a smaller stage to trash-talk opponents. "I think some of 'em have been hit in the head a few too many times."
Sarria sees tough cases slammed straight in his cage. "Once they do this, their lives are changed forever," he says.
Mark Skalny
Sarria sees tough cases slammed straight in his cage. "Once they do this, their lives are changed forever," he says.

To get Roland Sarria's family values, it helps to know a little about his own desperate upbringing, and where he formed his spotty impression of the perfect American family.

"It's funny, but my favorite show growing up was The Brady Bunch," Sarria says a couple weeks before the Glendale Arena show over a light lunch (plain bagel with cream cheese) at the Chompie's deli on University Drive in Tempe, just down the street from his martial arts training center, Brausa. "And every person I ever met used to say to my brothers and sisters, 'Your parents did such a good job with you all.' Little did they know, it was The Brady Bunch. That's how we learned."

When he was only 1, and still living with his family in Havana, Sarria's mother became mentally ill with what would eventually be diagnosed as acute schizophrenia, one of the few English words he still has difficulty pronouncing. "She was there, but she wasn't all there," he recalls. "She was always talking to herself."

His sister Martha, the oldest of the five Sarria kids, says there were times their mother would cook, but for the most part, the siblings were left to take care of themselves while their father worked. "We actually raised each other," says Martha, who now owns a retail shop in Palmdale, California. "I was trained to be like the mother."

A few years after moving the family to the housing projects of Culver City, California, when Sarria was 4, to seek better medical help for Sarria's mother in America, his dad became discouraged with her lack of progress and started leaving the kids home alone for longer stretches at a time. They later found out he was leading a double life, seeing another woman and becoming more distant from his own family.

"Who could blame him, in a way?" asks Martha, who says that after years of therapy, she's come to accept her father. "He would feed us like we were little animals, just throw us a bag with a little bit of food. Eventually, he started coming by less and less."

By the time Roland was 10, his dad left for good, but by then he and his two brothers were already working odd jobs. "We grew up fast," he says. "We had to."

They learned to survive without calling attention to their situation, he says, to avoid being split up by meddling social workers, subsisting on one meal a day through their school's free lunch program and exuding an air of Brady normalcy.

"If the social workers would have found out the way we were living, we would definitely have been separated by the state," Sarria says. "The Brady Bunch taught me how a family should be. I remember all those lectures in discipline, and that saved me."

His sister agrees that watching sitcom families helped them model their behavior (they also watched a lot of Happy Days and The Partridge Family), but says not having that idealized family in real life left its emotional scars on all of them -- especially, she says, Roland.

"We still see our father," she says -- and their mother, too (thanks to modern medicine, Martha says their mother is doing better mentally than ever before). "But when we see our dad, Roland goes up to him like he wants to say, 'Acknowledge me. Love me. Tell me that you're sorry for abandoning us.' And he'll never get that."

"He's a very strong person, he's a survivor, but he's still looking for mommy and daddy," Martha adds in her still pronounced Cuban accent. "Everything he has done in his life has been to get acknowledgement. I know he wanted to be a movie star, he wanted to be a model. He was a stripper at one time. It's acknowledgement. 'Look at me. I'm okay. I've made it.'"

As promoter of Rage in the Cage, Roland gets plenty of other lost boys in his camp, too emotionally stunted to go for therapy, but thrilled to have the opportunity to work out their issues by pounding another guy in the cage.

"I would say 75 percent of the kids who come through Rage in the Cage come from dysfunctional families or violent backgrounds -- gangs, you name it," he says. "And once they do this, their lives are changed forever."

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