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 start
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.
One day in the third grade, three older students surrounded him on the playground and started hitting him. This time, he was ready.
George punched back, fending off two of them. He grabbed the arm of the third kid and snapped it backwards, breaking the bone.
George was suspended from school. He and the other student eventually apologized to one another and became friends. His confidence grew, though he continued to be the victim of bullying.
“The kids there wouldn’t back off, even if I beat them up,” he said.
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.
George, who was in seventh grade at the time, hated the move. So much so that when the family paused at a rest stop in Rawlins, Cunningham made George hand over his coat and shoes because she thought he might run and try to hitchhike back.
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.
For the most part, George has adapted to his lack of vision. He doesn’t use visual aids or other services, and while he was growing up, his mom was called to the school several times to show documentation that he’s blind. Instead, he relied on his ability to listen and pay attention.
His mom never told him he couldn’t skateboard or play sports. He couldn’t pass the visual exam to play sports in high school, though he eventually was allowed to wrestle.
“I’ve been a single mom pretty much all his life raising him,” she said. ”So when they told me he was blind, I don’t know if it was my lack of ability to deal with it really, but we never treat him like he’s blind.”
In 2016, a surgery helped improve his vision. He still can’t see the top of the eye chart, but his vision in that eye greatly improved, he said.
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.”
Two nights before the Infamous MMA fight, George heated a steak in the microwave for dinner.
He added a few dashes of pepper and topped the meat with avocado. Just looking at the hot sauce in the kitchen was torture, he said. He still had to drop 5 more pounds in the next 24 hours to make his weight division, so his diet called for low sodium and low carbohydrates.
He wistfully flipped through photos on his phone of his mom’s enchiladas and other meals she learned to cook for his fight diet.
“She can make no salt and no flavor taste amazing,” he said.
It had been a stressful two days. During the requisite pre-fight physical, a doctor detected a mass under his ribcage. An X-ray the next day found nothing alarming and he was cleared to fight.
Later that day he took a stroll with Enders to Paradise Valley Park for one last wrestling match. He often goes there for cardio training or to practice moves with his friend. Enders has learned a lot about MMA, though he’s not much into fighting. Enders doesn’t mind playing along, though.
They wrestled on the grass a little before the cold drove them home. Despite the hard work and the bruises, fighting is a feeling George can’t replace.
“In that moment when I’m fighting you’re not worried about 10 seconds from now; you’re not worried about 10 years from now,” he said. “It’s the clearest moment. You only have one goal, and that’s all you’re thinking about, is to get that win.”
But there’s a philosophical reason, too. Fighting brings out a person’s true personality, George said. You can’t pretend in the ring. You are who you are. You leave it all on the mat.
“At the most, it’s the highest physical manifestation of how you feel inside,” he said. “Everyone fights differently.”
Jared “Mexico” George strode toward the ring, his self-selected intro song blasting.
“I never let you down/I’m a shine on sight/Keep your mind on your grind/And off mine alright,” rapper T.I. rhymed over the loudspeakers.
George opened his arms to the crowd, then grinned as he gestured toward his family.
Then his eyes fixed on the blur of his opponent, waiting across the cage. He could see the light shining on his opponent’s skin, and the form grew clearer as George approached.
When the two drew near, mere feet from each other — close enough for George to finally see him — he looked his opponent right in the eyes. He didn’t blink.
His opponent, Cody Amman, proved even stronger than George thought. But MMA is a mental game, as George sees it. The young fighter figured he had better cardio endurance – “a bigger gas tank,” as he called it. His plan was to wear Amman out.
Still, George managed to pin Amman to the ground before the first round ended.
In the second round, Amman pinned George on his back with his head against the cage. George could see Amman loading the punches, swinging his arms into the air before coming toward George, who deflected them.
He started fighting back, but soon the bell rang. George knew he was wearing his opponent down. He could hear Amman’s ragged breathing.
George had noticed a pattern. His opponent continuously attempted a head and arm take down, where the fighter traps his opponent in a headlock before using all of his weight to bring the opponent to the ground. The move was familiar to George — it was similar to the methods bullies had used to beat on him for so many years.
He let Amman toss him to the ground. George hooked his leg under his opponent’s thigh and wrapping one arm under his neck.
“Come on, Jared!” his mom called as she stood with his stepdad and sister next to their seats.
Amman lay on top of George, striking him with his fists. But George remained in control.
“You’re never going to defeat me,” he told Amman, when he knew he had him, when he knew he was about to win his first official MMA fight.
They rolled together onto their sides, and George applied a choke hold. Amman submitted.
George had won. The crowd cheered over the voice of the announcer. People chanted his name.
He’d imagined this moment his entire life. Despite the doubts and the bullies and his vision, he’d done it.
As the referee pulled George from his opponent, it hit him.
He stood — scratched and bruised — and turned to the crowd.