CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Bryan Pedersen packed two bags for the fight of his life.
One held the stuff of combat: mouth guard, scissors, hand wraps. The other contained a pillow and blanket.
He made his camp near the back of the Cheyenne Frontier Days Exhibit Hall on May 25, arranging the sleeping gear so he faced away from the curtain separating fighters from the growing crowd. His bags formed a barrier that kept light from seeping in.
The 38-year-old former Wyoming lawmaker sat quietly in a steel chair as trainers wrapped his hands. Then there was nothing to do but wait.
Other fighters hovered nearby. Two men grappled on a mat near the curtain. Another threw punches at his trainer. A third munched on a granola bar.
One hour until the fight. Pedersen donned a set of noise-canceling headphones and lay on the blanket covering the concrete floor. Eyes closed, hands resting motionless on his chest.
On the far side of the curtain, hundreds waited for Pedersen to compete in his first and only mixed martial arts match. His mind drifted elsewhere.
Breathe, he thought. Stay loose.
Four months ago, he was just a financial adviser with three young children. Then a promoter called with an opportunity Pedersen couldn’t turn down.
He trained nearly every day. But drills alone won’t keep him from burning through his energy. To succeed, he must stay calm and control his emotions.
His coach, a fighter and defense attorney named Tyrone Glover, wants Pedersen like a lion on the Serengeti: The cat conserves its energy most of the day, awaiting the moment to strike.
“When he sees his prey, then boom,” Glover said. “He’s off.”
Time to fight
The hall lights dim and then glow red. Hip-hop booms off the walls. Tall and lean, Pedersen sways slightly as he waits by the chute that funnels fighters into the arena.
A public address announcer stands in the center of the ring, yelling at the crowd to make noise. They don’t need encouragement. Hundreds came tonight to see the Cheyenne native compete.
Now, they leap to their feet and scream. A number wave homemade signs. “How does Bryan’s fist taste?” one reads. “Fight Ped? You should have stayed in bed!” warns another.
Pedersen walks briskly toward the ring, trailed by two coaches. They stop near the entrance for final preparations. Then he grabs the top of the cage entrance with gloved hands and hops onto the canvas.
He paces back and forth as Jesse Trejo Jr. enters the hall. The 25-year-old Cheyenne man strides deliberately toward the ring, a gray hooded sweatshirt hiding his head and thick frame. He’s been here before.
When the round begins, they touch gloves and start throwing punches.
Before the action
Pedersen spent the afternoon of the fight preparing a feast.
Fish tacos, mango salsa and lime slaw. After college, he studied at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in London. Cooking relaxes him.
“It’s almost like Christmas morning,” he said, on a quick trip to the grocery store for supplies. “You get up, you’re not sure what’s going to happen that day. But you’re excited all the same.”
Pedersen built his life into a trophy case of accomplishments. Three children and a happy marriage. Election to the Wyoming Senate at age 29. A series of adventures that took him from an elite Thai kickboxing school to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.
He discovered mixed martial arts five years ago. It kept him fit, but that was all. In the Legislature, he authored a bill to give the sport more legitimacy in Wyoming. That drew the attention of a promoter, who approached him in February about fighting in his hometown’s first sanctioned MMA event.
He trained six days a week. His coaches beat and bloodied him until he could take a punch and stay composed. They broke his nose and blackened his eyes. All he knew was sore.
They backed off a week before the match. He healed and relaxed. Played with his kids and cooked.
Only the fighting remained.
Setting a tone
Pedersen starts strong. He bobs on his feet, throwing punches. There is a momentary slip, but when Trejo lunges to take advantage, Pedersen grabs his younger opponent and drops him to the mat.
The men grapple on the floor of the ring. Pedersen gains position over Trejo and gets in a solid right hand. Trejo wraps his arms around Pedersen’s back to keep him from rising up and landing more punches.
Trejo tries to buck his opponent, but Pedersen won’t relent. A flurry of blows and the crowd is howling.
Inside Pedersen’s head, the fight is happening in slow motion. He watches himself from somewhere else. It’s noisy. He can hear the coaches barking instructions.
Three minutes and the round ends.
Out of gas
He’s spent too much energy.
A fighter is a little like a card player. He gets a pile of chips at the start of the night. He can use them however he likes, but needs his stack to last the entire contest.
As he catches his breath in the corner, Pedersen realizes he’s used too many chips. Precious adrenaline is surging through his body. If the fight goes long, there might not be enough to carry him through.
Slow your mind, he thinks.
Another fast start
The second round begins like the first. A flurry of blows at the center of the ring. The fighters go to the ground. This time, Trejo comes out on top.
Pedersen manages to gain back his feet and pushes Trejo into the cage. The crowd cheers its appreciation and screams again when the older fighter slams his opponent back to the canvas floor. He straddles Trejo and lands multiple blows to his face.
It seems like Pedersen is headed for the win. He’s in control. The crowd is behind him. But just then, Trejo breaks free and gains position over Pedersen.
Now it’s Trejo’s turn to unleash a flurry of blows. Pedersen’s body is up against the side of the cage. He’s quickly gone from winning to enduring.
“Finish him, Jesse,” someone yells from the dark of the hall.
Pedersen tries to break free, but his strength fails him. His body won’t respond to his commands. It’s like wrestling in mud.
The round ends with Pedersen lying face down on the canvas, protecting himself as best he can. When he rises, the stage lights reveal blood smeared across his face.
No turning back
Sandy Pedersen was nervous about her son’s decision to fight.
She knew well his penchant for adventure. When he set his mind on something, nothing would dissuade him.
“You’ve got three young children at home,” she told him, when she learned about the match. “What if something happens to you?”
“There is no discussion,” he replied. “I’m going to do it.”
Despite her concerns, Sandy reserved a VIP table near the action. She wasn’t sure about actually watching the fight. No mother wants to see her child get hurt, she said.
She joked about going for a cigarette break, although she doesn’t actually smoke. She ultimately stayed.
“I watched the whole thing,” she will say a few hours later. “I’m sorry I did.”
One more round
Pedersen sits in his corner, heaving in big breaths. Across the hexagon, Trejo stands waiting.
The final round begins. Pedersen is impossibly tired. Like being strapped to chains and put in the mud.
He’s no longer thinking about winning. He simply wants to finish. No submission. No knockout.
Pedersen’s wife, Sara, is standing as close to the ring as she can. She leans forward, yelling encouragement to her husband.
The men trade blows and Pedersen pushes Trejo into the cage. Trejo grabs his winded opponent and throws him down to the canvas. Pedersen tries to rise, but before he can regain his feet, Trejo is on him.
Trejo lands two rights. Pedersen tries to hold him close enough that he can’t punch, but Trejo manages to do so anyway. He’s in control.
“Hammer fist,” a man yells from the crowd.
Pedersen tries again to break free. It doesn’t work. Trejo lands blow after blow until the round finally ends.
With support from the referee, Pedersen rises to his feet. His gloves and shorts are stained with blood. He shakes hands with Trejo and heads back to his corner.
He knows he lost. In his mind, he took the first round. The other two belonged to Trejo.
His nose broke during the fight. But Pedersen doesn’t feel any pain. He’s simply tired — more than he’s ever been. More than climbing Kilimanjaro. More than a week at the Thai kickboxing school.
He and Trejo walk to the center of the ring, separated by the referee. The public address announcer is back, asking the crowd to applaud one more time for the fighters. He announces the decision. Pedersen has lost by a single point.
The men embrace. Pedersen walks from the ring, and leaning slightly on his coach for support, heads backstage.
The fighter sprawls onto the blanket again, his back flat against the concrete floor. His coaches remove his gloves and cut the wraps from his hands.
He’s breathing heavily. His wife, Sara, kneels at his side, rubbing his chest. One coach brings a bag of ice for Pedersen’s swollen face.
The fight doctor comes to check on him. So does a plastic surgeon — a friend of the family who came to watch Pedersen’s match. He performs a quick examination by flashlight. Several more people gather around.
A few minutes pass and Pedersen is still breathing fast. His heart rate is elevated too. The doctors decide he should go the hospital. Someone suggests he might need a CT scan.
Medics arrive with a stretcher. They put a cervical collar around his neck, lift him onto his side and slide a backboard underneath his tired frame. Then they wheel him out a back door and into a nearby ambulance.
“Everything seems to be OK,” the plastic surgeon says as the ambulance prepares to leave. “We just need to look a little deeper.”
To the hospital
The emergency room at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center is cramped tonight. Pedersen’s sister, aunt and mother-in-law sit in the corner talking. They’re upbeat despite what’s happened.
After a few minutes, Pedersen’s parents emerge from the examination area. Sandy tries to remain optimistic. Pedersen ranked his pain as only a two out of 10, she says.
A two for Bryan is an eight for someone else, his sister replies.
Inside the examination room, the medical staff examines Pedersen’s swollen face. His nose is like a bag of bones.
Pedersen has planned to celebrate his first and only MMA match with a party at Cheyenne bar. Instead, he gets a CT scan and leaves the hospital just before midnight.
He wakes at 6:30 the next morning with a swollen face and a black eye. Pedersen is in surprisingly good shape considering the beating he endured.
He’s looking forward to spending the day riding bikes with his children. There have been too many missed soccer games and absent Saturdays while he trained.
His fighting days are over, he says. He’ll use martial arts to stay fit, but he just doesn’t have the time to prepare for another match.
Pedersen retires as an MMA fighter with a lifetime record of 0-1. He couldn’t be happier. He took on a challenge. He pushed himself further than ever before. The journey more than justified the long, painful process.
His phone lights up with a text from Glover, his coach.
“It’s crazy that something as simple and as straightforward as a cage fight can tap into so much of who and what we are as human beings,” the text reads. “Congratulations on getting it done.”