Throwing down: Michael Vargas brings MMA to Washington

By TJ Rhodes
Posted 8/9/23

Southpaw Michael Vargas backs his opponent, Dominick Morris, into the corner, evading a takedown and forcing the conflict at his second amateur Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) bout at True Revelation 48, …

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Throwing down: Michael Vargas brings MMA to Washington


Southpaw Michael Vargas backs his opponent, Dominick Morris, into the corner, evading a takedown and forcing the conflict at his second amateur Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) bout at True Revelation 48, Sept. 24, 2022.

Vargas pulls a mix of jabs, leg kicks and powerful left-handed punches out of his purple-belt arsenal for a decisive first round win. Vargas connects, snapping Morris’s head back. Vargas then lowers his hands, almost asking Morris to fight back. Vargas eventually wins by unanimous decision over Morris after three rounds, raising his record to 1-1 that night in Ottumwa, Iowa.

Vargas eagerly anticipates his next altercation in the ring.

Plenty remains in the tank for the Puerto Rican born Vargas at 38, hungry and humbled at newfound opportunities since moving to Washington, Iowa, from Connecticut a year ago.

Vargas’s wife, Catrina, convinced him to give combat sports a chance when he was 23 as they watched The Ultimate Fighter together. Vargas was initially intimidated, nervous in the gym, and needed time to adjust to the lifestyle.

“I’ll be a UFC champion before you know it,” Vargas jokingly said about the start of his career.

“I go into an actual MMA gym, and it didn’t work out that way,” Vargas said. “You come to realize that it takes more. It was a while before I jumped into the actual cage. Then at 26, I met my first few coaches in Connecticut. [I thought] I’m all in, let’s do this and I fell in love with the sport. That was great.”

Vargas’s fascination with combat sports brewed well before his wife encouraged him to give it a go.

“I always enjoyed boxing when I was little, and I only enjoyed it because my dad enjoyed it. At first, I [thought] ‘I don’t know what this is,’ but it was time to spend with my dad,” Vargas said. “Eventually, [I began to] like this. It became a chess match. You start to see the details and the skill.”

Vargas gravitated towards Jiu-Jitsu and grappling on the mat. This led to Vargas tackling various grappling tournaments before trying his hand at two different amateur MMA matchups, separated by eight years. 

His favorite grappling technique is the guillotine, earning him the nickname of “Magic Mike” by his peers for adopting the well-known choke.

  Years of training gave Vargas the chance to continue trying new things.

“[Jiu-Jitsu is] my language. But I love [to] stand up, I love to punch things. At the end of the day, [I] always go to what I know best. I’m going to clinch you and I’m going to take you down because I know Jiu-Jitsu,” Vargas said.

“But then I [became] a kickboxing coach. I started falling in love with my hands and I started falling in love with my kicks. Now, I want to say I am more of [a] striker. If I need to take it to the ground, 100 percent I’d rather take you to the ground.”

Vargas says he is calm when competing because at the end of the day, he is there to have fun. He doesn’t care about his record or any other minute detail. His mind is focused on a food binge after the strenuous journey towards fight night.

“If it’s an amateur fight, [it’s just for] experience. That goes towards your amateur record, who cares,” Vargas said. “I want to let out anything that I have [in] this ring. My mindset is really just [to] have fun, but it’s also going there with bad intentions. Go in there and show respect, but you want to finish it early and you want to go home, because I want to make sure I eat something good, quick.”

Initially inspired by the UFC video game, Vargas armed himself with knowledge by way of books, tape and experience, developing a passion for teaching. This passion drove Vargas to help coach while in Connecticut. He helped run the gym and taught kickboxing and basic Jiu-Jitsu classes.

“[MMA is] therapy to me. It’s just a way to let it out. Enjoy yourself, have a good time,” Vargas said. “If you’re having a rough day, you train. By the time you’re done, I guarantee you are smiling.”

Vargas has many important developmental stories from his time in the gym.

“I had a student of mine that one day, we were sparring, and I hit him a little harder, and he started going harder with me. And this is a 17-year-old kid. I used to tell him, only hit me as hard as you want to get hit back,” Vargas said. “The round ends and then he hugs me and starts crying. What happened? [He said] ‘Coach, I had a rough day and I needed that. Thank you.’ That’s why I say it is a type of therapy, where you can release everything.”

His favorite aspect of MMA is the wide swath of people he has met, including his opponents on the mat who eventually became friends.

“I met people that are white belts who are now high-level fighters. [The] first person that I [worked] with, she was a 15-year-old girl who triangle choked me. And now she’s a pro fighter,” Vargas said. “It’s just amazing seeing all that stuff. It’s a small community, it really is.”

Vargas feels the gym is one of the only true escapes.

“It doesn’t matter what gender, what race, what religion, look, [politics], whatever. It doesn’t matter what you are, it’s the only place no one looks at that,” Vargas said. “We’re all trying to either punch each other or choke each other. We’re all trying to be one percent better than we were yesterday. That is my favorite part of it.”

Currently working out at Ground Zero in Fairfield, Vargas hopes to open his own gym one day or simply take up a larger role as a coach like he did in Connecticut. He is still adjusting to the slower pace of life in Iowa compared to the faster paced east coast, a change he appreciates.

“Connecticut is very fast paced. It’s expensive [and the] schools are big,” Vargas said. “We came here to Iowa [and] everything is slow paced. So now I have to learn how to slow down, how to relax. Now my kids are thriving in school because the schools are much smaller. My wife is killing it out here [as] a dental assistant, which she loves.”

Everything is coming together for the Vargas family. For Vargas, he still feels a sense of wonderment from the sport years after his first treacherous venture into an MMA gym.

“The ability to go in there and punch another person and at the end, I’m shaking his hand, hugging him, [and saying] thank you, that was fun. Do these guys hate each other? Do they love each other? What’s going on? It’s a great time, I recommend it to everyone,” Vargas said. “Not to fight, just to [train]. Not everyone can take a punch, and not everyone wants to get punched, which I understand. But I do recommend training, training is a good thing.”

Whether Vargas continues to compete, pursues a path of coaching, opens his own gym, or continues to do it all, he will continue to engage in the sport that captured his heart all those years ago.