Muay Thai class wouldn’t start for another five minutes but John DeVall and Solveigh Skarhus were already sweating. Both instructors had just finished teaching a youth kickboxing course, but there was little time for a break. John was lying on the mat and stretching his legs, preparing for the next two hours where he and Solveigh would train and sweat some more alongside their three students.
Solveigh hadn’t stopped moving since I walked into DeVall MMA & BJJ last Wednesday. She was shuffling her feet and bending her knees, keeping the blood flowing and never allowing her body a chance to rest. She casually talked to her guests between breaths and pulled on the strings of her hoodie, enclosing her long blonde hair in a protective shell. She showed no signs of stress or fatigue. In fact, she looked rather cheery, which made her all the more frightening.
Known in the MMA cage as “The Evil One,” Solveigh, at first glance, doesn’t look all that intimidating. She’s approachable, nice and practically has a permanent smile. Others have told her that as well. To which Solveigh says, “Well, doesn’t that scare you a little more?” Indeed it does. She was staring in the face of a grueling two-hour Muay Thai class complete with fighting drills and intense workout intervals, and Solveigh seemed delighted. I began to wonder if she was even human.
A loud siren goes off inside the Benson Building gym like an alarm clock. John springs up from his stretches and commands Solveigh and his three students to warm up with jump ropes. He fiddles with a machine in the corner of the room attached to a speaker before joining the class. After a few seconds the alarm rings again, signaling everyone to start jumping. A digital countdown begins. When the timer hit 30 seconds, all five of them speed it up. They winced as they swung their ropes faster and faster over their heads. Whirr-whirr-whirr-whirr-whirr! The bell rang and jump ropes dropped to the floor.
On Saturday (Jan. 28), John and Solveigh will compete in the Gateway Fighting Series at the Shrine Temple. So in addition to their individual training, the two are still in charge of teaching numerous evening courses and private classes at DeVall MMA & BJJ. As if Solveigh’s schedule wasn’t busy enough, she also works a part-time job and attends Morningside College, majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry. With the college credits she accumulated while at Hinton High School and the summer courses she has planned to take, Solveigh said she’ll be a senior next fall.
It’s been more than a year since Solveigh was in an MMA bout. Her first fight was against Mercedes Timmerman in May 2015. Solveigh left Timmerman a bloody mess. Her second fight against Christina Toth happened a few months later. In a blink of an eye, Solveigh knocked Toth to ground and attacked her with a barrage of punches. The fight was over in nine seconds.
Why the long break? At the time of her previous fights, Solveigh was still enrolled in high school. She made a deal with her dad that she wouldn’t fight anymore until she graduated. Plans for other fights in 2016 also fell through, leaving the 19-year-old fighter itching for another chance to enter the cage.
“When I was still in the training camps for it and thought [fights] were coming around, it was the same training for four, six or eight weeks,” she said. “So it got to that last week where they’re like, ‘Oh, sorry, this isn’t going to happen.’ That’s when it’s a little disappointing. But at the same time, I’m training anyway.”
Although those fights never came to be, Solveigh still saw herself transforming as a fighter. The training had not gone to waste.
John and Solveigh prepared the next Muay Thai fighting session. Strike, strike, kick, again. Students at DeVall MMA & BJJ had five minutes to spar and learn the techniques. John wandered around the room as if in a trance. I asked him if he's tired and he said, "All the time." But he kept a close eye on the progress of each student's technique as they trained underneath a ceiling decorated with dangling medals.
Solveigh was his assistant and punching bag, often used as the defensive demonstrator. I couldn’t tell if these techniques were new to her or not, but she greeted them with the same eagerness and attentive eye as if they were. She was paired with a hesitant student. His lack of experience was put at ease by Solveigh’s leadership skills and friendly demeanor. She was quick to correct his mistakes and communicate with him in a way that calmed his nerves. He learned fast and developed his rhythm.
Since there were an odd number of people in the gym, John had no one to spar with during the Muay Thai class. He’s occasionally strike a few combos on a swinging punching bag hanging from the ceiling. But he would mostly watch Solveigh, his finest protégé. With a focused gaze, he’d watch her spar with her partner and gave advice to her often.
He and Solveigh are in the uncommon position of being both fighters and instructors of mixed martial arts. “To do them at the same time is rare,” said Solveigh. “Most people who are fighters are just fighters – they’re students at a gym and they train.”
But she and John are still getting a workout, per se. Although Solveigh said teaching can take away a little bit more than what a fight camp usually offers.
“It’s hard to deal with because if there’s a day where you need to teach two or three times when you need to be training, you aren’t going to be able to focus as much on your own workout and you aren’t going to be able to cut as much weight during those same hours.”
Solveigh’s solution? Putting in more hours for training. And having a little less sleep for a couple nights.
A NEW PATH
The last time I met with John was in August 2016. At that time, the thin fighter I first spoke to over the phone about his Bellator bout was looking a little flabby and was talking about the notion of retirement. The 31-year-old can’t let the sport go. I should have known better.
"I'm very goal orientated," said John. "I didn't have anything to chase. Eventually it's going to suck because I'll be too old to fight. My dad said to me, 'You've always cut weight. Why don't you start maximizing? You've always wanted to be bigger. Why don't you start gaining?'"
So, John gained weight. Before, John fought as a flyweight and bantamweight fighter – weighing 125 and 135 pounds, respectfully. Now, he’ll be fighting the Gateway Fighting Series as a 170-pound welterweight. I remember the times would have to constantly cut weight for his fights. He wasn’t frail by any means, but he was very thin – almost skeletal. But the new weight class has given John a new challenge. He was able to lift weights almost every day, building his strength. Getting closer to the fight, John focuses more on cardio to increase his stamina and endurance. Being bigger is a change for world champion, but he feels great.
“There’s so much more muscle, but at the same time I can do so much more,” John said. “I’m much stronger. At 125 or 135, it’s all about speed and being super technical. Now, I’m super technical and have the strength to match it. So I feel more like a black belt in a way. I have the strength to match the technique I have. At the same time, I’m super nervous about it.”
When he was a flyweight and bantamweight, John rolled and sparred with much larger guys, using his speed as an advantage. He admits he seems a little bit slower, but compared to others in his current weight class, he still feels faster. As a welterweight, John believes he’ll be able to fight to his full potential.
“Everybody would always say that my training camps were great but at my fights I’d be at 65 or 70 percent. Now I’m walking in at 95 or 100 [percent] because I’m not cutting any weight. I’ll be able to wake up and eat breakfast and lunch on weigh-in day. I’ve never done that before in my life. I’m excited for it. I hit even harder now and I’m immensely stronger.”
The class was coming to a close. After students learned different Muay Thai techniques using punches, kicks and a few elbow swings, John instructed that they get in line against the wall mats. His assistant Solveigh demonstrated what the students would do: two people would take turns punching, two would take turns getting hit and the last person would rest. They rotated their positions every minute. This exercise lasted for a solid 10 minutes, which meant that every person would get pummeled a total of four times.
Just watching this happen was excruciating. Those people who were taking a beating had their arms raised above their heads and willingly let themselves get punched in the gut. Students communicated how hard or soft they wanted those strikes. Some were in tears by the end. When it came time for John to start wailing on Solveigh’s stomach, they laughed at first. John wasn’t holding back, as Solveigh soon found out. She buckled slightly near the beginning, but she quickly regained focus.
She controlled her breathing and took the beating like a champ. When it came time for her to rotate to the break position, she did stand around with her arms above her head struggling to breathe; instead, she stretched and bounced around, always moving, preparing for her turn to throw punches. When she was tasked with throwing punches on more experienced student, he asked her to hit a bit harder. “You sure?” she asked. He nodded his head, wincing. She didn’t let up. She let him have it, practically tenderizing his ribs.
By the end, everyone’s bellies were red and sore. Students had a strong urge to cripple over and rub their stomachs, but it was too painful to do so. They smiled and laughed at the ordeal they just put themselves through… until they were forced to do crunches and even more ab workouts. John and Solveigh seemed to relish the challenge. They’ve suffered together in their own one-on-one training sessions. “Her experience level isn’t as high as mine,” said John, “but she’s the most experienced person that I do have and spend the most time training with her. Everything that’s more complex and advanced, I can do with her and vice versa.”
Which will come in handy by the time Solveigh and John enter the cage at the Gateway Fighting Series. But there's still a level of uncertainty. Though relatively unfazed, John is still trying out a new weight class and taking on a bigger and heavier opponent.
For Solveigh, this will be her third career fight after numerous cancelled cards and bouts that have fallen through. And it's also a title fight for the featherweight fighter. But she said she's training it just like any other fight and is adamant that she's not in it for any fame or glory.
"I love training, so it's more just testing your skill against somebody who has trained the same way," she said. "And it's a scarier thing to do. There's one thing to practice with your friends and people you know. It's completely different going against someone from a different school or a different state and you don't know them at all.
"You're going for blood. You're seeing who is the best."