Friday, September 26, 2008

Fighting on



Date: Thursday, July 31, 2008 Section: Metro Page: A1 Edition:

Source: JACOB BENNETT, Courier & Press staff writer, 464-7434 or

Photography by SERGE GIACHETTI, Courier & Press staff photographer

The world went black, as if someone pulled the plug on a TV, and Kanna Domangue crumpled to the mat.

A trainer, medic and cameraman rushed to the 26-year-old woman.

Just moments before, they'd watched Domangue, a part-time model, pound a punching bag at Big Bully Mixed Martial Arts Center, pausing every so often to catch her breath. She'd pressed on even as she wondered which of her health problems would get her this time.

Domangue's been fighting since the fourth grade, when a classmate pulled out her hearing aid --she's fought against childhood tormentors, allergies and stress-related hives and, later, endometriosis, a condition that can cause crippling menstrual pain.

Now Domangue has another fight. Her body was going through a change similar to menopause after having a hysterectomy. She had signed up for a mixed martial arts
reality show to push the limits of the body that had both tormented her and given her a second chance. She couldn't let her health beat her again.

From the floor, Domangue read the medic's lips: "Do you want to get up?"

She nodded. She didn't know what was wrong, but she knew what she had to do: keep punching.

A few weeks before, Domangue faced a full-length mirror, after putting on a skimpy outfit for her gig as a mixed martial arts ring girl. She didn't see the olive complexion, dark hair and dark eyes that make photographers call when they need an "exotic" model.

She saw cellulite on the back of her thighs.

She yelled at her boyfriend, John Gauer, when he said he didn't see it.

Her reaction isn't shallow. Before she became a gorgeous grown-up, she was the kid picked on by classmates. She was called "radio ear" and mocked for a lisp that turned "specific" into "pacific" and "pizza" into "pisa."

She also feared post-hysterectomy hormones were making her gain weight. She stopped taking them, which meant risking hot flashes, headaches and increasingly brittle bones.

As she worked the fights that night in late May, she already was planning to step into the ring again for a different reason: Gauer's cousin, Jeff Osborne, had invited her to try out for the second season of his locally produced mixed martial arts reality show "FIGHT SKOOL."

On the show, Osborne and several fighters teach average people the punches, kicks and grappling techniques that define their sport. The culmination is a big November fight night at the Evansville Coliseum.

Osborne invited Domangue because, he said, he knew her looks, health problems and back story would make great TV: She is the oldest child of divorced teen parents, and she came to Evansville with little more than a green Ford Mustang and the dog she'd adopted after Hurricane Katrina.

"I'm fighting for myself," said Domangue. "Fighting, I was mentally used to it; now, I'm going to put it in physical form. If I can get beyond my limits, I've done what I wanted to accomplish."
Osborne knew the odd number - Domangue and the six other women - posed a problem. Before pairing them off for an Aug. 9 show, he would have to cut one of them.

When FIGHT SKOOL is in session, the Big Bully isn’t a pleasant place to be. Body heat collects in the air like in a parked car on a summer day, and the smell of sweat fills the nostrils like a salty ocean breeze.

Forty people showed up for the tryout June 7, roughly the same number as last year. But this group was in better shape and more confident. Nearly two months after the first tryout, more than 30 contestants remained - twice as many as the same time last year, when Osborne didn't have to make a cut.

Eight quit during the first day's tryout in 2007 - driven away by the same workout Domangue was about to endure.

It was a 45-minute marathon of sprints, rope-jumping and grappling against experienced fighters.

The pros call it a decent warmup. For those without training, it's so brutal that the training staff tapes hand-written signs on the garbage cans: "Puke Here."

"You'll pass out before you die," trainer John Turner told the contestants.

Domangue handed her hearing aid to Gauer, then started a drill that required her to jump a rope and then roll under it. She struggled to catch her breath.

During the six-minute punching bag workout, she had to stop. She staggered, and dropped to the floor.

But she would not let her health beat her. She opened her eyes, and read the trainer's lips. Of course she wanted to continue.
As soon as she got to her feet, she resumed swinging.

Cameraman Cody Cannon tracked her down at the end and asked, “Are you ready to fight?”
“Very,” she said, and pretended to box the camera.

A few minutes later, she ran to the bathroom and vomited.

Long before the punching bags and the hysterectomy, Kanna Domangue was little 5-year-old Kanna Antill.

Her grandmother, Mary Antill, thought she was stubborn because she would keep walking after being told repeatedly to come back.

She simply hadn't heard.

Kanna was living in Lodi, Calif., where her mother followed her aunt to the first of many different homes around the country. A prekindergarten screening discovered the hearing loss.

Taunting later caused her to skip school dances and wear her hair down to cover her hearing aids. In sixth grade, she saw a TV show about a deaf boy and decided she shouldn't be ashamed anymore.

In 2005, she married Ron Domangue, a Marine she had first dated when they were in junior high in Louisiana. They split a year later, about a month before she came to visit family in Indiana.

While in town, she visited the Deerhead Sidewalk Cafe on East Columbia Street, where she met Gauer, a musician. He autographed a copy of his CD with his phone number.

She didn't call for three days. They talked so much the next couple of days that his ear hurt. Gauer, 36, told her he had three children and a bunch of debt.

She told him she sometimes thought about moving to Evansville to be with her mom, but she didn't tell him what she was about to do.

She was on the day shift as a phlebotomist at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Gonzales, La., where her father lives with his second wife. On her break, she called her mother in Indiana and asked if she could live with her.

Domangue apologized for giving short notice, and went home for some clothes and her dog.
She went to her mom's first, but that night, she stayed with Gauer. They haven't been apart since.

"I'd never done anything like that," Domangue said. "I just took a chance. I'm glad I did. Everything I wanted to do just took off, I guess because I got out of the box."

Two weeks after the tryout, Domangue did her first runway shoot at Icon, a nightclub on Green River Road. In a sea of big hair, short shorts, glittery makeup and dangling jewelry, she modeled four outfits.

Domangue's modeling career had picked up in Evansville. She was included on the 2008 Showme's calendar and modeled for an online retailer in Bloomington, Ind.

She had only a couple of drinks at the club, but they proved to be too much.

At the next day's "FIGHT SKOOL" tryout, as the group moved in a circle, practicing footwork and jabs, Domangue had to stop and stand in a corner, slightly doubled over, her hand clutching her heart.

The next exercise was worse: Four trainers used padded boards like baseball bats to hit an assembly line of contestants in the stomach.

Bare-chested guys gritted their teeth, doubled over or swore as they walked away, their six-pack abs red as wine.

Domangue says she probably shouldn't have gone through the line. She spent the next two days in bed, missing a runway show.

Of the seven girls in the competition, Osborne estimated Domangue's skills put her in the middle of the pack.

She didn't have the jujitsu grappling game of Marie Cartwright, or the boxing skills of Amber Asher-Jones or April Penrod, or the kicking ability of Renee Pennington. As they grappled on the floor, Cartwright put Domangue in a hold that caused her to "tap out" or give up.

Four weeks in, Domangue climbed into the ring to spar with Kim Lindsey, a 42-year-old grandmother who won her final match of the first season.

Domangue's ponytail bounced as she tried to land a jab or kick. She wasn't keeping her eyes up when she punched, and Lindsey landed a left hook on Domangue's nose.

"I'm sorry," Lindsey said.

"No, you're not," trainer David Overfield said from the side of the ring. "You're here to spar, not to play Barbie."

Domangue was willing to risk the hot flashes and fatigue and other uncomfortable results of her decision to stop taking her hormones, but Gauer was worried.

One day at work, when a doctor came in to buy some sharp clothes, Gauer asked his opinion on her decision.

The doctor’s advice was clear: She needed to resume taking the hormones immediately. She was too young to go through the changes that would be brought on without them.

She agreed, but she couldn’t shake her insecurity about the hormones’ side effects. In an effort to firm up her legs, she decided to roller blade from her house to the Pigeon Creek boat ramp and through the Greenway Trail that leads to Garvin Park.

She tried to pass a pair of girls who were walking down the ramp, and she lost her balance and flipped at least three times down the hill. Her right arm bent underneath like a chicken wing.

“Wow, are you OK?”“Practice makes perfect,” she said as she got up and skated on, trying to shake out the pain in her arm.

Soon, her broken wrist had swollen to the size of an apple.

The conversation with Osborne didn't go well, Gauer said.

Doctors said she would be in a cast for about four weeks.

She couldn't wrestle in the first "FIGHT SKOOL" show but could be ready before the November finale.

Osborne didn't say if Domangue would be eliminated but told Gauer to bring her by 15 minutes late for the next workout.

He needed that time to talk to the other contestants.

He asked the women who of them should be eliminated, but didn’t mention Domangue’s arm.
When she showed up in jeans and a neon pink cast, a cameraman was waiting for her and Gauer at the door.

Sometimes people make decisions easy on him, Osborne said.

"She's got a broken arm from rollerblading. Kanna's out."

All Domangue said was, "Can I come back next season?"