White Cranes in the High Desert

Cedar City is nestled into a uniquely modern and American economy: the “highway town.” The three interchanges that meander off I-15 serve as tributaries that deposit everything they can fit between their painted lines, including a surprising niche community: martial artists.. 

The town’s locale has been interested in these unique forms of expression since their induction into American consciousness. From the 1990s when “Dragon” Don Brinkerhoff held a monopoly on “exotic” Asian styles to the explosion in popularity of the UFC and Brazilian jiu jitsu in the new millennium to the modern, or more aptly “post-modern,” era wherein COVID-19 has culled martial arts communities and the newly individualistic populus value the techniques over styles. 

One Cedar City school that survived the pandemic and has reopened to flourish in 2022 is Empire MMA, a small gym which married couple Joyce and Steve Eargle operate. Steve Eargle functions not only as an owner, but also the head instructor, while Joyce Eargle fulfills the business’ proprietary duties. As of March 2022, their student population is estimated at 60 people including adults and children alike. 

With a group this size also comes a culture. Joyce Eargle said the value of community they center their village on is the safety of the children in the city that houses their school.

“I think the issue we care about the most is bullying,” Joyce Eargle said. “We offer free, private self-defense lessons to any children who struggle with bullies.”

The spouses clarified that the goal was not to train dozens of children to be violent but instead to be confident and able to stand up for themselves and their peers. 

“The confidence these kids wear on their faces when they leave makes my heart glow,” Joyce Eargle said. “Some of them are so shy and scared when they come in for the first time that they cry but they leave smiling and laughing with the other kids every time and usually the same night.” 

Joyce Eargle went on to say that occasionally their students do come back and report recent conflicts with the same bullies they had before entering Steve Eargle’s tutelage that turned around for them—which can change a victim’s outlook. 

Steve Eargle and his junior instructors share their expertise in Muay Thai and Brazilian jiu jitsu at the school. 

The former is a traditional Thai boxing style that focuses on powerful close-ranged striking and clinching or standing grappling techniques. Steve Eargle has had the opportunity to spend months-long sessions of his life to travel to Thailand and study this style of boxing at its source.

Brazilian jiu jitsu, on the other hand, is a modern, international amalgamation of traditional grappling techniques that have spent thousands of years migrating from Greece to countless continental Asian cultures to Japan and back out to the rest of the world. Steve Eargle is proud to possess several championship accolades in this style. 

Steve Eargle’s selection of styles is indicative of the modern climate for martial arts. Modern styles and old, exotic styles have moved from the public “rock-paper-scissors” perception that UFC marketing conventions push to a post-modern environment where technique and purpose forgo aesthetic and tradition unless the aesthetic and tradition are the student’s purpose in study. In this post-modern setting, Steve Eargle’s curriculum seems more built upon pragmatism than it is the styles on the class signup sheet.

Eargle went on to say that, “On the mat and in the ring, martial arts equalizes us.” 

“I’ve watched cops roll with ex-inmates and people from all over the globe boxing with old Utah family members and all they want to talk about is the rolling or the sparring or the techniques,” Steve Eargle explained. “I like it that way in my school. The world out there and all the bullshit we carry around [doesn’t] matter on these mats and in that ring.”  

The Eargles breed this community attitude in the trappings of their gym. While the garage-style business suite and necessary mats, heavy bags and sparring gear impart a “brutalist,” functionalist ideal, there are photos all over the place of students and fighters who study at Empire. 

“One wall has photos of groups of students,” Joyce Eargle explained. “The next space has all photos of fights our MMA team have, and the last wall is the promotion for their fights. We want these people to feel like a family together, so we put all their photos together like that.”

The Eargles are going out of their way to engender a community of martial artists who aren’t “fighters” in terms of toughness or their capacity to commit stylish violence. Rather, they seem to remind their students of the “monastic” values of studying martial arts techniques that bled into Chinese styles as they evolved alongside Bodhidharma’s Zen Buddhism— sureness, calmness and appropriate proactivity fuel their little gym. 

Steve Eargle clarified that their goal wasn’t to instill their own beliefs in their students. He knows that goals and beliefs are as diverse as the individuals who hold them. 

“There are as many reasons to learn this stuff as there are people learning it,” Steve Eargle said. “Whether it’s for exercise, a hobby, weight-loss general interest or even joint and muscular mobility—we have the mixed martial arts team for people who really feel like they need to fight. We’re here for the students. They’re on their own journeys that bring them to our doors and we want to respect that.”

Article by: Janzen Jorgensen
Photos courtesy of Christopher Dimond