Encarnacion is an Ultimate Fighter, a mixed martial arts brand of combat fighting, a junkyard cousin to the boxing family, and a sport with a fan base all its own. For the Oakley resident, a scrappy, savvy, tattooed Puerto-Rican transplant with a wife and four young children, the decision to become a Mixed Martial Arts fighter was simple.
"It was either become a professional and beat up guys for money, or beat up guys and go to jail," said the 28 year-old Antioch High School graduate. "I was on the verge of taking a wrong turn with my life when I saw one of the Ultimate shows, and it turned my life around. I like it, it's fun and it's something different than boxing."
Very different. Ultimate Fighting has myriad rules that include restrictions such as no groin attacks, no poking fingers into orifices, cuts or lacerations on the opponent, and no kicks to the kidneys. But the basic rules boil down to three simple tenants: no biting, scratching or hair pulling. Other that that, it's pretty much a free-form exhibition in which the winner isn't necessarily the one with the biggest muscles.
Sometimes, the winner is the one with the biggest brain.
"You know, once you get involved in the sport, you begin to look at it from a different perspective," said Encarnacion, a part-time trainer at the Delta Family YMCA in Oakley. "There is a lot of thought and rationale that goes into figuring out your moves and the moves of your opponent. Everyone has a different style and you have to learn to change with each competitor."
Played in three five-minute rounds of gladiator-style sparring, contestants fight in weight classes - Encarnacion is lightweight - and a winner is decided when an opponent is either knocked out, taps out (a move where he physically taps a part of his body to signal defeat) or verbally concedes the match. The referee also has the authority to call a match at his discretion.
If you're thinking "Only in America …" ultimate fighting is actually popular throughout the world, especially in Asia, where a venerable tradition of martial arts training and philosophy has helped to make it a huge sport in China.
With an eye to legitimacy and the safety of its participants, the highly intense sport does have a rigid set of rules and guidelines that include yearly EKGs, MRIs and blood work.
"The governing bodies are pretty tight about the rules," said Encarnacion. "Unfortunately, some of the rules are different in each state, so it's kind of a hassle. But it's done for the fighter's protection, so I understand."
This year, Encarnacion fought his first professional fight, having worked his way up through the ranks of exhibition matches and amateur bouts. While he didn't win his first pro fight ("I tapped out," he said), he did take home $1,000. Not bad for an hour's worth of work and a shot at the big time.
"It was great. I really enjoyed it," said Encarnacion, whose family, including three sons and daughter, sit ringside at all his matches. "If you stay healthy and stay in good shape you can make some real money at it. It puts food on the table for my family and it's something I enjoy. It works for me."
But the professional career of an Ultimate Fighter is not long; significantly shorter than that of other professional athletes. "Ten years, maybe 15 if you're really lucky and don't break too many bones," said Encarnion, who has so far broken only a foot during his fighting tenure.
"It's very hard on the body. But I work out every day and keep myself in shape and ready to go. I'm hoping to get more and more fights as I get better and better. I enjoy it very much, and it keeps me out of trouble. Those are all good things."