On 37th Street, a UFC fighter builds a dream. Words by Garrett Hayes Kaminsky. Photography by Parker Stewart.
From the outside, the Savannah Combat Club on the east end of 37th Street looks a little rough. Step inside and you’re slugged with the smell of sweat in a single cinderblock room stocked with only the essentials: punching bags, boxing gloves, rubber tires and a few fans to counteract the sting of the heat. It’s bare-bones, but that’s just as well: you’re here to work.
Unlike the club itself, owner Stephen Bass is more than meets the eye. He’s 5’9”, an exceedingly polite Southern boy – always greeting others with an enthusiastic holler and a smile from across the gym. He’s a coach, a business owner, father to a 7-year-old daughter. He’s also a professional mixed martial arts fighter who held a 10-3 fight record in his heyday.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, the middle child of three boys, Bass spent his youth riding bikes and playing outside. His need for exploration and adventure led to disciplinary woes, but for the most part, he says, his heart was “always in the right place.” He was a people-pleaser, though he did catch a few black eyes standing up to bullies from time to time. “There were a lot of kids getting picked on. You learn young to stand up for yourself and others. Fist fighting’s just what you did in the country, I guess.”
In 2000, Bass was fresh out of high school and employed as a heavy equipment operator, doing “dirt work,” he says, with a side hustle retail job at a mall in Rome, Georgia. Observing Bass’ distinctive excess energy, a mall coworker gave him a flyer for the Toughman novice boxing competition. Bass was immediately interested—and after one fight, he was hooked. As construction projects took him on the road from Mobile to Panama City, he continued to compete in Toughman matches. In Savannah in 2004, Bass crossed paths with a martial artist and trainer from Jarrell’s Boxing Gym who offered to train him. And so it began.
With every win, Bass’ focus began to shift more toward martial arts and away from construction. Boxing was in his blood, and now everything was starting to come together for him. While his family was “pretty devastated” when he left the security of construction work, he never doubted that this was his path. As with everything he takes head-on, he was all in from the get-go.
For the next few years he trained and fought in the boxing and MMA arena, and by 2011, Bass’ impressive winning record brought him to the attention of producers for The Ultimate Fighter, a televised UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) competition. With the financial support of friends and colleagues, he flew to New Jersey to try out for the show. His fight record and larger-than-life personality got him past first round cuts before he was sidelined by multiple hernias, which meant less time to train and fight. At 29, he was the oldest fighter in the competition. “I didn’t bounce back as easy as I might have at 23 or 24,” he says. “My motivation and energy had changed.”
In spite of setbacks, Bass charged on and won his preliminary fight to secure a spot on the show. He won his first official fight but it exhausted him, and he was sick in the shower immediately afterward. From there he was in for an uphill battle. The drama of 16 fighters living under one roof was a recipe for disaster, and he had to drop 20 pounds to make weight for his next fight, this one against “a gas tank of a dude.”
Bass knew he was in for a beating. Early on in the fight he felt the effects of his poor conditioning and the overtraining he had taken on in order to make up for his downtime. As his opponent smothered him in the cage, raining punches down for what seemed like an eternity, Bass remembers feeling oddly in control. He spent the next five weeks on the show licking his wounds before returning home to Savannah, but anyone who’s ever met Bass knows he’s not one to wallow.
He hit the gym, got back in shape, and continued to train and book fights. With age working against him and every blow in the ring coming at the risk of an injury, Bass sought an adrenaline fix elsewhere, riding bicycles “fast” after he crashed all of his motorcycles beyond repair. In 2013 came the ultimate twist of fate: he wrecked his car and sold the vehicle to a salvage yard, making enough money to secure the space for what is now the Savannah Combat Club. It didn’t take him long to renovate and get down to business.
The space has served many purposes—a candy store, a photography studio—but it’s hard to picture it as anything but this rough and tumble gym, with rubber mats on the floors and heavy silver chains hanging from the ceiling. Emphasizing the importance of maintaining planted feet, a protected head and distance from your assailant or opponent, Bass makes it sound simple. To his mind, these skills—and the confidence they inspire—can prove life-saving in more ways than one.
A year after opening his doors, Bass added a youth training program, and now five nights a week he welcomes locals age 6 to 15. He hopes to provide a positive outlet for those who, like him, have some spare energy to burn—and, further, to prepare and potentially counteract what life can hand to at-risk kids.
Reflecting on his own mentors, he names two of his longtime training clients, extolling their good deeds in the community and their dedication to the club. He’s just a grateful guy, never willing to give himself too much credit, or take too much sympathy.
Bass’s life hasn’t always been a piece of cake, but tenacity has carried him far, and will take him further still. Thinking ahead to the club’s future, Bass says his hope is “to expand this whole deal, keep the community engaged and inspired.” Who knows, maybe one day a full-blown community center. He’s certainly got the heart and the drive to do it.
For now, he’s a fighter, a teacher, a leader. If he’s not at the gym, he’s tooling around on one of his many bicycles or hanging out with his daughter, Dani. Like most people who dare to chase a dream, Bass has a powerful personal style, but beneath his outer layers, there’s a softer side. Under his watchful eye, fighters cover sparring, speed bag, strength building, calisthenics, even yoga … yet perhaps the biggest reward comes when Coach Bass zooms into view, barefoot, damp black bandanna knotted around his forehead, sweat flying, barely winded as he spouts out punch combinations. When you finally get it right, he gives you his infamous refrain: de’ya go. Then he smiles, as if he has just as much pride as you do in that moment.