Mixed Martial Artists have many nicknames and faces. There’s Frank “Twinkle Toes” Trigg, Steve “Red Nose” Berger, Ryan “Darth” Bader and Cuki “The Flying Cockroach” Beerbohm.
But what about Kaitlyn “Katniss” Neil, Carson “the Perfect Storm” Hardman or Westin Wilson?
This Friday in the center ring at the Legacy Fighting Alliance fight night at the Maverik Center in West Valley City, these champions will be fighting for the Utah MMA Championships.
MMA combines several forms of martial arts and boxing into one art form. Each fight has three rounds and usually involves fighting while standing or striking and on the ground or grappling.
It’s not their nicknames or even their wins that often brings these three fighters the most attention, it’s their faith.
Hardman, Wilson and Neil are all active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Hardman and Wilson are returned LDS missionaries and Neil is a former cheerleading captain from Pleasant Grove High School.
Neil, 27, is in the flyweight division — 125 pounds — and has been fighting MMA for eight years. She is considered the best female fighter in Utah.
Neil grew up in Pleasant Grove and loved dancing and her cheerleading. She attended Dixie College and tried out for the cheerleading squad, but didn’t make it.
To help her get over the disappointment, one of Neil’s friends took her to the MMA fights, she was instantly hooked.
“I like the adrenalin rush,” Neil said. “I like going in testing myself and coming out a winner. It’s addicting and only a few people understand.”
Neil said that after the fight there is a dump of emotion. Hardman added fighting has helped him with his anxiety and depression.
“My mom hates that I fight,” Neil said. “I mainly fight in Utah, Idaho, Nevada and California.”
While her mom may not like her fighting, Neil said, “Everybody in my (Latter-day Saint) ward are over the top supporters with no backlash.”
While Neil said that fight fans are a different crowd, the sport is helping her show any woman or female she comes in contact with that you should reach for your goals and dream outside the box.
When she is not fighting, Neil owns a company called Bad Athletics in American Fork.
“We help women become stronger through exercise and health supplements,” Neil said.
‘The Perfect Storm’
Although he’s the “perfect storm,” Carson Hardman said he has experienced a few clouds in his life, but it has made him strong.
Hardman fights in the welterweight division and has been ranked No. 1 in Utah.
“I don’t pay attention to rankings,” he said. “I don’t think I’m the best fighter yet, but I know I can be.”
Like other areas of his life, Hardman said he was prepared to do this by his grandfather. He has been there for Hardman throughout his life.
“I’m adopted,” Hardman said. “My biological father came (briefly) into my life, signed up for the Navy and was gone most of my growing up.”
As a boy, Hardman was called upon to do most of the raising of his sister and little brother, and considers them his children.
“I would get up at night to change diapers when I was 12,” Hardman said.
Church has always been an important part of his life and that is where he has felt great support.
“I grew up LDS. I’m very strong,” Hardman said. “My young men leaders always checked in with me. I grew up on a farm. It was awesome and I was happy.”
Hardman’s mom was always working and she figured he could take care of the family. He graduated from Lehi High School in 2013 and served an LDS mission in Lubbock, Texas.
Hardman’s mother tried as much as she could to keep him away from watching the fights, but that didn’t work.
“I started when I was 18,” Hardman said. “I had my first fight before I graduated. As soon as I turned 18, I signed up.”
Hardman said that according to church history, Joseph Smith, the first president of the LDS Church, broke a man’s leg wrestling and then got up and blessed him to be healed. He said he figures he too can fight and be active in his church.
Hardman is married with one son. He said finding his wife wasn’t easy, women would be put off when they found out he was a fighter.
When he met his wife, her first question, “Was why do you fight?”
“It keeps me healthy and sane,” Hardman said. He knew she would be the one.
Hardman would like to fight full-time and make the money that goes with full-time champions but he isn’t there quite yet. So for now, he works part-time as an installer for wire shelving and teaches MMA at a studio to children.
While some of those children may look up to him as some kind of hero, Hardman said he doesn’t like most of the popular heroes.
“Dr. Strange (of the Marvel Studios) is better then most superheroes,” Hardman said.
Neil chimed in, “I really like Wonder Woman.”
The most professional fighter of the three, Wilson, 30, is a featherweight — 145 pounds — who currently splits his time between Orange County, California, and Utah.
He is active in the LDS faith and served a mission in Rochester, New York, from 2008 to 2010. He graduated from Brigham Young University in public relations and communications. He is currently working full-time as a manager at a software company.
“I’ve actually had a lot of publicity being a Mormon fighter,” Wilson said. “I wanted to be the Steve Young of the MMA.”
He said he loves testing his body to see how far he can take it. He said he hopes to “endure all things,” as is taught in LDS scriptures.
Wilson is married and has three children, all girls. He said it is important to spend family time, then training time, then work.
As far as his faith, Wilson is a teacher in his elder’s quorum and before that, was a Sunday school teacher. When he was 18, he lived with his family in Brazil and also taught Sunday School.
He recently completed a book, “Gospel Lessons Learned in the Cage,” he is just waiting for a publishing date. He said fighting helps him stay in the church.
“MMA does not take me away but strengthens my testimony,” Wilson said.
Wilson had a desire to fight from a very early age. However, people discouraged him because he was small for his age. They said he should be a wrestler instead.
“I started as a grappler, then went to a striker,” Wilson said. “At 6 feet 2 inches tall, I am considerably taller (than those I usually fight) It helps with control and distance.”
Wilson went professional five years ago, but not without some pushback.
“My mom is against me fighting,” Wilson said. “She finally took my challenge and this Friday’s fight will be the first time she’ll see me fight.”