Pillow Fight Club! MMA pugilists pound with pillows, not fists, in fierce but wholesome combat sport
IN 14 YEARS AS a mixed martial arts fighter, Klidson Abreau has been on the giving and receiving end of some bruising punches and kicks.
At 6-2, 250 pounds, the hulking Brazilian known as “White Bear” is not intimidated by anyone or anything.
So when he was approached last month about trying out for a new hand-to-hand combat sport, he didn’t hesitate.
He grabbed a pillow and jumped into the ring.
“Why not,” he said with a grin the other day at Delray Beach Boxing and Fitness. “I pillowfought as a kid. I’ll do it as an adult.”
Put away your pajamas. Pillow fighting is about to move off the mattress and onto the mat, the dream of a Boca Raton television production company that’s all tucked in on plans to bring Pillow Fight Championship bouts to Delray Beach.
Go ahead and laugh.
Klixen and most of the other 20 boxers, wrestlers and MMA fighters who have tried out for the inaugural PFC card laughed when they first heard the fluffy concept.
But once the feathers started flying, they realized this was no pajama party.
Like a boxing match or MMA fight, PFC bouts require the same stamina, strategy and strength.
And the pillows — polyester down Wamsutta Dream Zones (available at Bed Bath & Beyond) stuffed into special pillow cases made of the same ripstop nylon used on boat sails — pack a loud punch that sounds like a knockout without delivering one.
“When you get up there, 90 seconds in you're like, ‘Whoa , I better slow down,’’’ boxer Shawn Riggins said after working up a sweat in his practice bout last month.
“It's a combat sport,” he said, “whether it's a pillow or your hands.”
It’s also wholesome family entertainment without the violence of other combat sports, said Steve Williams, president of StarMedia Productions, the Boca company that created PFC.
“It’s a pillow fight. Nobody can complain,’’ he said. “It does hurt, but no one is getting their noses broken. You're not getting your block knocked off and there’s no blood.’’
As part of the company’s pre-launch marketing plans, StarMedia has been hosting tryouts to shoot promotional video and to find the right fighters for an inaugural bout that will be streamed online Sept. 25.
Tryouts are ongoing at Delray Beach Boxing Gym and Fitness. Prospective pillow fighters can register online at gladiatrix.com.
Fighters must be vaccinated for COVID-19, Williams said.
Those selected for the inaugural bout will get paid $250 with the winner getting an additional $500.
The website makes no wrinkles about the kinds of pillow pugilists they want: “Looking for Athletic Men and Women with A Larger-Than-Life Personality.”
Eventually, Williams and his two partners want to host monthly bouts and a reality television show with a stable of professional pillow pugilists, building the same colorful rivalries and drama as television wrestling.
If it takes off, they envision promotional charity events where social media influencers, radio disc jockeys and other local celebrities grab pillows and jump in the ring.
Eventually, amateur pillow fights could be offered an entertainment option to the general public, giving friends and families the chance to pummel each other at birthdays, bachelorette parties and bar mitzvahs.
“That’s the beauty of it: Everybody has been in a pillow fight. It's been around forever,’’ Williams said. “We’re trying to make it more professional and more exciting.’’
Williams and his two StarMedia partners aren’t the first dreamers to wake up to the idea of moving pillow fighting out of the bedroom.
Feathers have been flying for decades in loosely organized events and flash mobs from Los Angeles to the Netherlands to Africa.
For 40 years, a World Pillow Fighting Championship in California has featured pillow pugilists exchanging swings while balancing on a telephone pole over a mud pit.
In Japan, there’s a pillow fight that combines dodge ball and chess, with teams of fighters starting off under the covers on a gymnasium floor and jumping up at the buzzer to throw pillows at each team’s kings.
StarMedia, though, is believed to be the first to attempt professional-style pillow fighting in a ring since women competed in the Toronto-based Pillow Fight League from 2007-14.
“It’s all about the strategy of fighting, but it's with a pillow. It's all the thrill of a fight without the blood,’’ said Paul Williams, Steve’s brother.
Years ago, Paul participated in a loosely organized pillow fight at the Burning Man festival. He loved it.
In 2019, he convinced his brother to launch pillow fighting as a combat sport through StarMedia Productions.
“I told him it would be much more fun and with less regulation to do pillow fighting. Everyone we’ve told about it had a smile on their face. No one didn't like the idea,’’ Paul said.
Originally pitched as a women’s sport called Gladiatrix, Paul said the concept got such an enthusiastic reception that it quickly evolved into an event with fighters of both genders.
Plans were put on hold because of the pandemic but started up again four months ago.
The Williams brothers and their partner, Robert Albolino, said they are all in on their PFC venture. Steve Williams said they’ve invested about $100,000 so far — from logos, marketing material and ring rental fees to camera equipment, pillow-case designs and legal fees.
They brought in Brian Weiner, a friend and consultant who refereed the Burning Man pillow fights.
They hired a seamstress — she specializes in designing wedding dresses — to make special pillowcases with a handle for swinging. A patent is pending, they said. Fighters must wear golf gloves to protect their hands from blisters.
They tried a variety of pillows, some too soft, others too hard, before settling on one that felt just right.
“It’s a fighting pillow,’’ Albolino said as he whacked one against the ring.
“It's all about offense, getting clean hits with pillows. If you can hit them across the legs, you can make them fall down and score points.’’
Chase Birchenough, Delray Beach Boxing’s manager, gave a nervous laugh as he watched Riggins take a few vicious practice swings, the air hissing as the pillow cut through it.
“They’ve got enough weight to them where if you get the right angle on somebody's head, you might light somebody up,’’ Birchenough said.
Nobody got lit up at tryouts on Aug. 28. Fourteen aspiring pillow pugilists, including four MMA fighters, paired up in seven bouts, each comprising three two-minute rounds.
“The biggest thing that makes (pillow fighting) different from boxing or MMA, you’re not trying to kill your opponent,’’ Weiner said to the group at a pre-fight orientation.
“We’re not?’’ MMA fighter Bruno Oliveira said in mock surprise as everyone laughed.
Weiner smiled and shook his head no.
“You can hit them as hard as you can with the pillow, but you're not going to hit them with your hand,’’ he said.
“We want this to be a family sport. The pillow should be the only thing that makes contact with the body or the face.’’
Among the other rules: You can block an opponent’s pillow with your elbows but not your hands. You can’t grab an opponent’s pillow but you can trap it with your arms or legs.
“Can we go to the top rope?’’ asked Reggie Newsome, a fighter who has employed that tactic as a wrestler.
The answer was no, but that didn’t dampen Newsome’s enthusiasm for his first pillow fight.
“I like to sleep and I like to fight. Combine the two, it’s a good day for me, baby,’’ he said.
Once the tryout bouts got underway, the initial snickering and skepticism gave way to newfound respect.
Every fighter was in top shape. By the time their matches ended, every fighter was sweaty and winded.
Most compared it to a boxing match but with one major difference: Over three rounds, it’s a lot more challenging to deliver a punch with a pillow than with a boxing glove. After a first round of near-constant swings, the pillows feel heavy by Round Two.
When the pillows hit their targets, it sounds just like Rocky Balboa landing punches on Apollo Creed — but without the damage.
“Man, I didn't know there was going to be that much energy drained,’’ boxer T.J. Jenkins said after fighting Riggins to a draw.
Between rounds, Riggins went to his corner to catch his breath and pour cold water on his head.
“Basically I’m not gonna get my head knocked off but I can still have a lot of fun,’’ he said.
“It could be a whole new league. It could be the PG-version of UFC, I guess. It’s definitely ground breaking. I can't wait to see where it goes.’’
The tryouts are designed like an actual bout. There’s a ring announcer, a play-by-play man, even ring girls holding up signs displaying the number of each upcoming round.
“This is, like, next-level pillow fighting. This is something else,’’ said Nicole Alvarez, who lost her bout to Dani Costalonga.
“Everyone’s worried about their nails, but I think I’ll be all right.’’
Even the mighty Klidson Abreau was humbled.
He announced his presence by slapping his pillow against the ring every five seconds. The periodic thuds sounded like an approaching Jurassic Park dinosaur.
Once the fight started, he couldn’t stop smiling.
Abreau connected a few hard hits, including one that sent a shower of down polyester bursting into the air. His more agile opponent, Bruno Oliveira, delivered several hits while descending from running leaps.
In the end, the judges gave the fight to Oliveira. He walked off the ring spewing a series of Ali-inspired barbs, trash-talking that gave a whole new meaning to pillow talking.
“My opponent is weak. He’s just a fat guy,’’ Oliveira said as he held a microphone during a post-fight interview, occasionally winking across the room at Abreau.
“This guy doesn’t know my moves. I beat him. I beat him badly.’’
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