GLENDALE, Ariz. -- America’s newest professional sport has made its debut in the West.
After losing the first race to the host Phoenix Rise, the DC Brawlers won the next three races and finished with a commanding 21-14 match victory Saturday night. The Brawlers were one of the National Pro Grid League’s top teams in the preseason, and a star who emerged there in Taylar Stallings did not disappoint in her first professional sports competition.
T-shirts with the slogan “Taylar Stallings is stronger than you” dotted the landscape for a reason. After the Rise got off to a 2-1 lead by winning Race 1, Stallings’ weightlifting prowess -- particularly her strong closing with the ground-to-overhead in Races 3 and 4 -- helped propel the Brawlers ahead.
“She was awesome…amazing,” Brawlers Head Coach Justin Cotler said.
So was the rest of the team, who competed as though they believe they are the team to beat.
Grid League matches feature 11 races that demand strength, speed and agility. The field of play is the same size as an NBA basketball court, divided into quadrants.
Both men and women compete, and teams must have a 40+ female and male athlete playing in each match.
The League made its debut on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in New York, where the New York Rhinos now own the sports first ever victory, beating the Los Angeles Reign 20-15.
An enthusiastic crowd watched at Jobing.com Arena, the home of the National Hockey League’s Arizona Coyotes.
“It’s better than a weightlifting contest,” said Marie Gaines, a 64-year-old retiree who works out regularly, “because you have to run, and you have all these exercises in between (the weightlifting).”
Jeff Surprise, 37, a chef who partakes in fitness training almost every day, said he went to the match out of curiosity.
“It’s stuff I’m familiar with,” he said. ”Any time I can see something fitness related – and this is fairly new – I’m interested.”
The Brawlers led narrowly through much of the match, then put the victory away with wins in both the Women’s and Men’s Triad (Races 9 and 10), where three athletes work simultaneously through five different elements.
They put an exclamation point on victory by winning the final event, the Sprint Relay, by an 11 second margin.
In this event, they got a boost from some flawless double-unders from Jerry Hill, who at 47, is the oldest competitor to play on the grid so far this season.
“He’s a warrior…a beast,” Cotler said, pointing out Hill is competing with bone spurs in his elbows. “He’s a legend in the fitness industry. It’s an honor to have him on the team. He did a hell of a job tonight. I’m very proud of him.”
The Rise did get a terrific performance from Jessica Phillips, who – along with Danny Nichols – got Phoenix off to a fast start by winning Race 1, Partner Forward, by powering through the snatches and box jump-overs with ease.
Phillips then matched Stallings’ total weight lifted in the clean ladder, going off in the anchor position to secure the women’s point for the Rise. Her efforts dealt the Brawlers women their first loss in a race purely contested between women -- a streak they owned through the preseason.
“I definitely think our women are stronger than their women,” Phillips said. “But we did have a few hiccups that held us back. We’ll fix them.”
But any chance the Rise might have had to pull an upset may have been short-circuited by a hamstring injury suffered by James FitzGerald, 40, as he was finishing a deadlift in Race 6.
The injury disrupted the Rise’s strategy in other races, coach Mike Lee noted. At the same time, he acknowledged, “It happens. You have to adapt.”
Phoenix was left with just four healthy men as the team declined to substitute for FitzGerald. Doing so would have excluded FitzGerald for the rest of the season, per league rules.
In addition to the injury, “We have a lot to learn,” Lee said. “We had some faults in some areas we didn’t expect. It caused some confusion.”
Nichols agreed, saying, “a lot of learning pieces” were established in the match. “Coming into the next one, we’ll have those pieces ironed out.”
The Brawlers pointed to their preparation as minimizing the chance for any surprises.
“Our coach has us in perfect practice,” Lindsay Bourdon Menerey said of Cotler. ”We looked good and confident with our strategy…not really any surprises out there.”
Yet, the Brawlers’ Tim Carroll – pointing to the team’s debut match in a big-time venue – said, “There are a lot of nerves going into it.
“But the takeaway is we prepared well, we worked well as a team, and our strategies worked,” Carroll said.
Regardless of the outcome, the athletes and coaches enjoyed the enthusiastic atmosphere.
“The NPGL does a great job of putting on an event,” Lee said. “Everything is done so professionally. It was a great experience for us.”