Reggie Newsome (left) and Markus Perez (right), both professional MMA fighters, smack each other during the Pillow Fight Championship on Aug. 4 in Rock Hill. Kevin Kleeblatt/Provided

ROCK HILL — Think pillow fighting is a joke? Don’t tell that to the 14 people who traveled here to compete for $5,000 and a championship belt during an ESPN’s: The Ocho event.

And especially don’t tell that to Hauley Tillman, the world champion of pillow fighting, who stood on a balcony and banged his chest to the beat of the crowd.

“Champ, champ, champ!,” they chanted inside the Rock Hill Sports and Event Center around 10 p.m.

“I’m not just champ. I’m two-time champ!” he yelled down to them, with a pair of championship belts hanging over his shoulders.

Tillman smothered himself in the crowd of about 100 people. He hugged and high-fived them. He gave away his hoodie and necklace. He took pictures with everyone and anyone, smiling wide, his silver grill sparkling.

Five minutes ago, most of the people in this room did not know Tillman existed. Some did not even know the Pillow Fight Championship existed. As one attendee asked before the show began: “What the (expletive) is this?”

But that was the beauty of ESPN8: The Ocho, the annual event dedicated to 43 straight hours of niche sports, like whiffle ball and competitive Excel. And pillow fighting. The Ocho is designed after the movie “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.” It took place Aug. 4 in Rock Hill, a former mill town of 75,000 people hoping to retain its own identity in the sprawling shadow of Charlotte.

And maybe, there’s no sport that represents the weirdness and vision of The Ocho more than Pillow Fight Championship — a two-year-old sport where professional MMA fighters, a person dressed like the Joker and a famous Turkish actor, stand in a boxing ring smacking each other with pillows to win $5,000.

Pillow Fight Championship took center stage in Rock Hill during ESPN’s the Ocho event on Aug. 4. Benjamin Simon/Staff

For many watching at home that Friday, pillow fighting was nighttime entertainment after work. To others, it was an insult of a sport. To most, it was a joke.

“Professional pillow fighting. I still have chance to be a professional athlete!” @ReggieWade wrote on Twitter.

But for the people in this ring, in this building and in this city, it is not a joke.

This is the money that could bring Leo Carvalho to Brazil to see his daughter for the first time in four years. This is the fight that could spark a pillow-fighting career for 16-year-old Summerville native Brayden Helms. This is the event that could boost founder Steve Williams’ sport into the mainstream. And this is the weekend that could bring Rock Hill more sports, events, money, tourists and legitimacy.

And it all came down to one night, for 60 minutes, when 14 pillow fighters took the ring and hit each other until the bell rang.

Participants in the Pillow Fight Championship warm up for their bouts on ESPN’s the Ocho in Rock Hill. Benjamin Simon/Staff

How they got to Rock Hill

Reggie Newsome paced along the balcony in the Rock Hill Sports and Event Center. ESPN cameras, a brightly lit boxing ring and hundreds of fans sat below him.

It was within an hour of start time and Newsome took a moment to reflect. Like most participants that night, Newsome, a 35-year-old Army veteran and fitness coach, has fought in MMA since 2011. These fighters spent years killing their body, getting their head smashed into the ground and running mile after mile to make it.

Now, Newsome was appearing on ESPN for pillow fighting.

“Twenty years,” he said of his fighting career, “I’ve never fought on ESPN.”

The 10 p.m. event was the final Ocho sport of the day. The 14 fighters, with separate men’s and women’s divisions, would compete in a single-elimination tournament. A $5,000 prize awaited the winner. The field featured UFC fighters like Leandro “Apollo” Silva and Turkish celebrity Turabi “Turbo” Camkiran. They would compete in 90-second rounds, scoring one point for a head shot, three points for a 360-degree spin shot and five points for a knockdown.

For fans Emerson and Anderson Souza of Fort Mill, they came to see Markus Perez, the former UFC fighter who dresses up like the Joker and grew up in their hometown of São Paulo, Brazil. When they learned Perez would compete in the Pillow Fight Championship, they snagged front-row seats, with one reserved for the Brazilian flag.

Bo Milligan of Fort Mill and Parkman Cook of Winston Salem, N.C., uncle and nephew, traveled to nearly every Ocho event around town, beginning at 8:15 a.m. They went to axe throwing and kickball and cornhole, wearing neon green shirts covered in Sharpie marker signatures.

“I guess I just get tired of watching the same football, basketball,” Cook said. “So you might as well go watch people hit each other with pillows.”

“We have a chance to win obscure sports,” Milligan added. “Normal people. We can play darts. We can play cornhole.”

Helms, the pillow fighter from Summerville, didn’t even know the sport existed a year ago. He wasn’t a fighter. He was a running back for the football team at Cane Bay High School.

Then, he attended a Charleston RiverDogs baseball game, where Pillow Fight Championship rings were set up. Helms beat eight people in a row. After that, Williams recruited Helms to fight in The Ocho, crowning him as a pillow fighting prodigy.

But first, Helms would have to take on Carvalho, a professional MMA fighter known for his artistic pillow fight style, dancing in the ring, doing cartwheels and spamming spin-shots. And for Carvalho, his livelihood was on the line.

The Brazilian with a background in capoeira moved to Florida in 2017 to become a professional MMA fighter.

It hasn’t been easy. He has a 3-6 record in MMA — and is far from the UFC and earning millions of dollars. He makes ends meet by teaching classes, driving DoorDash and InstaCart orders, and fighting when he can. 

That’s why he has participated in pillow fighting since its inception. It’s fun. It’s a break from the grind and violence. But it’s also a way to make money. He hasn’t seen his daughter in four years. But by winning the $5,000 prize and pillow fight belt, he could fly to see her. 

Thirty minutes before the fights began, the pillow fighters crowded into a conference room. They stretched, danced, fixed their hair and practiced hitting each other. One fighter drank a mixed drink with Liquid Death. Another dangled a ball from a headband and punched it. Makeup artists turned Markus Perez’s face into the Joker.

“Today is a huge day,” referee Yuri Villefort, a former UFC fighter, said to the fighters. “A huge day for everybody. Steve (Williams) and everybody on pillow fighting has been putting a lot of work to get to this point. Make everyone proud, OK?”