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
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At first, The Ocho was a joke. It was a fake TV channel, invented for “Dodgeball,” a 2004 comedic film.

“If it’s almost a sport, we got it here,” one of the Ocho announcers, Cotton McKnight, played by Gary Cole, said in the film.

But in 2017, The Ocho stopped being a joke. ESPN created a real Ocho — an annual program dedicated to seldom-seen sports.

At first, The Ocho featured previously taped events like roller derby and trampoline dodgeball. But after a few successful years, ESPN wanted to expand to a days-long event with live sports.

It turned to Rock Hill, the largest city in fast-growing York County.

Forty years ago, Rock Hill was a textile town. More than 10 mills filled the city in the 1980s, which then had 35,000 people. One mill, Rock Hill Printing and Finishing Co., employed 20 percent of the population.

Then the textile industry collapsed. And Rock Hill city leaders went searching for the next attraction: Niche sports.

Now Rock Hill, which has doubled in size over the past four decades, is home to the American Cornhole League headquarters. It hosts the annual United States Disc Golf Championships. It will host the 2024 BMX World Championships for the second time, joining cities like Paris and Melbourne. It built a 170,000-square-foot facility, the Rock Hill Sports and Event Center, that holds adidas and Under Armour youth basketball tournaments, generating about $40 million per year for the city.

The Ocho allows Rock Hill to attract more tourists and new sports to the city. Already, said Brian Jones, supervisor of the Sports and Event Center, The Ocho has allowed the city to recruit a table tennis tournament.

“It’s heads in beds,” Jones said. “It’s economic impact. It’s getting all these professionals in town.”

In 2022, ESPN decided to broadcast The Ocho from Rock Hill. They saw the city as the “home of niche sports,” said Johanna Goldblatt, manager of programming and acquisitions for ESPN. 

“It seems like (Rock Hill) found an opportunity here as there are so many emerging sports leagues looking for venues to host their event,” Goldblatt said. “If they could all come to the same place at once, Rock Hill introduced us an idea that we didn’t know could exist.”

That exposure is what brought the Pillow Fight Championship to The Ocho and Rock Hill. Steve Williams, a self-proclaimed “idea guy” who owns telecom, crypto and supplement companies, founded Pillow Fight League in 2021.

But he didn’t want it to be a joke. He wanted a real sport, with scoring, championship belts and professional fighters who had the skill, speed and strength to make it entertaining.

“We’re not a goofy sport,” he said.

He envisioned combat without the blood — one that could resonate with people young and old.

“Everybody in the world basically pillow fought,” he said. “… The greatest time of your life was pillow fighting.”

Since 2021, the sport has expanded across the world. They’ve fought anywhere from local boxing gyms to Hard Rock Stadium, the 65,000-person home of the Miami Dolphins, from Brazil to Ghana, where Williams said they have held 400 fights. The sport has been featured on The Guardian’s news website and on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” The league has developed a rule book, jerseys and custom pillows that make louder smack noises.

But the sport is still searching to find its footing and break even financially.

That’s why Williams emailed ESPN a year ago, requesting to appear on The Ocho. To Williams, The Ocho is the launching pad to the mainstream. He pointed to cornhole.

A decade ago, people would have laughed at cornhole being shown on television. Now, it’s on ESPN regularly, thanks to its initial exposure on The Ocho.

“Until people see (pillow fighting), they just don’t get it,” he said. “Once they see it, they’re like, ‘Oh, whoa, wait a minute. You guys are trying to kill each other with a pillow.’”

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?”

Read Also >>> A NIGHT INSIDE THE COMPETITIVE WORLD OF PILLOW FIGHTING IN ROCK HILL

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