Arts Desk

Thunder Festival More Than Compensates for Zep Fest Cancellation

With news of Zep Fest's cancellation, there are probably at least a few hundred local rock fans now looking for something to do on Memorial Day weekend. Within that group, I'd guess that perhaps a couple dozen live within 10 miles of Centreville, and of those people, maybe five or six love midget wrestling.

That sliver of the population should be pleased to know that the first annual Thunder Festival, scheduled for May 28 at Bull Run Park, will go on as planned.

Thunder Festival appeals to a particularly macho strain of patriotism—one that likes its motorcycles huge and its pants leather. On its website, the event is described as "a SALUTE to every Patriot, Soldier and Red-Blooded American who calls these GREAT UNITED STATES their home!" Yet the fest is not an official part of Rolling Thunder, the POW-MIA demonstration that takes over downtown Washington every year on Memorial Day weekend. Organizer Art Sylmar, a 37-year-old resident of Gainesville, Va., is simply hoping that some of the guys in town for Sunday's Ride for Freedom will be willing to skip down to Fairfax on Saturday. "These guys have never been treated to a full-on concert," he says.

Technically, Rolling Thunder attendees will get a concert on Sunday—Nancy Sinatra is playing the official Rolling Thunder musical tribute at the Reflecting Pool—but that ain't exactly "full-on." Thunder Fest's gonna have a "Baddest Motorcycle" contest, a wing-eating competition sponsored by Hooters, a classic cars show, and two events involving little people: a concert by Ozzy Osbourne tribute act Little Ozzy and a WWF-style show by self-proclaimed midget wrestlers the Half-Pint Brawlers. Manliest of all, the headlining act is Jackyl—the Southern rock band infamous for its hit song "The Lumberjack," in which lead singer Jesse James Dupree plays a solo on a chainsaw. Eat sawdust, Zep Fest.

But while Thunder Festival appears to be pretty damn masculine on the surface, its roots are buried in an even more testosterone-rich subsoil. Sylmar, when he's not booking crotch rock bands from the '90s, runs Operation Octagon, one of the largest cage fighting groups in the region.

Operation Octagon promotes four mixed martial arts events per year, lately at the Dulles Sportsplex in Sterling, Va. (The next fight takes place July 30.) Attendance hovers around 3,000 for each event, and many of them sell out. "As far as MMA goes in this area," he says, "we're kind of the place to fight...we get [the fighters] before they're famous."  Former Ultimate Fighter finalist Kris McCray—a native of Woodbridge, Va.— used to fight for Operation Octagon.

Sylmar, a former linguist for the Air Force, hatched the idea for a veteran's event a couple years ago, and began writing checks for it six months later. He secured sponsorships from a few Octagon supporters, including Max Muscle Sports Nutrition and Freedom Bail Bonding. $5 from each Thunder Festival ticket will go toward the National League of POW-MIA Families, and an additional contribution will be set aside for Charter for Veterans, a non-profit that hosts charter boat rides for wounded veterans. (The charity is also sponsoring Thunder Festival's beer garden.) But Sylmar's day-long event may not have taken shape were it not for MMA. "It all started with a Facebook friend request," he says. Through Facebook, Sylmar learned that the Jackyl frontman was a cage fighting aficionado. After that, he says, "it was easy" to convince Dupree and his band to play the festival.

More than a decade after Sen. John McCain referred to MMA as "human cockfighting," the famously raw sport still remains fringey in the U.S.—and illegal in several states. But the promoter seems to understand that other people might not share his taste—or pride— in violent entertainment. Sylmar's sole Thunder Festival co-investor chooses to remain unnamed, he says. But not out of fear of being associated with cage fighting. He doesn't "want to be publicly associated with midget wrestling," says Sylmar. "Politics in D.C.—what are you gonna do?"

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