It's not every day that a girl like me finds herself standing three feet away from two sweaty men punching each other. Oddly enough, I was feeling completely at ease--even relaxed--in the situation. It certainly was not what I expected when I set off to check out the valley's newest martial arts training facility, Combat Fitness, in Garden City.
If it was anything like my nephew's tae dwon do class, everyone would be wearing pajama-like cotton uniforms and ritually bowing before stepping on the mats to spar. But when researching the acronym "MMA" (which stands for "mixed martial arts"), I had was confronted with Internet images closer to my stereotype of professional wrestling: shirtless, muscular men with menacing faces and boxing gloves next to overgroomed, underclad, surgically enhanced blondes. What was I getting into?
As it turns out, the low-key, no-nonsense atmosphere of the gym--and in particular, the mettle of the men I met there--completely changed my perception, not only of martial arts but of fighting sports in general. MMA, while operating under strict (for the outsider, even arcane) rules, blends just about every fighting sport. These include stand-up forms such as boxing and muay Thai (better known as Thai boxing), clinch methods like judo, and ground arts such as jujitsu and wrestling. They all find their place in the International Sports Combat Federation of Mixed Martial Arts (ISCFMMA).
Twisted Genetiks, the MMA team that calls Combat Fitness home, boasts fighters experienced in all of these forms. A complementary muay Thai group, tentatively called Razor's Edge, has professional and amateur fighters already competing under the guidance of coach Nate Pettite. Now that they have a permanent space, this alliance of sport fighters is open to the public.
As I watched the team warm up, I couldn't imagine they'd have a line of new members at the door. While some ran laps around the mat or attacked the punching bag, professional MMA fighter Ray "Relentless" Perales beat a truck tire with a sledgehammer. Once the men paired off, their sport looked more like dancing--until it intensified into punches, kicks and grappling on the floor. (I can't imagine what actual fights look like; according to one fighter, they only use 30 percent of their power while sparring.) Although the sport is less formal and ritualized than traditional martial arts like tae kwon do, it is no less intense or focused. While most MMA rounds last only three minutes, these guys spar for five minutes at a time in order to make real fights seem easier. The temperature in the gym sometimes reaches 95 degrees Fahrenheit, to increase the fighters' stamina and fortitude in the ring.
It's an approach that gets results; I was in the room with successful professionals, amateur title-holders and even a world champion. John Ladd, a big bashful fighter from Nampa, holds the muay Thai world amateur heavyweight title. He's the kind of guy who downplays his achievements. "There are only about 25 guys in my weight class," he said, pointing in the direction of "a really good fighter." That was Matt May, whom I had just seen delivering a kick to Ladd's sternum, eliciting a loud groan and a break in the sparring. When I asked Ladd how he dealt with the pain, he laughed and replied, "Not very well! But during a fight, nothing hurts because of the adrenaline. Then the day after, you can't walk very well."
May, a professional fighter from Nampa, is a young man with a long list of achievements: two-time state Golden Gloves boxing champion, kickboxer since age 15, and now a muay Thai and MMA fighter. Although he has broken bones in his hands twice (due to the fingerless gloves used in MMA), he prefers to use his standing skills in the ring and is ranked no. 10 in the larger world welterweight class of muay Thai.
Others at the gym specialize in ground skills. The cooperative atmosphere of Combat Fitness was exemplified by the way "Relentless" Ray coached a novice fighter in wrestling moves so he could get an opponent off him.
Former Boise State wrestler Scott Jorgensen, now a professional sports fighter, gave the MMA team its moniker two years ago. The self-conscious statement of purpose found on the Twisted Genetiks Web site seems to give some insight into the motivation behind the fighting, as well as clarifying the team's name: "Some are born to build, to discover, to heal; and there are those born to fight. They fight for themselves, their families, their God. It is their nature, it is their genetics. Those that cannot understand label it abnormal, deviant ... twisted. It is our twisted genetics that compels us; it is what separates us from them."
This sounds good on a Web site, but there are other reasons why these guys train so hard. Good fighters can actually make good money at this sport. Prize money, ticket sales and sponsorships sometimes add up into the thousands of dollars, according to one fighter. There is also the pleasure of doing something well--of honing a skill and getting acclaim for it. Just one example: Matt May's and Ray Perales' wins occurred in front of an audience of 6,000 people at the Qwest arena last month. And while no one said it, even I could feel it in the air of the gym: There's something special about being part of a team that backs you up when you're alone in the ring.
So what about the violence? One way to lose is to get knocked out. Knocking out your opponent doesn't seem to me a much better option. However, as one muay Thai boxer put it, "There are rules and sportsmanship involved. Competing in an organized bout cannot be compared to maliciously harming someone walking down the street." Ironically, this Thai boxer, Dennis Smith, came to fighting through his practice of Tibetan Buddhism. When his lama recommended he take up a martial art, Smith ran the gamut of forms--trying aikido and kung fu before finding his passion, muay Thai. He appreciates the history behind the art although he is the only Buddhist on the team: "Most muay Thai fighters of the olden days later became Buddhist monks. The practice of muay Thai and Buddhism go hand in hand."
Smith, who has a purification prayer in Chinese characters tattooed down his right shin (the one most used for kicking), doesn't see any contradiction between his practice of nonviolence and his practice of Thai boxing. "In muay Thai, it is not my intention to violently harm an individual. Anger has no place in my practice. Instead, I enter into an agreement with my opponent to compete in a sport we both hold dear. There is a major difference between an opponent and a victim. Violence is an attitude before it becomes an action."
For more information, visit www.combatfitness.net.