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Athletes getting a big kick out mixed martial arts

The Open Mat.com

By: Mike Nowatzki, INFORUM (origina here)

Nick Larson sprinted back and forth the length of the dimly lit gym, across the red and black wrestling mats, and stood with his hands on his head, ready to absorb the body blows from his training partner.

“One! Two! Three! Four!” he huffed as the boxing gloves glanced off his gut.

Then, he turned and did it again – nine times.

The 21-year-old criminal justice major at North Dakota State University is training for the kind of fight he’s admired on TV since high school. 

“This is pretty much the first sport I’ve really taken seriously,” he said.

He’s not alone: Mixed martial arts (MMA) is gaining a serious following in Fargo-Moorhead.

Larson is enrolled at the Academy of Combat Arts, the third school to open in Fargo since August that trains students in a sport some critics have called “human cockfighting” – a jab that MMA supporters say is uneducated and no longer warranted.

John Kalenze, who teaches Thai boxing at the academy, said the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and the “Ultimate Fighter” reality TV show – both staples on cable’s Spike TV – are responsible for “maybe 100 percent” of the exploding popularity, both nationally and locally, of the controversial sport.

Some local students train strictly for competition, but the majority join for the workout, to learn new skills and for the social interaction, he said.

It’s a combination Kalenze believes will breed longevity for the sport.

“I don’t see any fading interest in it,” he said. “If anything, it’s definitely growing.”

Evolving sport

The MMA phenomenon was still an underground sport when George Andersch was growing up.

The New Jersey native said he thought he was hip to the martial arts scene, learning kickboxing and karate during the 1980s.

That is, until he tangled with Brazilian jiujitsu, a UFC catalyst.

Andersch – who opened Fargo Brazilian Jiu-jitsu with his wife in August – said he’d heard of the fighting style, which uses leverage and grappling techniques to allow smaller, weaker fighters to defend themselves and defeat bigger opponents.

But he knew little about it before UFC 1 in 1993.

Brazilian jiujitsu black belt Royce Gracie emerged the victor of that no-holds-barred battle, designed to settle debate over the most effective fighting style.

In fact, UFC 1 was fashioned after popular fighting matches in Brazil known as vale tudo, which is Portugese for “anything goes,” according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University who studied injuries in MMA.

“After UFC 1, that was the big thing,” Andersch said of jiujitsu. “Everybody wanted to learn submissions, but it was impossible to learn unless you went to Brazil.”

Andersch picked up what he could while in the Army. But it wasn’t until he moved to Boulder, Colo., for college that his real training began. He lived near a gym run by Amal Easton, a black belt trained by Renzo Gracie.

“When I started training with professor Amal, I realized that that was when I really started learning. Everything before that doesn’t count. And it was just years of stuff, so it kind of bugs me,” he said with a laugh.

Andersch eventually ran one of Easton’s schools in Denver. He met his wife, Sarah, a North Dakota native, through jiujitsu. They had a baby two years ago and moved to Fargo.

“And there was no place to train around here, and we figured we’d open a place,” he said.

About the same time, Tyler Larson, who fought his first MMA match at age 17 at the fairgrounds in his hometown of Ada, Minn., opened Fargo-Moorhead Mixed Martial Arts in a suite at 1335 2nd Ave. N.

Kalenze and Dylan Spicer, both natives of Grand Forks, N.D., and instructors at the Minnesota Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Brooklyn Center, opened the Academy of Combat Arts at 2219 Main Ave. in November.

Wrestling connection

Kalenze recalled seeing Spicer’s first fight at the Fargo Civic Center in 2004.

“There had to be about 2,000 people,” he said. “So, it drew big crowds.”

The pair knew there was a local market for MMA training, and one of their core customer groups has been college wrestlers.

The wrestling-to-MMA transition is well established: UFC heavyweight champ Brock Lesnar, a native of Webster, S.D., is a former NCAA champion and pro wrestler who later found his niche fighting in the UFC Octagon.

“He had just phenomenal talents, and now that the UFC came up, or MMA in general, there is life after college now for wrestlers,” Kalenze said.

Zack Schroeder was among those not ready to hang up his wrestling shoes after college.

“I’ve always been one that likes to compete, so this is kind of that next level,” said Schroeder, 29, a Concordia College alum who runs a fitness and performance business in Gwinner, N.D., and trains in Fargo – 85 miles away – three days a week. He’s also competed in amateur and pro events.

Dustin Swanson sees several fellow state champion wrestlers when he looks around the Academy of Combat Arts gym.

The former NDSU wrestler, who coaches at Carl Ben Eielson Middle School, said MMA stars such as Randy Couture and Dan Henderson were his childhood wrestling heroes.

“When I was in junior high, that’s who I watched competing for the Olympic team and stuff like that,” he said.

At 29 years old, Swanson said it’s become tougher to find places to wrestle, and MMA provides a challenge with camaraderie to boot.

“It’s a completely new kind of way to work out. It’s pushing you. It’s harder,” he said.

Nick Larson, who never wrestled in high school but now wishes he would have, said the cardio component of the training is harder than he anticipated.

During one practice, he lay on his back with his knees and arms up in the air, using only the motion of his hips to slide his body sideways down the mat. The blood rushed to his grimacing face, betraying the burning in his abs.

“They really push you here,” he said. “But it’s good for you.”

A draw for some boxers

The striking component of MMA also has caught the interest of some – but certainly not all – boxers.

Kevin Grosz, who began boxing in 1978 and now coaches the Boxing Inc. team in Grand Forks, said just as some MMA fighters visit his gym to learn boxing techniques, some boxers – including his own son – have tried MMA.

“I first watched it, and I was kind of like, ‘Oh, this looks kind of rough.’ But the more you start to understand it, I can see why people enjoy watching it. I still to this day enjoy watching it,” he said.

Grosz said he doesn’t think MMA has hurt participation in boxing.

“I think you’re going to find that fans of MMA are also fans of boxing,” and vice versa in some cases, he said. “But there’s still some just die-hard boxing fans that just think MMA is too tough.”

North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger, who is the state’s athletics commissioner and oversees the advisory board that regulates MMA events, said the sport “seems to have audience appeal.” He noted that Dakota Fighting Championship has three events scheduled in Fargo through April 2010.

“We have hardly had anything in boxing the last two, three years, maybe one or two a year. But with mixed martial arts, we have had a lot.”

Sport regulated

MMA initially took it on the chin from some high-profile critics – including Arizona Sen. John McCain – who wanted it banned from cable TV.

Organizers of MMA events agreed to rule changes in 2001 that led to sanctioning of the sport in Nevada and New Jersey, and a number of other states have followed.

The North Dakota Legislature legalized MMA events in 2005, authorizing the creation of a nine-member advisory board that has members present to observe MMA events.

Jaeger said the state has some of the best MMA rules in the nation and a dedicated board that wants to maintain the integrity of the sport.

“We haven’t had any problems with it,” he said.

Minnesota regulates MMA contests through its nine-member Combative Sports Commission.

Kalenze said the addition of weight classes, 4- to 6-ounce striking gloves, rules against stomping downed opponents and other uniform regulations helped the sport shed the “human cockfighting” image.

All contact sports carry some degree of danger, he said. But Kalenze contends that MMA is as safe as boxing and football, in which players slam into each other at full speed and can blindside opponents.

“Here, it’s you and a guy in front of you. You know exactly where he is. You’ve trained for him. You can defend yourself,” he said.

A study published by Johns Hopkins University researchers in 2006 found that of 171 matches fought during sanctioned MMA events in Nevada, 40 percent ended with at least one injured fighter. Facial lacerations accounted for almost half of the injuries, followed by hand, nose and eye injuries.

The most common end to an MMA fight came by technical knockout followed by a tap out.

“The injury rate in MMA competitions is compatible with other combat sports involving striking,” the study stated. “The lower knockout rates in MMA compared to boxing may help prevent brain injury in MMA events.”

Schroeder said he’s suffered his share of bumps and bruises during MMA fights, but no injury has kept him out of training for more than a week.

“It’s how you train,” he said. “If you’re not training fight-oriented, you’re going to go and get beat on.”

Tyler Larson, 23, of F-M MMA, said that for their own safety, he tells fighters they probably won’t compete for his gym name until they have a year of training under their belt.

“I’d rather walk you to the cage knowing you’ll do good rather than hoping you’ll do good,” he said.

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