MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world, and kids love it. Is it as dangerous as some people think?
by Jacob Hodgen
“First you grab their leg like this,” a surprisingly muscular teen tells me as he shoots down on one knee and tackles me to the ground. “Then you swing around and grab their arm like this.”
Mixed martial arts (MMA) in its current form is a relative newcomer to the world of mainstream sports. Drawing from the combined knowledge of boxing, wrestling, jujitsu, and other martial arts, MMA is the world’s fastest growing professional sport. However, not everyone is thrilled by the fact that MMA has taken Utah by storm. Many concerned parents unfamiliar with it share a common concern: is it safe? and will it make my child violent if I let them participate? In fact, just last week, while researching this article, dozens of teens at Collierville High School in Tennessee were being investigated for yet another incarnation of a secretive ring of underground fight clubs. CNN suggested a link between the violence and professional sport fighting. Was there really a connection between the rise in popularity of MMA and teen violence? I decided to go see for myself. After making a call, I got invited to attend a class for teens at Throwdown Elite training center in Orem.
Was it a training ground for future bullies? I hoped not, because I was going to be practicing with them.
If you’ve never seen it, the first thing you notice when you walk into the Throwdown facility is that it’s massive. While the uninitiated might expect it to look like a gladiatorial area with sweat soaked stone pillars, Throwdown actually has the look and feel of a day spa. It’s ultra modern, chic, and with 21,000 square feet to work with, it’s got just about everything you could ever want for your workout from your standard free weights to a Pilates room and an altitude chamber.
So far so good.
The class I am to join is held in large rectangular room with a wrestling mat on the floor. There are about 15 students in attendance. Today’s head instructor is Adam Legas, who also happens to be Throwdown’s owner. Adam comes from a military family, and you can tell, because he runs his class like a finely tuned drill. Within about five seconds of the official start time, Adam has commenced a rigorous warmup routine. To my surprise, the pre-class chatter amongst the teenage students is instantly gone, and I witness something most parents have only dreamed about: a room full of teenage boys who are totally silent and entirely engaged. My ad hoc partner guides me through a set of moves, all of which end up with me abruptly finding the mat. He is fast, efficient, and highly proficient. I ask him how he has been training, and to my surprise he admits, “only two months.”
MMA and Teens: A Match Made in. . .
A year or so ago ESPN produced a rather abrasive shockumentary about kids in MMA for their Outside the Lines Series. It is still being viewed and cited by concerned parents as a “real” look into the world of MMA. It features clips of teens and young children pounding each other to pulps inside a ring while their wild-eyed parents cheer them on. I don’t know what kind of club the ESPN reporter went to, but my experience at Throwdown is absolutely nothing like this. I ask one of the students at what point will they begin to fight each other? He smiles, “We’re not allowed to fight in the teen class,” he tells me. “We train and condition, and then later on, if we want to, we can try out for the team that actually fights. Only a few people at Throwdown actually fight. Most people just work out.”
Adam is one of two adult instructors who wanders the room stopping to offer advice and suggestions to the students. The class reconvenes every 10 minutes or so to watch Adam demonstrate a new move, which is then practiced by the pairs of students. After running drills for about half the class, the students have timed wrestling sessions. The class finishes off with an intense cardio workout that includes some of the classics: sprints, up downs, push ups, wall sits, and crunches.
Adams tells me that he is proud of their club and is confident that he has a positive influence on the kids in his class. He says that he gets emails and text messages from parents on a regular basis who are thrilled by the difference it makes in their children. “These kids need something this,” he says. “They get structure, discipline, and confidence, and they get to make friends learn how to work with other people.” To prove his point, he shows me a few messages he has recently received from parents. One reads, “You have no idea how much you mean to my boys. They would be completely lost without your positive influence. You are saving their lives. I am serious.” Another mother of one of the teen students had written him saying, “Just wanted to thank you for all you are doing for Josh. He hasn’t been this excited about anything for as long as I can remember. He really looks up to you. Thanks again.” Adam beams at me as I read them. “See what I mean?” he says.
Some of the kids take time out of their drills to tell me about what MMA meant to them. I asked one duo, Brett and Johnny, about whether or not they thought that parents had anything to worry about with mixed martial arts. “Some parents don’t like it, because only they don’t know what it’s about,” they said. “I think it’s a good skill–it teaches you discipline.” Another team of students, Trent and Chandler, had similar feelings. “It’s a good way to get in shape and learn self defense. It’s training you to be self confident. We’re not learning how to go around beating people up.”
I intercepted the father of one of the students who had come to pick up his son after practice for a few question. His name is Brad Smith, and he teaches at Utah Valley University. I asked him how he felt about letting his son participate in MMA. “During the summer you get a lot of hours in the day for these kids that are free, and this fills it with something positive.” He said he was glad he son was able to participate. “There are lot of things in sports that cross over into life, like discipline, team work, and dedication. I’m not having him doing it to become a fighter; I’m doing it for life skills. He’s learned how to conquer this and it helps him out in life.”
By the end of the practice, I am drenched in sweat–despite the fact that I have been slacking on most of the drills while interviewing people and taking pictures. I have to admit, it was a lot of fun, even if I embarrassed myself and got out wrestled by a bunch of teenagers. But was it dangerous? Were the kids or I at risk? Well, I did get a few minor mat burns on my knees, but other than that the only time I felt any danger was trying to pull out onto a ridiculous busy State Street after the class was over. The bottom line is this–take it for you will:
After spending a pleasant, exhausting afternoon with the MMA club, I would feel quite comfortable to join them again if invited back, and I’m sure I would have an equally great time. On the other hand, you will never in a million years catch me asking to get invited to join a teen football practice.
It’s way too dangerous!
Learn more about Mixed Martial Arts in Utah
Throwdown will be hosting its fifth major national competition in Utah on November 20th at the McKay Events Center in Orem. The event will feature a variety of professional, adult fighters in matches sanctioned by the Utah Athletic Board. Visit their website for more details.
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