WASHINGTON – Those who practice mixed martial arts say it can be both brutal and cathartic.
Students of MMA boast of the mental focus and physical prowess needed to succeed in the sport. But some detractors say MMA’s popularity is attracting the wrong kind of athletes.
“If the numbers are to be believed, over 3 million boys and girls participate in the sport of MMA and close to 1 million of those kids participate in some form of cage fighting,” says personal trainer and WTOP contributor Fairfax Hackley.
“It is completely crazy and outrageous.”
Some of these children start as early 3 years old, Hackley says. They kick, punch and wrestle each other to the ground in competitive matches meant to emulate adult events such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
“There is a cool factor,” Hackley says.
“There are unscrupulous people capitalizing on the popularity. Those kids are really up for some hurt.”
Photographer Sebastian Montalvo captured some of the ferociousness in the series Cage Rage. He traveled the country snapping pictures of kids as they choke, kick and punch each other. Sometimes they even cry.
But practitioners of the sport – which brings together elements of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, shoot wrestling and other traditions for a combination of striking and grappling techniques – say properly monitored MMA instruction allows children to achieve their potential.
“Safety very much depends on the instructor,” says Joshua Peters, owner and lead coach at College Park MMA.
At his studio, kids younger than 13 cannot engage in striking, kicking or punching. Some students start as young as 5, but they spend their early years learning grappling techniques before they can graduate to more adult classes.
Peters, who is also a second-grade teacher in Prince George’s County, says parents should visit studios in person before signing their kids up for classes. Things to look for include facility cleanliness, instructor attentiveness and their child’s comfort level.
“It’s easy to teach someone to hurt other people,” he says. “But it needs to be taught with a deep sense of respect of what you can do with what you’ve learned.”
Peters, who started learning traditional martial arts in 1989, says the practice helped him focus and release energy when he was younger. Peters was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder as a child and says he would have been lost without some kind of emotional and physical outlet.
Jeremy Lafreniere, owner of the D.C. region’s Capital MMA & Elite Fitness, says a safe environment is beneficial to kids and adults interested in learning the physical discipline.
“The benefits are tremendous for any human being,” he says.
Aside from teaching children how to be disciplined, Lafreniere says mixed martial arts also gives them a safe place to “play rough” with proper instruction and technique.
“The thing is that MMA gets a bad rep,” he says. “When we watch it, it’s this kind of cage fighting, violent experience.”
But true MMA isn’t about lashing out, he says – which is why Lafreniere’s studio does not teach young children how to strike until they are much older.
“Three-to 5-year-olds have a hard time learning complex techniques,” he says. “A triangle choke might have up to 10 features.”
Lafreniere recommends finding a studio where instructors are hands-on with the students and monitor their progress very closely. When done properly, MMA can be “pretty powerful,” he says.