Combat camaraderie

With intense physical and mental strategy, mixed martial arts isn’t the bloodsport people typically think it is

Martial Arts Planet’s Gladiator Fight Team class has students fight in three-minute-long sparring matches which feature a multitude of kicks, submission holds and punches.
Martial Arts Planet’s Gladiator Fight Team class has students fight in three-minute-long sparring matches which feature a multitude of kicks, submission holds and punches.
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Mixed martial arts is a combination of disciplines such a Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai boxing (above).
Mixed martial arts is a combination of disciplines such a Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai boxing (above).
Photo: 

Among fluorescent lights and punching bags, fighters touch gloves and start sparring.

In the next three minutes, I witness intense hand-to-hand combat, interspersed with sweaty submission holds. The fighters grunt as they plot their next move. From where I’m standing on the edge of the mat, it’s clear that this is a match of wits as much as physiques.

Quickly, the match ends with one fighter locking another in a grappling hold. The fighters grin and get ready for the next round.

This is mixed martial arts (MMA) — a combination of different martial arts disciplines such as judo, Muay Thai boxing and karate.

With a seemingly hyper-violent reputation, the sport sometimes gets a bad rap.

“People have a lot of misunderstandings of MMA. They see it as human cockfighting,” Chris Wellstood, co-owner of Martial Arts Planet, said. “They see the blood and blood sells unfortunately, but it’s a very cerebral sport.”

Martial Arts Planet, located at Princess St. and Sir John A. Macdonald Blvd., has been teaching the sport for around a decade.

“People come in the door almost daily saying they want to be a fighter,” Wellstood said. “When they find out how much hard work it is they pretty quickly change their mind.”

At Martial Arts Planet, he said it can take a student up to two years before feeling ready for fighting MMA-style. The students in today’s group have all undergone extensive training in other martial arts before this class.

After hands-on tutorials of new moves, students pair off for sparring matches.

Here’s where the gloves, specially designed for close contact combat, come on. Using their hands, elbows, knees and feet, fighters go head to head in a tense struggle of strength and strategy.

Through aching muscles, they forget all else and focus on the art of getting the upper hand.

Compared to more traditional discipline like taekwondo and kickboxing, MMA itself has a short history. It started with Vale Tudo, a sport that originated in early 1900s Brazil. The sport uses full-on combat techniques to knock an opponent down, with few rules in between.

It’s a philosophy that’s embodied in the “rear naked choke,” a move that MMA fighters can use in a match to get their opponent to submit quickly.

Kneeling behind Janet Smith, the other owner of Martial Arts Planet, Wellstood guided me into a well-delivered chokehold. I was told to place the crook of my elbow firmly around Smith’s neck, flexing my biceps until I nearly cut off the blood circulation to her brain.

Some call this move the “sleeper hold” but I just call it uncomfortable.

“You have to get closer,” Wellstood told me after my first attempt.

The move is supposed to restrict blood flow to the brain via the neck’s carotid arteries. It’s an effective move, Wellstood explained, and it can be taught to just about everybody.

The mechanics of MMA involve more than a well-placed arm around an unsuspecting neck.

In official MMA organizations, matches are five minutes and feature a multitude of rules which prevent eye-gouging and hitting of the groin and throat. A fighter can lose the match by knockout, submission or a decision made by the fight’s judges.

Students interested in learning MMA will take a mixture of Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai classes to prepare for the sport’s intense contact combat style. Despite a lack of a formal belt series system for MMA, it takes years of training before a student can fight in competitive MMA. At Martial Arts Planet, several of the students have already been in Jiu-Jitsu competitions.

With the 1993 establishment of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) — MMA’s equivalent of the NHL — the sport’s popularity has reached new heights.

Headlining fights between well-known names can garner millions of views. In 2010, the televised finale of the UFC’s “The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights” peaked with 5.2 million viewers.

“I think people have sort of gotten tired of the silliness of professional wrestling [such as in organizations like World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.] and this has all the drama,” he said. “It’s real.”

The Gladiator Fight Team class, designed for advanced martial arts students, is where those interested in MMA can practice their art.

The class is led by Rob Wynne, a retired MMA fighter. A Federal Correctional Officer at Kingston Penitentiary on the side, Wynne teaches two MMA classes per week to a group of six to eight students.

MMA is a sport that Wynne admires for its complexity, he said.

Among the students and gym members are a portion of Queen’s students and faculty members.

“Boxing, wrestling, Jiu-Jitsu — on their own, [they’re] very 2-D. MMA is like a 3-D puzzle,” he said. “It’s kind of beautiful.”

He’s been training in martial arts for the past 22 years, having retired from MMA in 2008.

Wynne, who began fighting in 1999, began practicing MMA before its popularity really took off. Having trained in karate, Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling previously, Wynne decided to test himself with MMA.

With stories of matches taking place in Wisconsin biker bars, Wynne fondly describes the sport with an air of nostalgia.

“It was a bunch of ruffians,” he said. “I got paid $200 [to fight] but we were excited to do it.”

With the sport’s increasing profile, it’s undergone changes.

“Back in the 90s, you knew who everybody in Canada was fighting because there were only 15 to 20 guys. Now there’s so many you can’t keep track,” he said. “I loved that camaraderie and the closeness and knowing everybody.” But that sense of brotherhood is still in his Gladiator Fight Team. In Wynne’s MMA class of six men, sparring matches are interjected with fighters asking each other if they’re alright, especially after a particularly well-placed kick.

After a match, students, who may have knocked each other to the ground only minutes before, discuss striking techniques. They compliment each other’s moves and talk fighting strategy.

Since 2007, there have been three MMA fatalities, all in sanctioned fights.

Compared to sports like boxing, where a fighter can’t “tap out” of the game, this number is low. Wynne said injuries, paired with an aging physique, can prevent a fighter from continuing his career. Despite that, Wynne said he still loves the sport.

“Win or lose in the ring, it’s a great adrenaline rush.”

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