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Tango M.F.
3/14/2008 11:04am,
It looks like The Globe and Mail, Canada's largest center-right newspaper, finally figured out that there's a new-fangled sport called the MMA out there. Hilarity did not insue.

From the couch to the cage

Mixed martial arts enthusiasts aren't afraid to trade a few rib-busting kicks with their opponents and endure a few bruises. It beats being bored at the gym

PATRICK WHITE




Inside the front door of Guerilla MMA gym, rap music fuses with the rhythmic slap-slap of fist on heavy bag. In one corner, four teenaged boys learn to wrench one another's tendons while writhing on mats like a nest of mating snakes. At the rear, two men trade bruising kicks in a boxing ring. Several feet away, a restaurant manager, a jewellery-store clerk and a security guard stretch their tree-trunk legs and swap battle stories.


"The guy had me in a kimura [submission hold] and I heard my shoulder pop like six times," says Nelson Sobral, a short but scrappy 33-year-old who works security at a Toronto radio station. "Just pop, pop, pop and I was done."


One training buddy scrunches his face. "Ohhh, man."


There's a new vernacular spreading throughout Canadian gyms, one whose vocabulary includes arm bars and omoplatas, heel hooks and anaconda chokes.



In just five years, the free-for-all fight league Ultimate Fighting Championship has grown from a fringe spectacle, attracting fewer fans than a minor-league hockey game, into a pay-per-view phenomenon with audiences that eclipse both boxing and professional wrestling.
The sport - in which combatants endure every physical brutality short of crotch shots, biting, eye-gouging and "small joint manipulation" - even has its own cinematic homage, Never Back Down, a Karate Kid for the ultimate fighting crowd that opened in theatres today.
And as its popularity has grown, the number of Canadian gyms teaching mixed martial arts - the complex fight style favoured by ultimate fighters - has gone from zero five years ago to several hundred, attracting everyone from high-school jocks to 60-year-old accountants.


"My friends all said 'Oh my God, you'll break your bones' when I joined," says June Kow, her brow dripping after an hour-long session of practising rib-busting kicks. "At first, I thought they might be right. I was very intimidated because I'm very uncoordinated. I can't dance. I can't even run well."


But she can really kick butt.


A year and a half after joining Kombat Arts Training Academy in Mississauga, Ont., the 5-foot-1 dental-office administrator isn't afraid to toss knuckles with anyone. Like most gym members, she has no intention of fighting professionally, but she still makes the half-hour drive to Kombat Arts five days a week.


"When I joined I could barely do 25 squats; now I can do a few hundred."


Training for MMA involves a strange array of exercises. At Kombat Arts, fighters roll 400-pound tractor tires across the 15,000-square-foot facility and swing a sledgehammer to simulate "throwing someone over your head," says gym owner and trainer Joey de Los Reyes. "It's a real caveman way of training."


In 2002, Mr. de Los Reyes opened a claustrophobic space barely larger than a boxing ring. At around the same time, detractors of ultimate fighting had tagged the sport as "human cockfighting" and matches were soon banned across North America.


But as the UFC rejigged its rules to prevent losses of blood and brain cells, states and provinces started embracing the sport (Quebec and Alberta hold regular MMA matches. Nova Scotia, Manitoba and British Columbia have hosted matches) and amateur pugilists started embracing Mr. de Los Reyes.


Since then, he's picked up 500 members and expanded the gym four times. There's now enough room to fit three basketball courts.


But competition is coming. Almost every kung fu and karate dojo in the country is hanging an MMA sign out front to make hay from the trend. By month's end, the Xtreme Couture franchise, named for UFC legend Randy Couture, will open a 33,000-square-foot facility in Etobicoke, Ont.


"A lot of guys my age are just bored of the gym," says Mr. de Los Reyes, 33, raising his voice over a class of 30 kick-boxers whose striking practice erupts like Canada Day fireworks. "They want to work out and learn a skill at the same time."


While most fighters harbour no ambitions of becoming the next Randy Couture, some do walk in with lofty goals.


"They come up to me fresh off the couch and say 'I want into the UFC,' " Mr. de Los Reyes says. "Within one class they realize it's more hard work than they'd realized."
Mixed martial arts incorporates several different methods of self defence, including Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai, judo, karate and Greco-Roman wrestling. Pursuing such a disparate range of fight styles takes the body of a Hulk Hogan and the mind of a Bobby Fischer, enthusiasts say.


"It a real chess match," says David Abreu, a 33-year-old restaurant manager who trains once a week at Guerilla MMA gym in Toronto. "You have to anticipate your opponent's next few moves. It's a mind game."


But it's also a brawn game. Fighters in training always have the option of low-contact sparring in which there's no risk of bruises or blood, but those who do take up more aggressive training generally become hooked.


"You're never more alive than when you're doing this," says Mr. Sobral, who has entered several professional fights in the United States. "Say you have a little blood in the mouth, your arm's nearly breaking, you're about to pass out - that's better than sleepwalking your way through life."


Submission holds

A blend of martial arts styles from around the world, ultimate fighting is a language unto itself. Here are a few terms for submission holds used in matches.


Guillotine Choke - Common form of finishing a fight when the competitors are sprawled
on the mat. The choker tucks his opponent's head in his armpit, wraps his arm around his opponent's neck and then lifts. Arm Bar One fighter uses his entire body to bend his opponent's elbow joint backwards.


Can Opener - Involves pulling or twisting an opponent's head as far as the ligaments and tendons will go.


Kimura or Chicken Wing - Using both arms to bend an opponent's shoulder backward. Known to cause separations and dislocations.


Omoplata - One fighter uses his legs to bend his opponent's elbow and shoulder joints backward.


Heel Hook - Outlawed in many tournaments. On the ground, the fighter wraps both legs around either of his competitor's legs and twists the ankle with his arms. Good for dislocating knees and snapping ACLs.