Brawlin’ in Beantown

Amy Julian

While many may not understand it, and may even disapprove of the “disgusting, bloody, violent thing” (as one UMB student called it) known as mixed martial arts, it’s undeniable that the phenomenon of mixed martial arts has become so prevalent in our society and that organizations like the UFC have grown into multi-million dollar empires that gain national recognition and hype. What is behind the mixed martial arts phenomenon? Why are so many people jumping on board to support the sport? Does MMA get a bad rap for being too violent and brutal? And why the heck has the UFC not yet held an event in Boston (home of many UFC legends including President Dana White himself)!?

Mixed Martial Arts is a combination sport. It involves a number of disciplines of martial arts, wrestling, boxing, and straight up guts. Mixed martial arts have been around for quite some time, but gained attention when a then-unknown organization held its first event. On November 12, 1993 in Denver, Colorado, a lineup of top-notch boxers, martial artists, savage fighters, and wrestlers (including Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu legend Royce Gracie) kicked off the first ever Ultimate Fighting Championship event. Fifteen years, 89 live Pay-Per-View events, seven successful seasons of a reality television show, and millions of dollars later, the UFC has established itself as not only one of the most successful MMA franchises, but also one of the top sports organizations in the world.

While mixed martial arts, and particularly the UFC, has become an international success and continues to generate fans from all over the world, Boston has become a hotbed for those who are looking to break into fighting and has bred some of the world’s best and most famous fighters and coaches.

Just a few miles away in Somerville, Massachusetts, the current (and future) champions of the world are sparring and grappling, eager to perfect their technique with multi- certified instructor and former Muay Thai Champion Mark DellaGrotte. DellaGrotte, who has been featured as a trainer on The Ultimate Fighter television series, is the owner of this world-class, state of the art mixed martial arts school, Sityodtong U.S.A. At Sityodtong U.S.A., DellaGrotte emphasizes self-control, discipline and the fine art of martial arts. And he’ll also show you how to throw a mean leg. Even closer, in South Boston, boxing trainer and Golden Gloves Champ Peter Welch is schooling folks young and old the art of throwing the perfect punch-kick combo at his F-15 Training Center. Welch has also worked with current and up-and-coming professional and amateur fighters and he too was one of the trainers on The Ultimate Fighter. Welch believes that anyone can benefit from a workout regimen and even offers sessions for those who have never competed or trained before, but are eager to learn. Working with the best coaches and training at the best facilities right here in our beloved city of Boston, he has helped fighters from the Boston area go from small-town boys to some of the best mixed martial artists in the world. Recently, current lightweight champion and Dover, MA native Kenny “KenFlo” Florian opened up his own training center (Florian Martial Arts Center) in Brookline, using the training and experience he gained from the UFC and from both DellaGrotte and Welch to train those who are looking to practice the art of MMA.

Kenny Florian has become one of the top lightweight mixed martial artists in the world and has proven himself a true competitor, defeating fellow lightweight bad boy Roger Huerta at UFC ’87 in a unanimous decision, boosting his professional MMA record to an impressive 12-3 (at press time). Florian says to fight Huerta (22-2-1) was an “honor” acknowledging that Huerta “is one of the best fighters in the world and always goes hard and looks for the win.” Florian grew up practicing martial arts since he was young, crediting his brothers for “teaching [him] the ropes and showing me how to be tough.” He obtained his degree in Communications from Boston College, where he was an All-Scholastic soccer player. Martial arts, however, never strayed too far from his interest. With time, Florian grew (and continues to grow) into one of the most respected fighters around.

“Boxing and MMA are two totally different sports; people think they are in compeition with one another, but they are really not. It’s like comparing basketball and football. If you can box, you’re not gonna be able to jump right into MMA, or vice versa, just like if you can make a jumpshot doesn’t mean you’re gonna be able to throw a football and get a touchdown. In my opinion, and from my experience, it’s difficult to go back and forth between the two. The way you punch in MMA is different than the way you punch in boxing; your stance in each are completely different. I don’t think people should be comparing one to another, because they are two completely different sports with two completely different tecghniques and approaches.”

-Marcus Davis on Boxing vs MMA

Both Florian and Davis have been featured on Spike’s hit reality show The Ultimate Fighter on seasons one and two, respectively. Both fighters made their mark on the organization and became fan favorites both on the show and off. Being on the show, Davis says, was a great experience,

though it wasn’t without its difficulties. “The worst part about the experience was that I got pretty seriously injured on the show with my shoulder,” he says, “but I made a lot of friendships, I still talk to Rashad [Evans] every now and then, and opened a lot of doors for me…it also opened my eyes to what I needed to do and what I needed to work on in order to be a good fighter.” For Florian, the decision to be on the show was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up-even if it meant fighting two weight classes above his normal lightweight class. “That was pretty much me being stupid,” Florian jokes, “but it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to get involved with the greatest organization in the world.” In addition to opening his own MMA training center, and becoming one of the top contenders for the lightweight title, Florian has also been featured as a guest commentator for UFC events and works as an MMA analyst for ESPN. “I tell my parents that I’m actually doing something with my college degree!” he laughs.

Massachusetts has been no stranger to other top-notch fighters like UFC powerhouses Joe Lauzon and Jorge Rivera. Also hailing from Beantown is Joe’s younger brother Dan, who is currently the youngest person to fight in the UFC at the age of 18. Natick fighter Matt Martin (USMMA) recently won his fight in a unanimous decision at the stellar WCF event on September 19. Martin, who is a tough competitor, says that fights in the Boston area are electrifying and exciting. “The event on [September 19] was great…[World Championship Fighting] is by far the best local New England show we have,” he says. Even those who are up-and-coming fighters who are looking to break into fighting professionally in mixed martial arts, like Billerica’s Timothy Thomas, can find the best training and the best coaching in the country. A boxing and submission specialist, Thomas trains with a variety of friends and coaches but sets his sights on the big-time: “I would kill for the opportunity to train with guys like Welch and DellaGrotte.” After watching an interview with former math teacher-turned UFC fighter Rich Franklin, Thomas says he decided that fighting was the direction he needed to go. “When I watched Franklin talking about how he broke into it,” Thomas remembers, “I knew I had to get into it now…I didn’t want to wake up 20 years from now thinking ‘I could have done that'”.

Although fighting and training are extremely physical and demanding, and fighters are required to be in optimal shape, there is a considerable mental aspect to the sport that, despite how much you have trained, could be the deciding factor of your success. “I’ve seen guys train their butts off, but not consider the mental toll it can take,” Davis explains. “They go in their pumped up and then once they get hit, they get exhausted and panic.” Florian, who is no stranger to intense training and hours-long workout sessions, agrees. “There is a huge mental aspect that people don’t take into account,” KenFlo says, “It’s important to keep the balance between keeping intensity without getting overly emotional…physical and mental balance needs to take place for a guy to stay focused and succeed.”

But many people who don’t participate have had a less than favorable reaction to the sport. Many people see it as nothing more than a bunch of guys beating the crap out of each other and think it’s a brutal, violent sport. Even Republican presidential nominee John McCain once commented on mixed martial arts, calling it “human cockfighting” and spearheaded a campaign to ban the sport in all 50 states. Such criticism in the sport has resulted in the evolution of the rules from the heyday of UFC1, where there were basically “no rules” and no safety equipment to the days of mouth guards, gloves, and a host of rules that ensure fighter safety. Those who are vehemently against mixed martial arts call the sport “violent and dangerous,” but the fighters themselves don’t see the reasoning in such claims. “People need to understand that for something to be violent there needs to be a victim,” says Davis, “and there are no victims.” A sentiment that Florian agrees with: “There have been no deaths directly related to fighting and it’s a testament to the safety precautions the organization takes,” he says.

With Boston being home to some of the best fighters and coaches, and even the hometown of UFC President Dana White, it’s an interesting paradox that one of the best fight towns has not yet sanctioned mixed martial arts. “Massachusetts has one of the biggest MMA scenes in the country,” Martin explains. “Just look at the top fighters in the UFC from the Boston area and you can see the type of energy and entertainment they bring into each fight.” However, many feel that bringing mixed martial arts to the Bay State would encourage violence and aggression in younger, impressionable kids; UFC president and UMass Boston alumnus White disagrees. “[Peter Welch and I] used to bring kids off the street and have them come in and get out their aggressions and get off the street…we were positive influences,” White said in a previous interview with The Mass Media. White has made it clear that he will not bring an event to Massachusetts until mixed martial arts is sanctioned. “The UFC won’t go anywhere unless they have a commission that approves it,” Florian explains. While mixed martial arts events are currently held in Massachusetts legally, such as World Championship Fighting events, the UFC is adamant about making sure that its events are recognized and authorized by the state so as to protect fighters against unlawful claims filed by other fighters. In a very complicated set of proceedings, Massachusetts has in fact made some progress in the sanctioning of MMA. With both boxing and kick-boxing regulated under 524 CMR 3.00 by the Massachusetts Boxing Commission, mixed martial arts (which includes further subsets of martial arts and extends beyond the definition of either of the aforementioned sports) is not far from being sanctioned. It seems, as Boxing Commission Chairman Dan Fitzgerald explains, to be a matter of timing and patiently waiting. “The UFC hired a lobbyist to try to get legislation passed last year,” Fitzgerald explains, “but the attempt came after the House of Representatives had drawn up its budget…so we have to wait until next year.” Chairman Fitzgerald assures the public that “once the bill is passed, the UFC will be here in a heartbeat.” Florian knows that bringing the UFC to Boston is a big goal of the organization and is a dream of both White and himself. “Ultimately, I would love to fight for a title in my hometown!” he says eagerly, adding that a card with fellow Bostonians would be a great way to welcome the UFC to the Bay State. “I definitely think that folks like Joe [Lauzon] and other guys from Boston should be featured on the Boston card.” Whether one approves or disapproves of the sport, Massachusetts legislature will likely revisit the issue of sanctioning in the upcoming year and, Fitzgerald predicts, “if [the bill] passes through the House this year, it will likely move quickly through the Senate and become law…I don’t believe either body will challenge the law, maybe just the amount [of the budget allocated to the legislature].”

Proponents and opponents of mixed martial arts have been embroiled in a war of words over the nature of the sport and whether or not it should be recognized by Massachusetts as a legalized, sanctioned sport. Regardless of which side of the fence (or cage) you find yourself, it’s hard to deny the incredible dedication and commitment of those who participate in mixed martial arts fighting. “We are not simply out there to beat people up…mixed martial arts is once of the most competitive sports in the world and I’d love for people to realize that it’s a highly technical sport and that it’s fun and exciting,” Florian states. It’s also nearly impossible to deny Boston’s impact on the mixed martial arts scene and the impact Beantown will continue to have on the sport. From coaches like DellaGrotte and Welch to fighters like Florian, Davis and Martin to UFC President and former UMB student Dana White, Boston’s contribution to and impact on the sport of mixed martial arts is truly “as real as it gets.”