“It’s much more cerebral than people give it credit for,” says Adam Ryan as he watches partner Joel Wasel teach a class at Dynamic MMA, their gym that specializes in mixed martial arts.
This is mixed martial arts he’s talking about, right? The sport that spawned the Ultimate Fighting Championship and countless televised fights where guys with shaved heads and tattoos beat each other into the ground inside a caged ring.
According to Ryan, mixed martial arts, which combines elements of boxing, wrestling, jujitsu, judo, and other combat sports, has more in common with a chess game than a barroom brawl. Ryan is hardly alone. Over the past few years, the number of people watching mixed martial arts live and on TV has exploded, and a growing number are also using it to keep in shape. “It’s cross-training,” says Ryan. “We’re like triathletes. You’ve got to be good at everything. You have to be good at standup techniques, takedowns, and fighting on the ground.”
Ryan’s establishment (5842 Cambie Street, www.mmavancouver.com/) is one of a number of mixed martial arts gyms in the city that coach men and women from all walks of life. Wasel’s kickboxing class has people of varying ages, sizes, and ethnic backgrounds, and Ryan and Wasel even trained a group of Vancouver Canucks during last summer’s Prospects Development Camp.
Canucks staff brought in the young hopefuls not to help them hold their own during hockey fights, but to improve their fitness. Many of Ryan’s clients feel the same way, using the sport as a key part of their exercise routine. Classes at Dynamic include a healthy dose of core strength exercises such as ab crunches, squats, and pushups. Kickboxing classes are also rigorous workouts. “It’s all cardio,” Ryan says. “It’s aerobics with a purpose because you get real kickboxing techniques with no contact. The worse that can happen is you get tired.”
Ryan also throws in some weight training with medicine balls, hand weights, and even sandbags. Working with weights helps improve ground-fighting techniques used in jujitsu, which in turn helps develop quickness and flexibility. Says Ryan: “Because you’re rolling around, pushing and pulling, moving your body, you don’t have to lift weights. It’s like lifting weights and running at the same time.”
Although MMA is a relatively new (and some would say dangerous) sport, Ryan says that it really is just a combination of kickboxing, Brazilian jujitsu, and other tried-and-true fighting techniques. Those combinations also make MMA an ideal form of self-defence.
“The only way to train for mixed martial arts is to divide the components,” he says. “It’s similar to a tennis player just practising on their forehand or backhand. We break it down into the components and bring it together. If there is an art to mixed martial arts, it’s the transitions tying the boxing into the takedowns and groundwork of Brazilian jujitsu. That’s the new component that mixed martial arts has brought to the table.”
Mixed martial arts rose to prominence in North America in the mid ’90s thanks to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which brought fighters from various disciplines to see which fighting style would prevail. The early UFC events were often bloody affairs because they featured lax rules and often pitted fighters of different skill levels against one another.
Despite the flaws, many martial artists learned to take elements from various styles of fighting and meld them into what has become mixed martial arts. “When the UFC came, it took the whole industry by storm,” Wasel says. “It really helped eliminate the fallacies of what works and what doesn’t. That was the turning point in modern marital arts.”
UFC’s popularity has been both a blessing and a curse. Along with martial-arts aficionados, the sport drew bloodthirsty fans who had seen Fight Club once too often and the attention of detractors who saw it as human cockfighting. Last September, Vancouver city council voted against sanctioning mixed martial arts fighting in the city and asked the province to create a body that would regulate it. In February of this year, a fighter was shot in the leg following a mixed martial arts event on the Musqueam reserve.
MMA’s thuggish reputation has turned many off the sport, including Ryan. He quit training five years ago because he grew weary of the sport’s macho posturing, but decided to start his own gym to help promote the sport’s positive aspects. “It’s still fighting its image,” he says. “It’s still sponsored by beer companies and there are half-naked women running around at events. I wish it had a more sophisticated side. I think it’s going to go that way.”
Ryan believes that the sport’s image will evolve and will achieve the status it has in Japan, Korea, and Brazil, where fans know and respect its mental and physical intricacies. According to Ryan, the best way for people to learn about MMA’s finer points is to get into the ring themselves.
“I see mixed martial arts becoming the premier fighting sport,” Ryan says. “In fact, it is already. Now it’s going to stabilize. There’s going to be more regulation, more standardization, and it’ll become normal. Once it becomes normal, we’re all good.”