The mixed martial arts (MMA) class has been going on for eight months, and mirrors the explosion of the sport on the national scene.
“Any MMA fighter will say it - it used to be a spectacle, a sideshow,” said Bryan Vetell, Force Fitness MMA coach and former fighter in the International Fight League. It was seen as two opponents “beating the crap out of each other until the jujitsu guys and wrestlers came into the sport and implemented their art.”
And so four times a week, Vetell’s students remove their shoes and shuffle into the mustard yellow room with blue padded floors and get to work. After five minutes of jogging, the students walk around performing the combos they will practice on each other shortly. Left jab, right uppercut. Left jab, right jab, then left, left, right, right in rapid succession. Afterwards, they face the mirrored wall and begin shadow boxing the combos.
Vetell who is built like a small house, teaches grappling classes on Monday and Wednesday and striking on Tuesday and Thursday. He thinks MMA provides something different in a crowded self-improvement marketplace.
“The conditioning is entirely unique,” Vetell said. “It involves different systems, aerobic and anaerobic exercise. A wrestling match is six minutes long, but a fight can be 15 to 25 minutes. It’s a full body workout.”
But not everybody comes to the class solely to get in better shape. Jay Quinn, 20, started MMA after his cousin was doing jujitsu in the Gracie school. He came to Force Fitness after he received a one-month trial for his birthday and was hooked.
“At the beginning I was always getting beat up,” Quinn said, breathing hard on the floor from his final grappling session of the class. “I played hockey before, but this has me in the best shape of my life.”
Quinn, who goes to Queens College, has taken his newfound love for MMA and decided to become an amateur fighter. “I’m doing it because its fun and maybe it’s a possible future,” he said.
The foundation for an MMA future comes from its storied past. The Ancient Greeks invented a sport called “pankration,” known as the original martial art. The name “pankration” is a combination of two Greek words, pan and kratos, and can be translated as “all-encompassing” or “all-powerful.” The sport was a combination of Hellenic boxing and wrestling and became the most popular event of the Olympics.
In modern times, the Gracie family brought MMA into the public consciousness. In Brazil, in 1801, a renowned Japanese judo champion taught the son of political figure Gastao Gracie. It spread throughout the family, but without the traditional Japanese discipline, the Gracie's changed the sport to fit their needs and personality. As the years passed, the Gracie's took the sport to the United States.
In 1993, Rorian Gracie and a partner took the sport to Semaphore Entertainment Group and the Ultimate Fighting Championship(UFC) was born. Political opposition and a lack of rules hurt the sport and sent it underground for a time, but it experienced a resurgence when rules and safeguards were put in place. With safety less of a concern, it flourished and this past summer the milestone event, UFC 100, showed that the sport is stronger than ever.
And so with UFC posters adorning the walls, the beleaguered Thursday group, depleted by those tired from Monday through Wednesday classes, fights on.
Joe McCormeck of Grand Avenue is a first timer with a background in gymnastics. While upping the intensity of his punches, per Vetell’s orders, he gets a little too excited and accidentally misses the pad he was supposed to hit. Instead he hits his partner flush in the jaw. Laughing it off, his partner says to the class, “He don’t know slow! He only knows one speed!”
In his Irish accent, McCormeck took stock of his first day. “It was brilliant. Very good. The hardest part was getting choked out,” he said, but he definitely plans to return.
Ewelina Egner of Fresh Pond Road also has a gymnastic background and came with McCormeck. She explained that she had no qualms about being involved in such an aggressive sport.
“I was always around guys, I have two older brothers,” she said. “I came for conditioning, I started two to three months ago.”
Egner has been into martial arts for 10 years and did everything from tae bo boxing to capoeira.
In Vettel’s mind, the sport is only going to continue to increase in popularity.
“Four years ago, you saw someone with an MMA shirt and you knew they were a fighter,” he said. “Now things have changed dramatically. I’m not going to say it's baseball, but it’s similar in the way it has been packaged and sold to the public.”