Photos by Neal Santos
The difference between the moment directly before you are choked unconscious and the moment directly after is quite literally night and day. You go from using all of your energy to fight, buck, twist and grab to suddenly being able to use none. You feel yourself go under — a fairly pleasant sensation, like those blissful moments after diving into warm water.
Waking up is another matter.
If losing consciousness is your nervous system dipping into the Caribbean, gaining it back is an Eskimo dive in the Arctic. The first sense to return is sight, a disorienting sense to have without the other four. Sound comes next — but without any understanding of your surroundings, it hinders more than it helps. Acting on instinct alone, you either lunge and convulse or simply sit back and try to figure out where you are, how you got there and why the person responsible for your condition has stopped attacking you.
In the last four months, this happened to me twice. Both times, the men who took me out stopped and made sure I was alive — then continued their attacks. And afterward, groups of lawyers, doctors, blue-collar workers and college students had a laugh at my expense, and opened up about all of the times they, too, had been choked out, all in the service of Philadelphia's newest hobby.
Mixed martial arts (MMA) is exactly what it sounds like: various martial arts — primarily Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai — combined with boxing and wrestling to create a more perfect fighter, both on the street and in organized tournaments. Since its inception, MMA has had its share of critics. In the mid-1990s, U.S. Sen. John McCain deemed it "human cockfighting," and fights were largely illegal, unsanctioned and brutal. No holds were barred, no gloves were used — and fights never went to the judges.
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Things have changed. Over the last 20 years, the sport, largely under the auspices of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) — to the MMA what the NFL is to football — has entered the American mainstream. The Ultimate Fighter, UFC's flagship reality show, is coming up on its 12th season on Spike TV; ESPN put fighter Chuck Liddell on the cover of its magazine; and Sports Illustrated regularly calls MMA America's "fastest growing sport." Forty-three states, including Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. now sanction professional MMA fights.
MMA is no longer just for thugs on street corners and the most brutal outliers in traditional martial arts; it has spread across demographic and social strata, and permeates a larger swath of American culture than your mother would probably imagine.
And it is very much alive in Philly.
With dozens of schools, thousands of students and near-monthly fights, Philadelphia has become a hotbed for MMA: Tiger Schulmann's Karate, longtime proprietor of strip-mall dojos, is now Tiger Schulmann's MMA. Balance Studios has grown from zero gyms eight years ago to 32 as of April. Brad Daddis, who runs Daddis Fight Camps, has expanded his Philly studio twice and spread into Cherry Hill and Medford, N.J. And Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu United in Jenkintown has nearly tripled its students in the last five years — and that just touches on the bigger gyms. If you want to avoid major studios, you have options, as well: Former pro fighters like Travis Roesler run MMA training programs out of converted apartments, and even the 12th Street Gym offers an MMA class.
Gyms are popping up from Rittenhouse to Kensington to Jenkintown to Mount Airy, and they're not just filled with the toughest guys the streets can find. Bankers, frat boys, construction workers, Ph.D.s, off-duty police officers, soccer moms, the guy selling you BlackBerrys, high school bullies and the nerds who want to avoid them are all showing up in your neighborhood gym, trying to choke each other out.
For the last few months, these were my people. For two or three hours a night, four or five times a week I immersed myself in this emergent sport, trying to figure out why so many people were interested in fighting each other inside a cage. I trained, hit — or, more accurately, got hit — and talked with as many of these fighters as I could, visiting a half-dozen gyms across the region and interviewing some 100 men and women on their way to and from their leisure pursuit. I learned submissions, throws and strikes, and found myself bruised, battered and in the best shape of my life.
Let's start at the beginning.
I begin my training at Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu United (BJJU), a gym run by former Jiu-Jitsu national champion Jared Weiner. BJJU operates out of a storefront on Jenkintown's Old York Road; it shares a wall with a flower store, and is across a parking lot from a small suburban shop where people buy bagels on their way to work. I walk in at 5:40 on a cold Thursday afternoon in January, 20 minutes before class starts, but already a dozen students are chatting and joking in the front, watching old MMA fights on the corner television and a children's Jiu-Jitsu class, which is taking place on the mats in front of them.
I make a beeline toward the desk and Weiner, sitting not 6 feet away, hops over and introduces himself. He's trained in Jiu-Jitsu for more than half of his 31 years, but he doesn't strike you as terrifying. He's 5-foot-9, maybe 165 pounds and has ears that are puffed up from years of fighting. They stick slightly off his black-crew-cut-covered head as it nods intently, listening to my makeshift plan for a story.
He breaks into a happy smile when I ask him not to take it easy on me, and he points me toward the locker room to change.
Coming into the night, I have one goal: Don't tap out. In MMA, tapping out is the boxer's equivalent of throwing in the towel. If at any point during a fight or sparring session, you yell "Tap!" or tap your hand against the mat or your opponent, the fight ends. You lose.
No matter how much pain I feel, I need the gym to respect me. So, no matter what, I won't tap out.
Three hours later, Weiner has proven good on his word: No one took it easy on me. My word? Not so good.
By night's end, I've tapped out at least three times each roll — a roll is a short sparring session — no matter my opponent. A student with short brown hair and a blue belt, who later tells me he came to the gym to lose weight, puts me in an arm-bar, from which I can't escape, then a neck crank, from which I can't escape, and finally something called an Americano, from which, again, I can't escape.
A 5-foot-4 Brazilian man built like a bowling ball laughs out loud as he tosses me from one side of the mat to the next.
I have exactly one offensive moment: I use the one move I remember from earlier in class to place myself in a position called "mount" — essentially the best place you can be in during a fight — though my opponent quickly escapes. After class, my antagonist explains: "I wanted to work on my escapes."
The next morning, at precisely 5:23 a.m., I roll over and find myself wide awake, but unable to sit up. My lower back feels like it is in the midst of anesthesia-less surgery; my neck might as well have a brace on it; and up and down my body, muscles that I haven't used in years are angry at me for waking them from their slumber. To get out of bed, I push myself onto my hands and knees and use my arms to hoist myself up, and then grab enough furniture to raise my body onto my feet. I hobble toward the medicine cabinet, swallow a handful of painkillers and collapse until they kick in.
Clearly, this hobby has downsides. Over the ensuing months, I bleed from my nose, mouth and limbs. I vomit during and after workouts. My back, neck, arms and legs take turns bothering me the most and I get used to taking Tylenol with my morning coffee. The drawbacks aren't just physical: MMA can be demoralizing. If you tap — and if you're a newbie, you will tap — you can't blame the ref, your teammates or an unlucky bounce. You have to admit that, for that one moment, someone else was better than you.
"Your failures are on a very visceral level," says Justin Labarge, a Muay Thai instructor at BJJU. "It's a very unpleasant way to lose."
Training was time-consuming, too — and expensive. Before you can start, you're going to need a Jiu-Jitsu Gi (uniform), a decent mouth guard, a cup (if you're a guy), shin pads, head gear, 5- and 16-ounce gloves and hand wraps, at minimum.
But I also found a lot to like. The physical effects were obvious: I lost fat, gained muscle and, after the initial workout shock was over, started to wake up earlier and have more energy throughout the day. I learned a lot, too, and quickly: If the E. James Beale of today fought the E. James Beale who showed up as a BJJU rookie that January evening, I would kick my ass — a fact that lent itself to an addictive learning curve.
None of that explains how Philadelphia emerged as such a hot spot for cage fighting. Part of it is Philly itself. Our town's long-standing boxing tradition and affinity for the underdog made it a natural fit for MMA.
The other part: a guy named Steve Maxwell, who we'll get to momentarily.
Today, MMA is a global phenomenon: In March, a Canadian and an Englishman sold out the Prudential Center in New Jersey just months after two Brazilians sold out the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
"It's awesome," UFC President Dana White boasted to me after the New Jersey event. "Our world is getting smaller and smaller and smaller."
But two decades ago, it barely existed. MMA's rise can be directly attributed to the Gracie family — the family that founded UFC's most prevalent martial art, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu — and UFC itself.
Originally designed to determine the most effective martial art, the first UFC event in 1993 was an eight-man tournament of experts in various strains of fighting. The winner was promised a $50,000 cash prize. Royce Gracie, easily the smallest competitor in the event at 180 pounds, won, beating a boxer, a wrestler and a kick-boxing specialist along the way. After that, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and the competition that made it famous took off in popularity.
A few years earlier, Steve Maxwell, now 57, was a Philadelphia trainer looking for a new challenge. He had been an NCAA Division I wrestler at West Chester University, and wanted a project to fill the void. One day, he found himself at a do-it-yourself video store filled with tapes on everything from how to fix a sink to how to birth a baby. While browsing, Maxwell happened upon a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu tape, bought it, popped it in and became hooked.
The Gracies traveled back then, giving Jiu-Jitsu demonstrations across the country. At their next local event, in Parsippany, N.J., Maxwell tracked them down. Within months, he was traveling back and forth between his Philadelphia home to the Gracies' base in Torrance, Calif., learning to be a Jiu-Jitsu expert. He became Royce Gracie's strength and conditioning coach, and when the Gracies opened their teaching school in the early '90s, he was the first person to enroll.
Then, unexpectedly, the Society Hill Health Club at which Maxwell had been a trainer went under, leaving him jobless. "I knew I had to do something," Maxwell says in a phone interview from his current home in Port Townsend, Wash. "I thought, 'What the hell,' I had an opportunity to open my own gym, and I decided if not then, never."
He was able to lease out an old men's clothing warehouse on the top floor of 707 Chestnut St., where the Maxercise gym still stands today. "For 15 years [before he took it over] it was completely unrentable," Maxwell explains. "It should have been condemned."
But it wasn't, and its poor condition meant he could get it for cheap. He bought the old Society Hill mats, cleaned the area with the help of local high school kids, began to fill his gym with wrestling buddies and a small army of students — including Phil and Ricardo Migliarese and Jared Weiner. Maxwell almost immediately found himself in demand. When enthusiasts learned that he was Gracie's trainer, the demand intensified. But perhaps more importantly, Maxwell had established the only Jiu-Jitsu school in the Northeast; the next closest was in Miami. People flocked to it, both to train and to challenge the upstart sport.
"At least once a month some guy would come in and want to fight," Maxwell says. He would let "pit bulls" — star students — fight in no-holds-barred matches.
"Karate guys came in and started wanting to do challenge matches. Kung fu guys came in, wrestling guys came in, and they all wanted to fight," Weiner recalls. "They didn't believe that they could get held down on the ground and get their face smacked around or get choked unconscious."
Time and time again, they were proven wrong.
This new breed of Philadelphia fighter improved quickly, and as the sport expanded, guys like Weiner and the Migliareses branched out, and started their own gyms across the city. Soon Philly was a launching pad for Jiu-Jitsu. MMA wasn't far behind.
Today, people come to MMA from all walks of life. Local pro athletes, including Phillie Raúl Ibañez and Eagles Trent Cole and David Akers, take classes to bolster their core strength. Travis Roesler, a former college football player at Penn, speaks to this point: "It improved my football skills drastically. I started thinking about manipulating bodies instead of raw power."
He stops for a minute, and shakes his head: "I weigh probably 200 pounds now, and I'd be a better nose tackle now than I was at 280."
But the sport isn't just for hardcore athletes. "There are so many different people here it is unreal," says Phil Migliarese, now the owner of Balance Studios. "We have half of the police department training, got to be 100 college kids, a large portion of attorneys — I have no idea why — and groups of union guys."
The sport's eclecticism is hard to escape. Daddis' South Philadelphia studio, for instance, is big and black, but bright, like a cave on the side of an elevated mountain, filled with professional fighters hitting heavy bags next to Center City accountants on their lunch break and housewives practicing self-defense. After several weeks, no one seems out of place.
Why are these people drawn to MMA? They're marketed to, for starters: Nearly every gym's website has a testimonial from someone who slimmed down, and gym owners are happy to trot out their biggest success stories for prospective clients. (Daddis' gym has a guy who lost 97 pounds and now fights in unsanctioned bouts.)
"Some people think that we're only about developing fighters," Weiner says. "Fuck that. I want [out of shape people] to come in here, and I want to help their lives."
From a competitive perspective, the sport is similarly universal, in that the biggest guy doesn't always win. "When you're looking at a dude like Mike Tyson or Evander Holyfield, everyone out there is going, 'Well, shit, I can't possibly compete with these huge, jacked men who have spent their entire lives getting punched in boxing gyms and don't seem to care,'" says Roesler. "Now, there is a form of fighting that proves the intelligent fighter has the advantage."
Buzz plays a role, too: Gyms get a boost every time UFC runs its reality television show The Ultimate Fighter on Spike, and nearly every good fighter I met admits to watching it. "I saw [the show] and thought, I could do that," says Matt Nice, who makes his pro debut May 14 at the John M. Perzel Community Center in Northeast Philadelphia.
Of course, few get involved to go pro. If you ask people why they joined, the most frequent answers aren't MMA-specific. Rather, they're the reasons you'd hear for joining any gym — get in shape, find a new workout, take on a new challenge, accompany a friend. In itself, this is telling. MMA gyms are no longer havens of street toughs; still, MMA instructors say their retention rates are far better than other gyms. (Migliarese estimates his gym's retention rate at 95 percent; the industry standard, he says, is about 75 percent.)
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There are two explanations: The first is the challenge. "The No. 1 killer to people's workout plans is boredom. They get bored and they stop," says Daddis. "Well, boredom just isn't a problem in [MMA]."
You learn things you otherwise wouldn't. For instance, most people don't know how to properly throw a punch. Even if someone has the right hand positioning — fists covering the face, roughly 2 inches in front of each temple with the thumb covering closed fingers — they will often push their fist forward and then bring it back on a plane, like a cash register opening and closing. That's wrong.
"A crappy punch uses the tricep and shoulder muscle only — not two of the largest muscles in the body," says Daddis. "A true punch comes from the ground up. It starts by pivoting the back foot. ... The twisting of the foot will in turn twist the hips, putting all of your body weight behind the punch."
It is why someone like Manny Pacquiao can punch three times harder than a 300-pound meathead at the gym. "Give me seven hours with a guy, and I guarantee you he'll know some tricks that could win him a fight," Phil Migliarese brags.
Explanation No. 2 is counterintuitive: Cage fighting is a fantastic way to make friends. I've been going to gyms my entire adult life, and I've never had a real conversation with the guy lifting next to me. Months of hopping from one gym to the next, I had numerous in-depth conversations with perfect strangers. Part of that is work-product — I've never written a story about people lifting weights — but not all of it. I've gone to MMA studios incognito — no notepads, no introduction — and found myself in conversations about everything from my fantasy football team to the financial merits of male stripping. MMA gyms are social. If one gym member has a local fight, the rest come out to show support.
When I mentioned my training to a longtime boxing fan and close friend, he went on the attack: "I find the entire sport to be symptomatic of a greater cultural malaise that resists technique, discipline, structure and extreme skill but embraces tattoos, kicking, speed and energy drinks."
This is not an uncommon sentiment. Stephen Acunto, a longtime member of the New York State Athletic Commission, told NPR in 2007, "I think [MMA] satiates the barbaric pleasure of people who like to see someone hurt. ... I think they would watch cockfighting, bullfighting, dogfighting and anything of that nature."
The American Medical Association opposes the sport, because, it says, fighters risk brain damage from excessive blows to the head — a criticism that UFC has responded to with the rather weak "football is worse" argument. While certainly no one within gyms eschews technique, discipline or structure — they'd die — MMA simulates actual fights, and actual fights can be brutal. In MMA, unlike traditional martial arts, a fighter can take his opponent to the ground, post up over him, and then punch him repeatedly in the face.
It can be vicious, and the crowds that frequent matches often want blood.
At local shows, you'll hear chants of "stand those cunts up" if referees allow fighters to grapple on the ground, and worse if the fighters are female. Larger fights aren't much better. When UFC first came to Philly last August, the loudest shouts were not for a well-executed knockout but rather for two Snooki lookalikes doing battle in the lower deck. The most vicious boos at UFC 111, the March 27 event at the Prudential Center, weren't for a villain: They were for Matthew Riddle, a local fighter who had been kicked in the face illegally. Riddle told the ref he couldn't continue and was taunted mercilessly for his supposed lack of effort.
These crowds can be painted in broad strokes. An overwhelming proportion of those who attend are white, male and wearing Tapout hats tilted to the side.
"If you go to any sporting event you're going to have some hooligans," says Jeff Cressman, a local pro. "I've seen it happen a lot more at Eagles games than I ever have at MMA events."
Be that as it may, as I left the arena that night, the ground surrounding the arena was covered in discarded Muscle Milk bottles and energy drink cans.
In gyms, however, that side of the sport is less prominent. There, MMA is getting away from its no-holds-barred roots. Roesler, the former pro fighter, teaches fraternity boys MMA at Penn. One high-schooler I talked to took up MMA because his mother deemed it safer than boxing. Jason Brown, owner of Urban Athlete in Mount Airy, markets a program with the tagline "Train like a fighter without getting hit."
The next wave of MMA enthusiasts might not be fighters at all. Phil Migliarese — who, with his black hair gelled and his slightly crooked teeth smiling through a tight black goatee, looks more like a PR rep (his night job) than a fight instructor (his day gig) — knows that 15 years ago, the "it" martial art was Tae Bo. "Yeah it's a fad," he says of MMA. "Fads go in, fads go out."
But that doesn't mean MMA is going to fall off the map.
"You know what the biggest thing I've done is?" Migliarese asks. Considering that he's designed training programs for several federal agencies, his answer surprises: "This DVD." He hands me Yoga for Fighters, which is the exact opposite of what it sounds. The people who buy Yoga for Fighters — more than 40,000 of them — aren't people who real fighters would consider fighters; they're people who want the image, or body, of fighters.
Fighting has become a hobby.
A few weeks ago I was matched against one of the few students newer to the sport than I was. We worked together for an hour, and then began to spar.
I grabbed his right arm down to break his posture, dropped to my back, thrust my body backward with my hips and legs, wrapped my left leg over his right shoulder, forced my right knee over my right ankle, pushed my hips up and pulled down on his now-restricted neck.
Within seconds my opponent tapped my leg, and I released. He sat back, looking confused; within seconds, we started up again. Afterward, he grabbed me, pulled me to the side and asked me what happened. "Triangle choke," I replied nonchalantly, as if I had done it a thousand times before.
For me, within a few short weeks MMA had already turned from a challenge to a routine Wednesday night. So is cage fighting going to replace neighborhood pickup games? Well, not quite. I've played a lot of pickup ball and never have I paused to vomit. But it's getting there.
"We had this section on our website about 'breaking the myths of MMA,'" Daddis says. "We decided that it was ready for it to come off."
The myths are changing: "Mothers come in here with their high-schoolers, and Mom knows what MMA stuff is. You know what? Mom might even want to train."
See additional profiles of local MMA fighters and video of E. James Beale's training at citypaper.net.