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The appeal of punches and kicks

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The sport known as mixed martial arts, or MMA, is illegal in New York state. But that doesn't mean it lacks a loyal following, especially around Fort Drum, where combat sports are popular.

On Saturday in Watertown, two partners including the owner of a local gym are putting on a series of fights at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds. The event showcases local fighters aspiring to make a living in the sport, although the rules for the matches had to be altered to comply with state law.

Joanna Richards has the story.

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Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

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The bell tolls and four men drenched in sweat from hitting bags take a breather. They pace barefoot around a blue mat before the bell tolls again, sending them back to the bags.


The gym is Jiu-Jitsu Nation Tai-Kai North, on Watertown's busy Arsenal Street, and it teaches the elements of MMA, short for mixed martial arts. That inclues boxing and kickboxing, wrestling, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu – a form of wrestling that relies on submission techniques like chokes and jointlocks rather than pins.

Jon Gibbons is co-promoting a showcase of MMA at Watertown’s fairgrounds Saturday night. He says mixed martial arts is much more than boxing.

"In boxing you're limited to two weapons, your hands. In this, you open that wide open. You have your hands, you have your feet, you have your knees, shins, ah, limited takedowns – some takedowns are allowed. You can sweep the leg and dump the guy down on the ground. There are so many other aspects," Gibbons said.

The military population of the area is heavily represented here at the gym. Members come and go with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The gym primarily teaches jiu-jitsu to children and adults, but late-night classes are devoted to MMA.

Saturday's event will be a tamer version of the sport. MMA is legal in most states, but not in New York. So when the gym's owner, professional fighter Marc Stevens, and Gibbons wanted to put on an event locally to showcase the gym's fighters, it required some tweaking of the rules, Gibbons says.

"When they shoot in, take somebody down, throw 'em on the ground, are positioning for a chokeout or a joint lock or some kind of manipulation like that, a submission, or they're looking to mount 'em and they're dropping elbows or punches on 'em, that portion of it's called ground 'n' pound and we cannot do that at this event," Gibbons said. 

Some people might wonder about the appeal of a sport featuring an element as gory-sounding as 'ground 'n' pound. MMA does get bloody and the violent image of the sport is only enhanced by the octagonal cage opponents meet in. But beyond the image and the marketing, Stevens says MMA distills individual athleticism and skill in dramatic, one-on-one competition.

"It's the most competitive form of any type of athletics you can do. It's one-on-one, no timeouts, you don't have teammates, if you have a bad day, there's not nine other, or eight other guys, there's not, you know, four other guys, in basketball – you don't have anybody to come in and pick up your slack," Stevens said.

Back on the mat, the guys pair up and take turns holding mitts while their partner kicks – 50 of one kind, 50 of another. The men put their whole bodies into it, rotating their hips and shoulders with each blow. Just watching is exhausting. I stand too close and get splattered with sweat.

Stevens says MMA attracts a lot of former high school and college wrestlers who have dreams of using their backgrounds to make a living as fighters.

"A lot of wrestlers come towards us because there's, you know, if they're a really good athlete in football or baseball, basketball, they have other opportunities to make a living," Stevens said. "A lot of wrestlers and stuff don't, I mean, unless you're one of the eight guys that gets picked for the Olympics every four years, you know, MMA is your next choice. And a lot of 'em do it maybe not even so much for a living but just for the competitive nature of the sport, the comeraderie of being on a team, on something that's so, so significant."

James Frier and Marques Daniels are both pros, meaning they are paid when they fight, although they both make their living primarily at day jobs – Frier at a supplement shop, Daniels as a Special Forces recruiter for Fort Drum. Marques Daniels says his goal is to fight professionally full-time.

"One thing that drew me to MMA is that in wrestling I always wanted to punch somebody, and when I did boxing, I always wanted to wrestle you know, my guys, and so MMA came at the right time for me, it's like, you have to be not a master of all trades, but a jack of all trades – you gotta be good at everything that you do. You gotta be a good boxer, good kickboxer, good jiu-jitsu, good wrestling, good judo. Everything has got to be on point, 'cause if not, you're gonna lose the fight," Daniels said. 

James Frier agrees: "In my opinion, it's the most pure form of competition. It gets my adrenaline running like nothing else. It's indescribable, how you feel in the cage."

Both men routinely leave the state to fight. For them, Saturday's matches – Daniels is headlining and Frier's on the undercard – are a rare chance to share what they love to do with their friends and families in their own hometown.

"I love it. I love it! I love the fact that finally – 'cause I just got back from the Army competition in Texas, I lost a battle to the hometown boy, you know, hometown kids – and so finally, for once in my MMA, boxing career I get to fight at home and have my people around me. So I'm super excited," Daniels said. 

Frier said, "I'm super pumped to fight in Watertown. I grew up here, so I know everybody in this town. I've never had a chance to fight anywhere near my hometown, so everybody's gonna be able to come out and I'm gonna put on a show for all my family and friends, so I'm super psyched."

Daniels downs a protein shake and both guys change and head home for the night. They'll be here again, though, night after night, getting ready for Saturday.

Doors at the fairgrounds open at 6; the fights start at 7:30.

For North Country Public Radio/WRVO, I'm Joanna Richards in Watertown.

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