Step inside an MMA gym and witness the next generation of fighters grapple with one another. While they are not professionals, takedown and submission attempts are encouraged along with basic striking and rolling techniques. It will take a lifetime to master these lessons, but time is one thing these fighters have. After all, their afternoons are wide open once elementary school ends.
They are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and nieces and nephews who have a newfound desire to fight in the octagon and emulate stars they see in the UFC. It’s no secret that MMA’s popularity has grown over the last decade, but parents who once shunned combat sports are finding that it helps children get in shape, learn about competition and defend against bullying.
But in a sport that brings out one’s aggression, how young is too young to learn how to fight?
In an article written by NBC 5 in Florida, American Top Team instructor Marcos Da Matta is quoted as saying, “For kids it’s not even about fighting, it’s about confidence, and about defending themselves, and about avoiding fights.”
Gyms like Da Matta’s have always offered youth classes but only recently have they seen a rise in popularity.
While Da Matta instills a defensive approach, the United States Fight League promotes Pankration, a style of fighting that blends boxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts concepts together. As a sanctioned organization, the USFL divides youth Pankration shows into three categories: full contact, limited contact, and grappling only matches. The only limitation in full contact Pankration is that blows to the head are prohibited.
Photographer Sebastian Montalvo was at the USFL sanctioned 2013 California State Pankration Championships where he captured child fighters in action. In one vivid image, a 7-year-old has his opponent in a guillotine choke while the referee checks waits for a tap. A quick YouTube search uncovers dozens of startling videos of kids cage fighting.
When comparing the American Top Team style of training to others similar to Pankration, Da Matta believes that they are worlds apart.
“The only similarity here is the techniques on the ground, without the punching and the aggression,” he said.
In the end, it’s up to the parents. MMA teaches children discipline and self-control and when parents teach their young to use these skills as a tool rather than a weapon, they can learn to grow mentally, physically and emotionally.