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From pros to public, MMA takes region by storm

It was 19 years ago that Royce Gracie caught Gerard Gordeau in a rear-naked choke hold to win the first ever Ultimate Fighter Championship (later renamed “UFC 1: The Beginning”), held at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver. Since then, mixed martial arts, formerly known as cage fighting, has taken the world by storm, and San Diego’s North Coast has become a spawning ground for some of the top competitors in the game.

“San Diego is a hotbed for MMA,” said Jason Lambert, a former light heavyweight for the UFC (the largest worldwide MMA sports association), who relocated to San Diego in 2005 to train with Jeff Clark, Manny Rodriguez and Matt Stansell, all top names in the world of MMA and original members of a legendary fight team called the North County Fight Club from Carlsbad. “San Diego has a lot of schools, a bunch of good teams and an excellent talent pool to train with, which attracts many of the best fighters from all over the world.”

MMA has been recognized by many as the fastest growing sport on the planet. Fights take place in an eight-sided ring surrounded by a chain-link fence, with the sole goal being to render an opponent unable to continue fighting. It incorporates boxing, wrestling and a host of martial arts disciplines such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai, judo, kickboxing, karate and taekwondo.

Once considered a no-holds-barred, bloody fringe sport and dismissed as nothing more than cockfighting, professional MMA has matured into a multibillion-dollar industry, which according to an annual ESPN poll, is primed to surpass boxing and wrestling in popularity. In August, the UFC signed a $100 million-a-year deal with the Fox network in the United States to begin broadcasting its fights in November.

“San Diego has always been a big place for boxing,” said UFC light heavyweight fighter Joey Beltran of Oceanside, who is matched against Anthony Perosh on the UFC on FX 6 fight card in Queensland, Australia, on Dec. 14. “But that all started to change after UFC 1, and now this new sport has come up and it seems logical that people would jump in the way they have.”

Beltran said that new people are getting into the action and are joining dojos and schools to learn MMA for self defense and to satisfy their competitive drive. He added that many aren’t interested in strapping on the head gear and getting into the ring to spar, but instead are looking for an invigorating and inspiring workout with a real world application.

Over the years, Brian Whiteaker, head coach at Blackline Training Center in Carlsbad, has watched the rise of MMA in San Diego and said that as a fighter and trainer, he has seen the sport transition to include housewives, children, professionals, politicians, computer programmers and average people who are attracted to challenges.

“So many good things have come from MMA. It’s something that really motivates people and gives them a release that’s different from a regular workout,” Whiteaker said. “I’ve seen people come in and find a fire that really gives them a focus for their lives in a different way that they never would have lifting weights or jogging.”

Lucius Pomerantz, a fifth-year orthopedic surgery resident at UC San Diego, came to MMA from high school wrestling. While in medical school, Pomerantz fought in two professional fights and remains undefeated.

“The training for this sport has many advantages over other types of training. It’s always different and the body never really gets a chance to adapt to any particular regimen, so the results never diminish,” he said. “Although the idea of punching, choking and wrestling another person isn’t for everybody, in this sport there’s more of a sense of accomplishment, because it’s something that’s very appealing to those interested in really pushing themselves to the limit.”

Fred Kolkhorst, director of the San Diego State University School of Exercise & Nutritional Services and a professor of exercise physiology, said that he believes fight training has caught on among many non-fighters because it provides a good amount of cardiovascular and aerobic conditioning, which from a long-term health stand point, places higher in value than strength and flexibility.

Unlike traditional gym training, which Kolkhorst said tends to peak in January and decrease by March, MMA fight training offers a strong end goal that keeps many stimulated and coming back to improve their skills and develop a high level of conditioning.

When asked which type of training he thinks is the best, Kolkhorst said he always replies, “Whatever training that you are most likely to continue doing.”

Manny Lopez is a North County freelance writer

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From pros to public, MMA takes region by storm