Mixed Martial Arts Moves into the Fitness World

Don't know Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell and Randy “The Natural” Couture? Is an octagon merely a distant memory from your 10th grade geometry class? If so, you have somehow sidestepped the anything-goes, street- and cage-fighting craze called mixed martial arts.

Fans of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) stars such as Liddell and Couture are hitting the gym to learn the mixed martial arts techniques used in The Octagon (the cage that houses these fights) or to simply train like their favorite fighter. And in response, some fitness facility owners around the country are designing fitness programs to attract these fans, many of whom are young men.

This movement is not without apprehension, however. Mixed martial arts is a contact sport, so safety is the greatest concern. Operators also must worry about finding or training qualified teachers and storing the equipment needed for these classes.

Still, when it comes to re-vamping a fitness center's image or injecting something new into the mix, mixed martial arts may be just the thing.

“It's a trend that we're seeing proliferate in clubs, as people are looking for new ways to work out,” says Kara Thompson, public relations coordinator for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). “The UFC phenomenon has aided the interest in mixed martial arts.”

What's the Buzz?

Just as the name implies, mixed martial arts is a combination of martial arts disciplines, including jiu-jitsu, judo, karate and kempo, as well as techniques from boxing, kickboxing and wrestling. Typically associated with street fighting, the sport is intense and strategic, fought in a cage designed to contain the one-on-one competitors. Techniques include striking and grappling, but no one discipline dominates.

Mixed martial arts first came to the United States, where the UFC was born, in the 1980s. At first, UFC fights had few rules, no weight classes and no equipment requirements. This made for ugly and contentious battles that went into pay-per-view time slots. Although some of these negative first impressions remain, the backlash led to internal regulations that require judges and gloves and put the kibosh on head-butting and hair-pulling. These changes didn't diminish fans' passion, however. In 2006, the UFC brought in nearly$223 million in pay-per-view revenue — more than HBO Boxing or World Wrestling Entertainment. And “The Ultimate Fighter,” a UFC reality program on the cable channel Spike TV, just finished its ninth season.

With all of this buzz, it's no wonder mixed martial arts is hitting health clubs. Clubs such as Newtown Athletic Club in Newtown, PA, and Meridian Sports Clubs of California, North Hills, CA, are adding mixed martial arts to their facilities. Fans want to fight and train like their favorite UFC stars.

“Over the years, you looked at boxing physiques and would say, ‘Boxers are really in shape.’ Now the same is happening with UFC fighters and mixed martial arts,” says Tony Santomauro, president of The Santomauro Group, a health, fitness and martial arts consulting and management firm in Hackensack, NJ, and partner in Can Do Fitness Clubs.

Bringing in the Boys

The goal of adding mixed martial arts classes is to increase exactly what mixed martial arts attracts: testosterone. IHRSA reports that since 1987, the number of men joining health clubs has risen by more than 84 percent. However in 2007, men represented only 45.8 percent of the for-profit and nonprofit health club membership and only 43 percent of for-profit clubs nationally. For some fitness centers, these numbers translate to opportunity.


“Mixed martial arts is very appealing to men,” says Carol Espel, national director of group fitness for Equinox, with locations in New York, Chicago, Dallas and California. Meanwhile, group exercise classes are not so attractive to men.

“The barriers [to group exercise] are the formats,” Espel says. “What happens for most men is the visibility factor. They remember [group exercise] as some dancing thing from the past. When you have programs that sound a little less like group fitness but more like overall fitness, you get men enrolled. When we do a boxing series, they're lining up.”

Equinox's demographics mirror IHRSA's numbers — about 40 percent of the total membership is male.

“Men — it's something that all of us [fitness centers] are missing,” Espel says. Equinox currently does not offer mixed martial arts fitness programs or classes, but it's something the health club has considered, she notes.

“The fitness industry is so homogeneous right now,” says Jim Rowley, CEO of New Evolution Fitness Co., Lafayette, CA. “There's an audience that's left out and wants a little more of an edge.”

Together with the UFC and business partner Mark Mastrov, founder of 24 Hour Fitness, Rowley is launching a series of gyms that allow members to train like UFC fighters. The first UFC Gym will open in October in Concord, CA. Rowley plans to open five to seven others by the end of the calendar year, and long term, he plans to grow even further.

“We're very confident that it's going to really take off,” Rowley says.

John Hackleman, World Kickboxing Association's North American Champion, Pacific Heavy Weight, has been offering mixed martial arts training since 1985 at The Pit, his Arroyo Grand, CA, club.

“It's always been about two things: martial arts and fitness,” he says. By focusing on Hawaiian kempo, a discipline that combines kickboxing, boxing, judo, kempo, jiu-jitsu and wrestling, Hackleman has built a fitness system that definitely attracts men — 75 percent of his membership is male.

Still, a mix of men, women and children is important.

“Our program is not male oriented,” Rowley says. “We wanted to create a fun atmosphere for kids and teach cool ways to exercise. We think we have broad appeal.”

Early enrollment for the first UFC gym began last month, and so far, the breakdown of men and women is 50-50, Rowley says. Kids' membership numbers are still unclear.

The Pit has a solid kids program that emphasizes many of the same disciplines as traditional martial arts — focus, teamwork, control, balance, memory, fitness and coordination.

“It's a family gym,” Hackleman says. “But there's also an elite, hardcore team that trains separately.”

These athletes — including Liddell and Antonio Banuelos — compete in UFC and World Extreme Cagefighting events. They also elevate The Pit's image among fans of the sport.

Risk Assessment

When dipping a toe into a bloody sport like mixed martial arts, safety is a big consideration.

“The potential for injury is high — much more so than anything we offer,” says Equinox's Espel. “I could see doing the training one-on-one. In a group setting, it would be much more risky.”

Santomauro says, “Mixed martial arts is more along the lines of boxing. Most fights end up on the ground.”

To combat this concern, Hackleman requires his members to sign ironclad liability waivers.

“We have a very, very, very extensive waiver,” he says. “But most of my students don't do full contact. Most people don't spar full contact — they grapple."


This fits with Santomauro's impression of the mainstream appeal of mixed martial arts.

“I can see training like a fighter, but to actually allow fighting? I don't see that,” he says.

In fact, the UFC Gym is not designed for fighting — just training.

“This is not a fighting gym,” Rowley says. “It's a gym for fans. We want to be able to take our wives and children to these gyms and have them feel safe.”

Part of that process is having expert trainers on staff.

“You really have to be selective of who you want to teach group programs,” Espel says. “Members want authenticity. You have to go out of the norm of instructors.”

Rowley says that no certification or licensing standards currently exist for mixed martial arts trainers or gyms. For that reason, UFC Gym is developing an international certification for trainers that it eventually may offer to other organizations.

“We're writing this from scratch,” Rowley says. “The goal is to create a safe and controlled training atmosphere.”

The Pit has always offered its own certification program for its trainers. The three-day course, called CrossPIT, is offered at four levels and is based on CrossFit, a fitness program used by police academies, military special operations units and martial artists.

The type of insurance needed by fitness club operators who incorporate mixed martial arts depends on whether the training includes hand-to-hand combat, says IHRSA's Thompson.

“If there is not any hand-to-hand combat, it would be covered by a regular health club insurance policy. If it is hand-to-hand combat, a club would need an additional, specialty insurance policy,” she says.

For fitness facilities in New York City, where storage space is at a premium, offering mixed martial arts training presents other barriers that are difficult to overcome.

“Most [mixed martial arts classes] require the grappling mats,” says Espel. “That's an added expense, and then storing them can be a problem.”

These mats are usually 1.5 inches thick and 40 by 80 inches in size. Gym owners should expect to pay somewhere around $200 for each mat. Other equipment may include pole pads, vacuums and scrubbers (which can run as high as $1,500) and grappling dummies. For the serious training gym, a fighting cage is a must at as much as $15,000 a pop.

What's Next?

As more traditional gyms, such as Equinox, consider adding mixed martial arts programs to their menus, Rowley and Hackleman fully expect the sport to grow — and with it, interest in training. UFC's popularity is fueling the movement, combined with fitness enthusiasts looking for something different.

“While most people looked down their noses at UFC in the 1990s, the organization now has major sponsors,” Rowley says. He's banking on continued interest in the sport — from both casual and die-hard fans.


Hackleman says that even before its popularity exploded, mixed martial arts had a place in the fitness industry. The varied skills required for training and competing is what sets mixed martial arts apart from more traditional training programs.

“It's better to be good at everything than to be great in any one thing,” he says.

Like many fitness trends, building interest will likely be the driver for most clubs.

“At the end of the day, if fitness isn't fun, who needs it?” asks Rowley.

By the numbers

At this time, IHRSA does not track mixed martial arts programs offered in member fitness clubs. However, a 2008 IHRSA survey revealed that many clubs are offering similar sports programming.

  • 39.7 percent offer kickboxing
  • 25.4 percent offer martial arts
  • 20.6 percent offer boxing
  • 17.8 percent offer tai chi programming

Breaking Down Mixed Martial Arts

So from what disciplines does mixed martial arts draw? The UFC lists these:

  • Boxing — Fighting with fists usually with padded leather gloves. Referred to as the “sweet science,” boxers use elaborate foot maneuvers and quick jabs for offense.

  • Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu — In the 1920s, Carlos Gracie opened the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He taught the skills he learned from Japanese judo master Esai Maeda. The skills were later modified to use less strength and to be more effective against larger opponents.

  • Jiu Jutsu — Ancient Japanese martial art that encompasses throwing, joint locks, striking and weapons training.

  • Judo — Sportive Japanese martial art founded in 1882 by Jigoro Kano. Derived from jiu jutsu, judo is now an Olympic sport that emphasizes throws. Striking is not allowed in competition judo.

  • Karate — Name used to identify many Japanese and Okinawan martial arts. While known for powerful, linear techniques, many karate styles also incorporate softer, circular techniques.

  • Kickboxing — Sportive martial art combining boxing punches and martial arts kicks. Many styles with different rules exist, such as muay thai, full contact karate and Asian rules fighting.

  • Kung Fu — Also referred to as gung fu, Chinese boxing and wu shu. The hundreds of kung fu styles often are patterned after the movements of animals. Some well-known styles of kung fu are wing chun, praying mantis, pau kua, tai-chi-ch'uan and shuai chiao.

  • Tae Kwon Do — One of the most practiced martial arts in the world, tae kwon do is a Korean style known for its flashy kicking techniques.

  • Wrestling — Contestants struggle hand-to-hand, attempting to throw or take down their opponent without striking blows. Some of the many styles of wrestling are freestyle, Greco-Roman and catch-as-catch-can.

Adapted from UFC's Web site.

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