FALL RIVER - One fighter kicked and threw a punch. The other grabbed his opponent behind the neck. Tyler Benoit and Justin Pereira were locked up now, a tangle of arms and legs, spinning around and finally falling to the mat with a thud, as the crowd watched, rapt.
"Push away, Tyler!" Derek Benoit shouted at his son. "Push away!"
Tyler is 7 years old, his opponent was 8. And their showdown one night last week at Gillett's Mixed Martial Arts gym in Fall River was just practice, just two children sparring, in padded headgear, in front of their instructors - no strikes to the head allowed.
But plenty of Massachusetts youths are dreaming of becoming real mixed martial arts fighters, where the punches are harder and the fights very real. And in Massachusetts, unlike most other states, including Louisiana and Mississippi, there are no laws or regulations prohibiting minors from entering the fray.
In fact, since July 2005, state officials haven't regulated mixed martial arts at all, allowing a minor to compete in an amateur fight on at least one occasion and letting one of the nation's fastest growing sports to proliferate, unchecked, in rings and sometimes cages across the Commonwealth.
Fights - which almost always feature adults only - have thrilled crowds from Revere to Plymouth, Worcester to Wilmington, over the last year. Where there were once just a few fights a year in the state, there are now a few fights a month, including four this month in Massachusetts alone. Thousands of fans pack auditoriums, clubs, and even hotel ballrooms for fight nights billed as "Take No Prison ers" or "Reality Fighting - Nightmare." And with no governmental agency watching over them, promoters can essentially create their own rules, choosing to allow minors to fight, if they wish, as one promoter did last year when a 16-year-old Somerville student fought in Brockton before a crowd of about 800 people.
It's not like it's hard to find a child wanting to fight. As mixed martial arts has become more popular with adults in Massachusetts - thanks in part to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a national organization and the best-known fight league of them all - children, sometimes as young as 4, have started training in the sport. A growing number of gyms are offering children's mixed martial arts classes, where they learn how to kick, punch, and grapple - a form of wrestling with submission techniques, like choke holds.
These holds are a big part of the sport, where the goal is to make opponents surrender by tapping out - or slapping their hand on the mat - thus ending the fight. Under the generally agreed-upon rules, two fighters draw on a mix of skills, including boxing, kickboxing, jiu-jitsu, and wrestling, to beat the other fighter. Cheap shots are not allowed. But what constitutes a cheap shot may lie in the eye of the beholder as choke holds are fair game. Instructors, like Tim Gillett, say the sport has attracted the interest of both children and their parents.
"I have parents who kind of scare me sometimes," said Gillett last week at his Fall River gym. "They're in there, wrestling on the mats, helping kids out. Moms and dads getting on the mats working on things: triangle chokes, arm bars, knee bars, guillotine chokes. Moms and dads letting their kids choke them just for practice reasons. The days of Dad throwing a ball with little Billy are over. Now, Dad's on the mat letting Billy put him in an arm bar or a choke hold until he taps."
For years, the state boxing commission oversaw the sport. But in July 2005, lawyers at the state Department of Public Safety determined that the commission had no legal authority to do so, said DPS spokesman Terrel Harris. All mixed martial arts, or MMA, events have been unregulated since then. But last week, noting the growing popularity of the sport, top officials at the state Department of Public Safety and Executive Office of Public Safety met to discuss the need for regulations.
Harris could not say, however, when regulations might be drafted, much less enacted. The process, he said, would require new legislation giving DPS legal authority to regulate mixed martial arts. And in the meantime, the fights continue.
Local promoters say they are doing right by their fighters, keeping doctors at ringside and ambulances at the ready, and requiring pre-fight physicals and blood tests, just as they would, for example, if regulated in another state. But Dana White, president of the Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship, said he wouldn't bring his organization to a state without oversight. The fact is, White said, no single authority in Massachusetts has any idea what promoters are doing, or not doing, or if they'll be ready when a fighter gets injured or worse.
"It's incredibly dangerous," said White. "It's insane is what it is. It's absolutely insane that fighting can happen without being regulated. I actually can't believe it's still happening in this country."
Mixed Martial Arts fighting - once dismissed as a violent sideshow - has recently gone mainstream. Spike TV airs fights staged by the Ultimate Fighting Championship and next month CBS will become the first to broadcast a live, prime-time MMA show on network television. With the television coverage has come more interest. And with more interest, more gyms looking to teach mixed martial arts skills. At one school, Nexus Martial Arts in Wareham, co-owner Stephen Whittier has signed up some 40 youths since opening about a year ago.
"You're seeing more and more schools, more and more clubs," said Whittier. "I think definitely within the last few years there's been a ripple effect. Mixed martial arts has taken off. Every month, there's an event in Massachusetts."
As a result of the increased interest, the volume of MMA-related injuries is also growing, said Dr. Michael O'Brien, an attending physician in the sports medicine division at Children's Hospital Boston, where doctors treat injuries for both kids and adults. To date, O'Brien said, it has been mostly adults reporting injuries, such as finger fractures, concussions and shoulder dislocations.
But the potential for injury is there for children too, he said. And considering the nature of the sport, and the lack of MMA injury data, O'Brien would not recommend that children get involved.
"The culture is to accept pain, rather than report it," he said. "The culture is not to quit, not to tap out."
Mixed martial arts enthusiasts say skeptics, like O'Brien, don't understand the sport. In Massachusetts, children as young as 8 can box wearing headgear. Children as young as 5 can play football. And both sports, MMA trainers argue, are far more dangerous than mixed martial arts, given the fact that most MMA gyms don't allow kids to strike each other in the head.
Parents and kids, meanwhile, see other benefits. Since her two boys - Jordan, 13, and Tyler, 7 - began going to Gillett's gym in Fall River about two years ago, Tina Benoit said they're in better shape and more self-disciplined. Still, last week, when Jordan squared off in a sparring match with 15-year-old Warren Francis Jr., Benoit could hardly watch, turning away and grimacing as the two boys tangled on the mat.
"I don't think it's violent," said Benoit. But she worries about neck injuries. And other parents, like Lee Miranda, have also had concerns. But Miranda, whose two children attend Whittier's gym in Wareham, got over her fears, she said, partially she believes the training has helped her kids become stronger and partially because she had to. Her daughter, Courtney, 16, loves the sport.
"You can get hurt, yes. I've gotten hurt a couple of times," Courtney said, listing an injured shoulder and some pulled neck muscles among her injuries. "But you can get hurt in anything. You can't be scared of that."
Scott Nichols agrees. In the weeks before his first amateur fight last April against 18-year-old John Morrissey, Nichols, then 16, worked hard in the gym. And ultimately, both his trainer and his father thought he was ready to fight in a real mixed martial arts event, despite his age.
"I was a little apprehensive," his father Mike Nichols said. "But I knew he could handle himself."
The night of the fight, at an event called "Untamed XII," put on by Full Force Productions in Brockton, Nichols, now 17, and his opponent both had to wear shin pads. They couldn't use knees or elbows and they had to wear 8-ounce gloves - gloves twice as big as the ones mixed martial arts fighters typically wear.
Still, the two fighters did some damage. The day after the fight, Morrissey said, he had a "big, fat black eye" and he credited Nichols for "jacking me up pretty good." In the end, though, Morrissey won the fight by unanimous decision and Nichols retreated to the bathroom to throw up.
"I puked about 12 times after the fight," said Nichols. "I was gassed."
But the loss didn't sting for long. Nichols is still training today, as are other minors. Mike Littlefield, a Full Force co-owner, expects to enter another teenage fighter in an event in Plymouth next month. Nichols himself hopes to have a couple fights in the weeks ahead. And when he graduates from Somerville High School this spring, he already knows what he wants to do.
He wants to be a fighter.
Keith O'Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.