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Mixing it up

Public high school may be first to host martial arts 'stew'

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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WINCHESTER - The scuffed red mats are a mishmash of arms, legs, elbows, and flushed, sweaty, grimacing faces.

By the wall, one fighter cinches his opponent's middle, knees tight like glue. A controlled flip, and his adversary somersaults, then wriggles and contorts, trying to ease free.

Another deliberate jerk; a chest straddle; then finally the fatal move: Legs vice tight around his challenger's neck, known as a "triangle choke."

"You try to think about the possibilities, instead of panicking or letting your emotions get a hold of you," said 18-year-old Michael Weiner, the unfortunate recipient of the maneuver.

As he caught his breath, the red fading from his face, he explained: "It's about thinking straight, not giving up."

Here, in a padded cinderblock loft above the Winchester High School weight room, students are allowed to kick, choke, punch, and knock the knees out from under one another. In fact, the combat is taught and encouraged, in what is believed to be the first public high school in the country to host mixed martial arts, or MMA, a ferociously popular and, at times, controversial full-contact sport.

"It's a quiet suburb; you'd never expect something like this," head instructor Rob Flint said recently, standing barefoot in the balmy practice room in black shorts and a sweat-faded T-shirt.

MMA is essentially a stew of several martial arts forms: It involves stand-up and ground combat, striking and grappling, and heavily incorporates components of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, karate, Greco-Roman wrestling, and judo. Given this kaleidoscope of styles - and the savage-like names of various techniques and strategies, such as "sprawl and brawl" and "ground and pound" - it's gotten a bit of a mad dog reputation.

Twelve states - California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia - still haven't legalized the no-holds-barred sport on either the amateur or the professional level, according to the International Kickboxing Federation. It almost experienced its own tap-out in the 1990s when Senator John McCain branded it "human cockfighting" and demanded that it be banned.

Despite the controversy - or perhaps because of it - MMA has erupted in the past few years, largely popularized by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which airs bouts on SpikeTV. Like boxing, UFC fighters are separated into weight classes; matches, which can sometimes get bloody, go three to five rounds and are held in "the octagon," a caged ring. The melees end either by knock-out, tap-out (submission), are stopped by a referee, or go to a judges' decision.

To those who've never seen it, it might sound like a violent gladiator spectacle. But devotees say the sport is misunderstood. Instead, they call it an intelligent challenge that stresses discipline, problem solving, and confidence.

"A lot of times when people think of martial arts, they think of brawling," said Winchester High School senior In-Goo Kwak, founder of the MMA club in Winchester. "But it's the exact opposite of that. Control is the main thing."

Still, to prevent injuries, the club is, as Flint describes it, "cautious." Shoes are expressly prohibited, and kicks and strikes are never delivered at full-force. As a testament to this discretion, there have been no serious injuries in the group's two-year history, said Kwak.

A student of martial arts for 10 years - he first padded out on the mat at age 8 for tae kwon do - Kwak admitted to being apprehensive about traditional sports when entering high school. That in mind, he began pursuing the MMA club as a freshman. By the spring of his sophomore year, he'd received approval from school administration; persuading them took a petition of 50 signatures, a detailed proposal, and a formal pitch.

Now, the club has about 15 active members, ages 14 to 18, all boys. Girls have shown up sporadically, Kwak said, but none have yet stuck around long enough to brawl it out with the guys. Practices are held three times a week, and curriculum is often guided by guest instructors who hold records and world titles.

The club, meanwhile, appears to have set a precedent of its own. Although MMA, or variations of it, are practiced intermittently on the college level - including at Boston University - it seems to be unheard of in high school.

Bob Gardner, chief operation officer with the National Federation of State High School Associations - which writes competition rules for most sanctioned high school sports and activities - said he isn't aware of any other MMA programs; his association doesn't write rules for MMA, either, he said. Similarly, Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association spokesman Paul Wetzel said he hasn't come across other groups like this in the state.

It's something Kwak would like to change. Ultimately, he said, the goal would be to compete on a varsity level with other high school teams; problem is, there aren't any. So, he's been meeting with representatives at area schools to talk up the Winchester program and stress that "it is doable."

"It's a sport, just like any other," said the soft-spoken 18-year-old, who plans to study international relations at Tufts University in the fall. "It instills many values."

Marcelo Siqueira, a regular guest coach, said MMA is particularly useful for teenagers, as it stresses calm, deliberate decision making.

"Size no matter, strength no matter, it's technique, like chess," Siqueira, of Somerville's Brazilian Martial Arts Center, said.

Flint attested to this "mind-over-muscle" mindset: At 6 feet and 155 pounds, he said he's able to grapple with guys who outweigh him by 50 pounds.

"It's about functional strength, not how much you can bench press," said the 23-year-old, who is studying psychology and criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. "Anyone can do this, as long as they have the motivation and the discipline to push themselves harder than they ever have before."

Indeed, the group attracts all types - tall, short, scrawny, beefy, timid, outspoken. During a recent afternoon practice in the muggy square room blanketed with red mats at the top of a set of steep cement stairs, they stood barefoot in a circle around Siqueira.

"This is the worst position for him," the Brazilian instructor said as he straddled his opponent, one of the hapless teens. The boy's knees were up, arms splayed out beneath Siqueira like Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man.

"I let him waste his energy first," Siqueira continued. Then, he demonstrated a half-dozen grappling positions, moving in a clockwise motion around his adversary - elbows locked around the neck; knees clenching the middle; legs clamping the shoulders.

"Martial arts - blind people can do it," he told the clustered group. "It's all about feeling."

This tactile, cerebral quality is what hooked Weiner.

Once, he was a voracious mainstream sports player - basketball, baseball, football, soccer, lacrosse. But then he found MMA - and gave all those up.

"It just clicked when I found it," said the muscled teenager, admitting that it took "a lot of begging and pleading" to convince his parents.

"It's a sport like no other," he said. "You need to be able to push yourself, to not accept limits."

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.

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