Meet the NEW Boxing
Mixed Martial Arts in the Merrimack Valley
( Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine. ) John Benoit remembers the first time he stepped inside the cage for a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fight. For the former high school wrestler who’d whipped opponents in a few bar fights and sparring matches, it was equal parts fear and adrenaline.
“I was scared to death,” he says. “When they locked the door on the cage, it was so heightened. They latched it closed, and it felt like I wouldn’t go over the cage [wall] even if a tiger was in there. It was surreal.”
Mixed martial arts, in which fighters use boxing, wrestling and martial arts skills to knock out, subdue or outpoint an opponent, is growing by leaps and bounds.. It’s easy to see why — the sport features a heart-pumping combination of athleticism, strategy, technique and controlled violence, all wrapped in a chain-link cage.
Nationally, pay-per-view events for the professional Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) circuit lure millions of viewers, while locally, professional management outfits such as the Global Fight League and Combat Zone sell thousands of tickets to their events.
When Benoit first stepped into the cage in 2007 at the Wonderland Ballroom in Revere, there were a few hundred people in attendance. His final fight in April 2011 was the main event of a Global Fight League card at the Tsongas Center at UMass Lowell that drew more than 6,000 fans.
“It’s so exciting,” says David George, a Methuen native and owner of Combat Zone, which sells out 1,200 seats for MMA events at Rockingham Park in Salem, N.H. four times a year. “I don’t care who you are; when you see two human beings in a cage … whoa.”
The rise of MMA isn’t just about caged violence. For prospective fighters, there is also a sense of accessibility. Though boxers often come from tough, urban areas, MMA fighters have more varied backgrounds. Calvin Kattar, the current golden boy of the local MMA scene, is from Methuen. He and Benoit both wrestled for legendary coach Bill James at Methuen High School.
“In MMA, anybody can do it,” says Scott Millette of Amesbury, owner of the Global Fight League, which stages events around New England. “It’s like basketball. Sure you can train at better gyms and spend more money. But it started off with kids on the street that were tough and needed to deal with anger issues who became MMA fighters.”
Jose Madera, who has been to jail three times, started the IntenZe MMA Academy & 978 Boxing gym in Lawrence for that reason. “Guns Down – Knuckle Up!,” is the gym’s motto. When it opened two years ago, he says his members would walk past drug dealers and gang members. Now the dealers and gang members are gone.
There are three other boxing gyms in Lawrence, but Madera’s is the only MMA gym. Even though he trains several professional boxers, Madera thinks the “sweet science” of boxing is being overtaken because of the varied talents and strengths a fighter can bring to the cage.
“MMA is taking over boxing,” Madera says. “With MMA, if a fighter didn’t have the best hands, they might have the best ground game and can still make it.” Most members of IntenZe, including several women, will never enter the cage for a match. Instead, they come a few times a week for the complete workout that MMA training provides via the punches, lunges, kicks and cardio work.
Competitive MMA fighters train in several disciplines, including boxing, Brazilian jujitsu, wrestling and muay Thai, a combat sport that utilizes boxing and clinching techniques.
As in boxing, an MMA fighter can win by knockout or judges’ decision. Unlike boxing, a fighter can also win by forcing his opponent to “tap out,” or surrender, by wrenching a limb or using a choke hold.
Benoit submitted only twice in his 14-match career. Once was the result of a “guillotine choke,” in which an opponent uses his arm like a vice on the sides of an opponent’s neck, cutting the blood flow to his brain. “Darkness started setting in,” Benoit says.
More typically, Benoit inflicted his own punishment. He said he never went in trying to hurt someone, but it was inevitable. “I kicked a kid and broke his leg. I broke noses,” says Benoit, who retired with an 11-3 record. “I knocked a tooth right out of a kid’s head.”
Kattar, currently 12-2, found the sport in 2007. He says he lost as a high school wrestler when an opponent had more technical ability. “I thought, if I could just punch this kid, I could win.”
Kattar’s first seven wins came by first-round knockout or submission. He remembers getting thrown head over heels in his first fight, but two minutes in, he knocked out his opponent with an uppercut. Ending fights early earned him the nickname “The Boston Finisher.”
Inflicting damage isn’t the only thing that separates good fighters from great ones, Kattar says. How much a fighter can take is also important. “You have to be able to take a punch, and there’s only one way to find out,” he says.
Toughness permeates the sport. George, who fought only three times before calling it quits, has overcome cancer three times, and once hiked Mount Washington shortly after a chemo treatment. Before his most recent surgery, he was a candidate to be a contestant on TV’s “Survivor” show.
“You can think you’re the toughest guy in the world, but there’s always a guy who is tougher,” George says.
Combat Zone’s next event is Sept. 7 at Rockingham Park, and George is hoping to get Kattar, the region’s biggest draw, into the main event of the 17-fight card.
At the Global Fight League, where the motto is “Blood, Sweat and Cheers,” Millette thinks he has plenty of room to grow. If he can find an investor, he says he has a business plan that could boost the amateur ranks of MMA across the country.
Fighters and fight fans, it seems, can’t get enough. Kattar compares it to an addiction. “It’s the adrenaline rush,” he says. “There’s nothing like it.”
For more information on MMA events in the Merrimack Valley visit Mass-MMA.com