Brian Hamilton: Is MMA really child’s play?
Why would a parent allow their 8-year-old son to step into the octagon of a mixed martial arts match?
Geno DePello knew the question was coming. It’s one he often expects, considering his boy, Caleb, has been fighting since he was five years old.
Geno gets it. He knows the images that must flash in the minds of folks first hearing about Caleb’s competition. But when it comes to the bloodsport so often seen on TV, what you see isn’t necessarily what you get ” especially at the youth level.
That’s not to say, however, that these kids are playing patty cake out there, either.
“There are definitely elements of danger to it,” DePello said, “as is the case with any kind of sport, whether it’s baseball, boxing or MMA.”
True enough. Injuries of all sorts pop up in all sports. But the difference with mixed martial arts or boxing, is the intent.
If you get plunked by a 90-mile-per-hour pitch, you did so while trying to hit a baseball.
If you get KO’d in the middle of a ring, you did so while trying to beat your opponent into a bloody pulp ” or, of course, into submission.
But, DePello said, as brutal as MMA might appear to be, it’s actually not as dangerous as boxing, which he did a bit of while attending Nevada Union High School in the ’80s.
“Ninety percent of the targeting in boxing is at the head,” Geno said. “You’re taking between 150 to 300 punches in the head in a 12-round fight.
“In MMA, it’s much less. Most matches end with submission holds on the ground, where there might not being any punches to the head at all. But, typically, there are five to 12 punches thrown or landed on the head in an entire three-round match.”
And, in terms of youth competition, safety gear is often required, which is the case with today’s pankration and kickboxing tournament at Perry’s Athletic Training Center in Grass Valley.
Owner Jay Perry, who has studied, fought and taught mixed martial arts for many years, said allowing kids to compete in full contact does the sport more harm than good.
“USA Boxing doesn’t allow kids to fight until they’re 9 years old,” he said. “With pankration, I think no less than 12 years old.
“Until they’re that old, with our tournaments, it’s full gear required. Mouthpiece, cup, headgear ” some even with a cage or a mask ” gloves and pads.”
Perry said his youth tournaments award points for strikes successfully landed on the torso, takedowns to the mat or for the amount of time you control your opponent.
“How early kids should start also has a lot to do with their upbringing, their mentality and background,” Perry said. “You know, whether they can handle it.
“I don’t teach kids violence. They have to show discipline and respect. If they’re abusing what we teach them, then we don’t want them here because they can’t control themselves.”
DePello doesn’t disagree.
“I don’t think it’s teaching him to be violent, any more than anything else he could be doing,” DePello said. “I think the character of the individual is the most important aspect, whether you’re teaching a kid boxing or how to drive a car.
“If he has poor character, he could take about anything the wrong direction, if you think about it.”
The first time I saw a mixed martial arts fight, I couldn’t help but have the word “gladiator” come to mind over and over again. It seemed so over the top that I wondered how it could be sanctioned as a sport.
Yet as DePello pointed out, boxing ” which is an Olympic sport ” can be downright brutal, as well. And it was just a couple of weeks ago that I received a letter chastising The Union for covering a bull-riding event, which the offended reader described as inhumane treatment of the bulls being ridden. And no doubt there’s quite a bit of danger for the folks inside that rodeo ring, as well.
Different strokes for different folks.
But the distinction for many, in terms of young MMA fighters, is that these are kids in the ring.
And DePello, who is now completely comfortable with his own child competing, said he is well aware of that.
“Does (Caleb) have ambitions of being a professional fighter? He does right now,” DePello said. “But at seven or eight years old, those ambitions can come and go. As far as with his mom and dad? We just have to say let’s take everything day by day and year by year.
“Next week he might say ‘I want to play baseball.’ Who knows?”
Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. His column is published Saturdays. Contact him via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 477-4240.
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