By Mike Bloom
“Squeeze until he taps!” That’s what Fernando was telling an MMA student as he pinned me to the ground, awaiting my trembling hand to motion for the count. I was allowed to do the same, and as I hovered over this 120 lb. kid’s body I hooked my right arm firmly around this throat as he lay facedown.
I looked at Fernando, expecting him to say, “Ok, good job, reset your positions.” Instead he told me to grasp my bicep with the opposite arm and clench until the kid tapped himself.
Let’s just say this wasn’t my regular Tuesday night routine.
I showed up to Premier Martial Arts in Bedford Hills in jeans and Nikes. The regulars showed up with mouthpieces, medical tape, and wounds. I figured from the start that I was mixed in with the wrong crowd.
I was scheduled to participate in two martial art classes: one mixed martial art based and one Jiu-Jitsu. Fernando, a younger staff member at Premier told me to change in the back. He expected me to have some type of fighting gear, yet I was unprepared.
He scrounged in the back closet until he found a pair of old karate pants which had to be at least 15 years old, but they sufficed. He also equipped me with a pair of sparring gloves and a plastic jump rope.
At this point, I realized exactly what I got myself into.
When I got all of my gear together I entered the room where the classes were held. The room fit about 30 people comfortably; there were about 18 of us total in the class.
The class consisted of all walks of life. It included me, several high school students, a college professor, two amateur fighters, a college lacrosse player, some staff members, and two Bedford Hills police officers. I may not have fit in, but I wasn’t an outcast.
The padded mat beneath me was gray with a series of mirrors parallel to the back wall. There were punching bags along the far left wall and a changing room adjacent to that. Above the mirrors read this in sequential order:
These are all components of martial arts that are taken very seriously.
Mixed martial arts is a full contact sport that is a true hybrid of striking and grappling that became mainstream in the early ’90s. Most fighters have a main discipline such as judo, boxing, wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Sambo, Muay Thai or karate, but at some point most try to learn some techniques from all disciplines.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship has emerged as the elite organization in the sport, as its pay-per-view totals are beginning to overtake boxing and the World Wrestling Federation. It is a cash machine for owner Dana White, and an addiction to those with aspirations, or fantasies, of becoming a modern day gladiator.
Thousands fight in local circuits with the hopes of being mentioned with the likes of Dan “The Best” Severn or the “Iceman” Chuck Liddell. Others hope to wrestle the championships away from future hall-of-famers like Georges St. Pierre and Anderson “the Spider” Silva. As for me, I was just trying to survive.
We started the lesson with a light jump rope workout. I was comfortable with it because I had used jump ropes a lot in my baseball workouts. We moved to a light jog around the room that progressively intensified. A delicate sweat amounted on my head, but nothing major. I was still hanging in with these guys.
The stretching threw me off-guard the most. For some reason the instructors and students had this uncanny ability to stretch their bodies in ways I never imagined. In hindsight, the stretching helped us not only get our bodies loose, but aided in the prevention of any injury. I learned that posture is critical in many aspects of martial arts, starting with one’s preparation prior to physical combat.
I chuckled when Master Brandon Durham, a fifth degree black belt, announced to the class during the stretching, “If this hurts, you got some homework to do. Stretch at home if you have to.”
Needless to say, I had some homework to do.
I respected Durham more and more as the class moved forward. He was real. He was honest with himself and his students. And he had a special ability to teach and communicate what he loves most.
“I love having a group of peers with the same passion as I do,” commented Durham. “You gotta pay your dues in this sport, and the end result is great camaraderie within the group.”
Durham has been teaching MMA for roughly 21 years. He began Tae Kwon Doe at the age of five. He’s traveled all across the world, from Israel to Spain, Mexico, and even Japan. His accomplishments stretch from witnessing Royce Gracie win the tournament at the inaugural UFC pay-per-view in 1993 to becoming a versatile teacher of the martial arts.
Durham was interested in my individual progress as well. Throughout the night he periodically glanced over to where I was stationed. He gave me tips and allowed me to go at my own pace. Fernando was a great help as well.
After the stretching we did some MMA fight glove and punch mitt work. My partner and I alternated roles as one would strike as the other absorbed the hits. Right jab, left hook, right jab again was the first routine. It was simple, but took me some time to get the correct form down.
About half of the first class dealt with the gloves and mitts. We did various combinations, using our arms, legs, and abdomens. I even learned how to bob and weave, a tool that is crucial to possess in any serious MMA fighter’s arsenal. After every set we would take a breather as Durham and another experienced staff members demonstrated the next routine.
Sometimes Durham would sit us all down and lecture about his life experiences in fights, what he learned, what was effective, and the importance of learning how to win and lose. He didn’t hold anything back either.
“The harsh reality about this sport is that you are going to sustain some type of injury along the way,” said Durham. “I’ve had ribs broken, shoulders pop; all kinds of things. It’s just how it works.”
Although martial arts can be grueling and take great physical endurance to master, its benefits are invaluable. Both Durham and Fernando mentioned that MMA is a great cardio workout, along with being a great confidence booster and stress reliever.
“This is a great vehicle for one to get in pristine shape. There are many disciplines involved with martial arts,” Durham elaborated. “It is also a great functional exercise that develops a security within yourself that is simply priceless.”
Priceless were the uncomfortable positions in Jiu-Jitsu I sustained in the second session. Contrasting from other disciplines in MMA, Jiu-Jitsu really involves no equipment, primarily just two individuals on the ground. I learned that this art form is very intimate, in the sense that you are very close physically with your opponent. You also must maintain and develop great balance within yourself to excel in the art form.
“Trust the people who you are learning with,” commented Durham. “You must also learn to respect the art form for what it is.”
And respect is everything in martial arts.
Before I left for the night, the last ten minutes of class was an optional grappling session for students to test what they’ve learned in that particular session. This was all live. I got to see who the real-deal was and who the scrappy ones were. After an intense ten minutes, after the sweat accumulated on their bodies, the students shook hands with one another and walked side by side into the locker room like brothers.
“We’re all friends here,” said Durham proudly. “The biggest fallacy about this sport is that it’s too brutal, or it’s a bunch of meat heads and thugs scrapping it out.”
I left Premier Martial Arts after two hours of probably the best workout I had ever gotten. I was exhausted, but had enough energy to bow before I left the room. That was all they asked for.
Premier Martial Arts has been training men and women since 1995. Stop by at 717A Bedford Road in Bedford Hills or call (914) 244-8888. The Impact would like to thank PMA for their courtesy and graciousness during the writing of this article.