Kids in Cages

By Bill Gerdes

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Posted January 9, 2014 in Feature Story
(WEB)coverThe strange trend of children’s MMA in the IE

Pankration was an ancient Greek sport that combined boxing and wrestling into a varied fighting event that was a part of the Olympic Games and taken quite seriously by the Greeks. It was later adopted by the Romans, who, like with many Greek customs, found a way to sleaze it up a little, combining it with barbarian gladiatorial battles and generally making it dirty in their fun-loving Roman way. However, as Christianity swept Rome formally state-sanctioned fun like gladiator battles and wine-soaked orgies were suddenly out of favor. Eventually the sport was banned by the Emperor Theodosius in 393 AD, thus marking the official end of “Party-Guy Rome,” although occasionally the new “Sober-Guy Rome” might be found to pine for the old days with a gleam in his eye.

Pankration today though is a UFC style-hand-to hand-cage fighting for kids (and also adults). It is a bare-knuckled (sometimes) little league for children and their parents-who dream not of making “the bigs” but instead competing in the big league of mixed-martial arts the UFC. And guess what? It’s incredibly popular in the Inland Empire. In a place where every third guy is wearing an “Affliction” t-shirt as he mad-dogs you in line at Starbucks, I suppose that’s not surprising. Clubs like Adrenaline Combat Sports and Fitness in San Bernardino and United States Fight League in Riverside boast youth teams that compete regularly in the sport.

Or did. Until a group of modern-day killjoys like the aforementioned Theodosius started to attempt to regulate the sport in the beginning of 2013. Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla introduced bill AB1186 after she had seen a Pankration video featuring young kids competing in Pankration on YouTube. Concerned about a sport that featured a host of different rules and fighting styles involving children she decided to sponsor 1186. The bill, which was signed by Governor Brown in early October and went into effect on January 1, regulates but does not ban the sport. Age limits may now be set, and a doctor could now be required for all underage bouts. Karate and Judo tournaments for kids are unaffected by 1186, as is adult MMA style combat in the state. Pankration now hovers in a sort of murky-semi-legal status in California, much like marijuana, porn and just about every waking moment of Lindsay Lohan’s average day.

It was this overall lack of regulation and standards that led Assemblywoman Bonilla to introduce AB 1186 in the first place. As she explained to me she wanted the California State Athletic Commission to, “create a uniform standard.” Bonilla also believes that having a standard is in everyone’s interest. Everyone, according to Bonilla, is concerned about the, “physical safety of the children.” She stressed that even the UFC was supporting the new law. Bonilla came off as far less anti-Pankration than I had expected her to be, although when I asked her if she would have chosen to have her daughters in Pankration matches and sports she simply said, “We wouldn’t have picked that sport.” Ah, but many do. I had to wonder why. Is it simply due to the innumerable televised UFC (and their competitors like Bellator MMA) matches?

Still unclear on just what a Pankration match looked like, I went to YouTube to check out videos of children fighting. Not only would this not have been possible in 1993, but I’m pretty sure I could have gone to prison for it. Just another example of technology making the world a better and slightly creepier place. The first video I watch is called “Pankration Kids-5.” The two eight- or nine-year-olds wrestle on a traditional mat—it’s basically wrestling. The only really disturbing aspect is that one competitor seems to outweigh the other by 15 pounds. Amazingly, he seems to be getting the better of the exchange as he flips the smaller and seemingly younger boy around the mat, eventually getting him around the neck and locking him up with his legs until the referee finally breaks what is increasingly looking like a choke hold. Next up is a clip from the 2011 Pankration championships in Vegas. Here the kids (again seemingly pre-pubescent) wear pads but they also throw punches and land kicks. They have coaches that yell instructions to them as they fight. This looks more like UFC for tots, and as they repeatedly kick each other in the shins my bones ache. The production gives off a little-league-parents-from-Hell vibe.

And that’s before I watched “Pankration Kids 4,” a match that takes place on what looks to be some municipal beach on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Again in this one, no pads, no striking, but the kids are literally fighting on the sand, while a typical beach tableau unfolds before them. There is little context for the match. Why are they fighting in sand? I feel an unlimited well of unpleasant adjectives spring to mind as I watch. Am I sickened? A tad. Creeped out? Oh yes. Curious about just what is going on? You betcha. In short, my reaction to “Pankration 4” is roughly analogous to most people’s feelings when they run across a fetish porn video. This is probably not a good thing for an up-and-coming sport for children. On a side note, referees in the Pankration videos I watch give off the same sort of depressed hapless look of pro-wrestling refs during the 1980s; they even tend to look the same. I kept waiting for the Iron Sheik to smash one of them with a chair. It’s worth noting that everyone I talk to involving Pankration insist the referees are extremely well trained and qualified. No one could offer an opinion on the profundity of non-ironic mustaches being sported.

By the time I got off YouTube I was convinced that Pankration is just plain wrong, but I wanted to give the sport another chance. In many of the videos and photos I had seen online Adrenaline Combat in San Bernardino seemed to be a Mecca of sorts for Pankration in the Inland Empire. I decided to check it out.

The first thing you notice about Adrenaline Combat is the size of the place; it’s in a cavernous warehouse and there are a number of different sections. The second thing you notice is the cage. Painted black and fairly small it still manages to dominate the entire gym, perhaps due to its talisman qualities. It seems to almost beckon people to step inside. Many of the fighting sports at the gym take place in the cage. It’s where the kids at Adrenaline put it on the line; in more or less the same cage they’ve watched their heroes on television fight on the various UFC shows.

Soon after I arrive I meet Chris Manzo, the manager and coach of the kid’s Pankration team at Adrenaline. Manzo has almost a ’50s style crew cut and tattoos; he comes off as extremely helpful and friendly throughout the night. I occasionally remind myself that he could kill me with his bare hands. Manzo explains to me that the Pankration they sanction at Adrenaline is under the rules of the United States Fight League, which he explains, “has the most rules.” Manzo also mentions that Pankration will now operate under USFL Pankration rules in all of California. Manzo even believes that AB 1186 is a net positive, saying, “somebody was going to get hurt,” under the old system, which was the sort of hodgepodge of rules and styles one can find on YouTube.

The kids start off their training by running short winds sprints on the cement floor that adjoins the mats. They all seem to be having a great time. One of them, Rueben, 14, has huge plugs, and stands out throughout the hour I watch as one of the most athletic of the bunch. The youngest runner is Chris’s own son, who is seven. There are two girls in the group of 20. A majority of the kids are Hispanic. After sprints they head to the mats to practice holds.

Manzo goes out of their way to stress to me how safe the sport is and will continue to be under the new rules. Any moves that torque the body are outlawed, as are blows to the neck and head. He also mentions that unlike in MMA there are, “No awards for brutality.” Basically, the sort is judged on a point system like wrestling-there is no subjective judging. As he tells me this, my feelings about Pankration begin to change, as feelings often do when you actually meet the people involved. So far the most dangerous thing I have seen is when one of the younger kids runs sprints in slip-on shoes, which fell off during every sprint I saw him do.

The kids now begin to go inside the cage to spar. I’m curious why the necessity to fight and practice in a cage. The aesthetics of it are awful, and surely don’t do the sport any favors. Kids fighting in cages just looks barbaric. Why then bother? “They like to fight in the cage,” Manzo replies. And just as likely the gym down the street has a cage so you better have one too or else customers might go somewhere else I imagine. There’s a definite marketing to the gym business these days and pity the old school gym that doesn’t have an MMA component to it; kids in cages is only one aspect of that, but perhaps the least appealing one.

I watched the kids spar in the cage for roughly 20 minutes. The most immediate aspect I noted was how good a coach Manzo is. He encourages the kids, is never mean or cruel, and actively interferes several times to make things safer. And Manzo often steps in to tell kids to get their kicks and punches down. Yet a few concerns emerge. Girls spar with boys, which is fine I suppose, but on the night I’m watching the two girls in the cage seem to be getting the worst of it. I also witness a few jarring slams to the mat that leave the victims momentarily stunned. By the time the kids are done though none really look the worse for wear.

Armando and Evelyn Espinoza have a son Damian who is sparring in the cage and has been training at Adrenaline for four years. They originally tried out soccer as a sport for Damian but he showed no interest. As for Pankration? “He loves it,” Armando tells me. I then ask about injuries. Do they worry about Damian getting hurt? “It’s always in the back of your mind,” says Armando. “But you know they’ll be alright,” adds Evelyn. And indeed on this night all of the kids at Adrenaline not only seem fine but to be doing what they love.

Chris Manzo says he’s never seen an injury at a USFL-sponsored event. But does that mean they’re not possible?  John Heydt, Senior Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs at UCR’s School of Medicine told me that while, “There are risks in any sport,” Pankration was “probably at least as dangerous as boxing for a maturing brain.” He also mentioned that there is a risk of concussions, lacerated spleens, and growth plate injuries with any contact sport. He also mentioned that, “A child getting matched outside his skill set,” in a Pankration match is a very real concern. At Adrenaline Coach Manzo stressed vehemently that matches like that did not take place under USFL guidelines. But the possibility of preventing such possible matchups surely plays a part in the new legislation.

Heydt stressed the possible emotional damage to a child from being beaten up in a sport like Pankration as well. It is, “Not very good for their self-esteem or emotional well-being,” he told me. Skateboarding is also dangerous, but few kids feel shame for messing up an Ollie. The shame of losing in such a physical sport, one-on-one for the entire world to see may be more than the average eight-year-old should be exposed to. Ultimately how one feels about Pankration becomes an emotional argument. For me, I can’t help feel for the kid who is losing his or her match, getting their butt kicked, crying in the corner of the ring.

At what point did we decide that kids needed to be such bad-asses? Is it smart to train your nine-year-old to a level that he can knockout the security guard at the mall? And do sports like Pankration lower us just a bit more as a society? Having kids fight in cages feels a tad bit too Roman for my taste. While a sport like motor cross might be more dangerous, and some kicks in other martial arts more vicious, Pankration just feels like a bad idea. Regulate it? Sure. Let 1st graders compete? Maybe not. Let’s also hope for a day when the idea of kicking the shit out of someone becomes just a little less cool, a little less televised, a little less everywhere.

Kids in cages? Sure. It’s inevitable, but I won’t be watching.


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