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Fight night

In March 2007, Randy Couture fought Tim Sylvia for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) heavyweight title. At 43 years old, Couture was about twice the age of the average UFC fighter and definitely the underdog. Sylvia stood seven inches taller than Couture and outweighed him by 40 pounds. Over the course of the 25-minute fight, however, fans chanted “Randy” as the middle-aged man repeatedly threw the 6-foot-8-inch Sylvia to the mat and mercilessly beat his face. After winning the title, Couture smirked and said, “not bad for an old man.”

Couture’s face is grizzled with scars from a lifetime of fighting, but he has the body of a 20-year-old weightlifter. Sylvia is built like a towering monster, and watching Couture dominate him tirelessly for nearly 30 minutes was unbelievable. I wanted to learn more about the discipline that allowed this man to perform such superhuman feats.

The term mixed martial arts (MMA) has been coined and recently popularized by organizations like the UFC. Basically, it’s an all-out, no-holds-barred brawl that incorporates martial arts styles from around the globe.

One of the major forms used in MMA is jiujitsu. The style mainly consists of joint holds and submissions. When you see two UFC fighters on the ground, pawing at each other’s arms like a violent, incomprehensible chess match, that’s jiujitsu.

The term jiujitsu translates literally to mean “the art of gentleness.” Participants won’t find it to be that, exactly. Bending an opponent’s elbow backward over your waist conjures up a lot of words – but not gentle. And, if your opponent refuses to submit, you can always tear off his forearm and beat him with it.

The rest of the “mix” in MMA is composed of elements of muay thai, taekwondo, karate and countless others. Reading about all the things I was getting ready to learn, it started to sound very precise and academic. In practice, however, I found things are a little bit different.

For the practice, I went to Tiger Schulmann’s Mixed Martial Arts. On my first day, I stepped onto the white mat and noticed that it was slightly padded to reduce the risk of injury from falling – or being thrown to the floor. The core class started with an intense calisthenic warm-up followed by some basic techniques.

One of the advanced students demonstrated a round kick. He hit the pad with a crack, like a Major League batter hitting a home run. When I tried it, it sounded more like a badminton player slapping a shuttlecock. In addition to the virtue of humility, new students were learning that it’s difficult to hurl your leg at a shoulder-height target without falling down.

For beginners, the idea is to learn a few basic punches and kicks, and then repeat them about ten thousand times until proper form becomes an instinct, a muscle memory.

The kicking and punching were the hardest part of the workout. The intensity was contagious. The intrinsic violence of the workout heightened everyone’s aggression and had the students pushing themselves harder. Sensei Cifuentes ran up and down the mat, giving pointers and shouting encouragement. Beginners can expect to have sore muscles in places they didn’t know they had muscles.

The class closed with practicing close-quarters moves – like what to do if someone grabs you from behind or tries to choke you.

After the core class, it was time for submission and grappling. That’s when things started to get complicated. UFC commentators often liken a fight to a chess match, and it’s an apt analogy. Take a few basic moves, then put them in an unpredictable sequence with multiple variations, and you get a contest a super-computer couldn’t predict.

Beginners are sure to finish the class with a few fresh bruises and knowledge of a few interesting ways to choke someone. They’ll also learn that there are more ways to choke someone than you could ever imagine. One of most impressive was the triangle choke, which involves intricately wrapping your legs around your opponent’s neck. Hold it for about 10 seconds and your opponent will go to sleep. Hold it for about a minute, and he will die.

Even during the intense workout, teacher and student alike would find occasions to smile and laugh. When Sensei Richard Cifuentes was getting ready to demonstrate a chokehold on one of the more advanced students, he grinned and told the brown belt to “take a deep breath.”

My first day was about a month ago, and I’ve been attending classes six times a week ever since. There’s an awful lot to learn, but my skills are improving – albeit slowly. It’s been an honor and a privilege to take part in the millennia-old tradition that is martial arts.