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THE INTENSITY IN the Laguna Hills High School gymnasium is compressed, stifling. It's hard to describe except to say it feels important. The occasion is the 2012 U.S. Open Youth National Pankration Championships, a fighting tournament that allows boys and girls as young as 5 to come as close to participating in full-contact MMA as they can without anyone alerting the authorities.
The room runs on swagger. The young competitors, many of them with mouthpieces slung over an ear, a large number of them sporting Mohawks or faux hawks or other UFC-inspired hairstyles, wander about avoiding eye contact, trying to look both purposeful and uncaring. They wear T-shirts with messages like come at me, bro! and bred4battle and we bust ours so we can kick yours. Parents roam the perimeter of the mats, the moms weighed down by cameras and iPads and duffel bags, the dads strutting around with their heads on a swivel, as if they might be called upon to pick an opponent for themselves or their kids. A grandpa in a too-tight, too-short Affliction T-shirt holds his grandson's chin and dispenses some grandfatherly advice on the art of the rear naked choke. There are 126 fighters and 126 separate small dramas -- physical, mental, internal, external -- spread across the gym.
In one of the day's first matches, there's an 8- or 9-year-old boy sitting on top of an 8- or 9-year-old girl, pounding his fists into her chest like it's a Led Zeppelin drum solo. People in the stands cheer, while moms and dads around the mat are in various states of hysteria, their faces contorted in anger or joy; it's hard to tell the difference. There are three matches on three mats spread across the basketball court, but most of the attention is trained on this one, where the referee rushes in after the boy reels off half a dozen left-right-left piston shots to the chest, and it's clear by the tears in her eyes that the girl has lost both the incentive and the ability to continue.
The fighters rise to their feet, one far slower than the other, and the referee raises the boy's right hand as the girl uses her free arm to blot the tears she is gamely trying to stifle. She exits the mat and accepts the consolation offered by her parents, who walk her toward a table where a tournament official complaining about her defunct computer attempts to figure out the girl's next opponent.
THE LATE-SEPTEMBER HEAT is strange for this part of the country, almost Southern in its insistence. It's 90 degrees outside. Inside, the air is encumbered by the swirling smells of nervousness and fear and pubescent foot stank. There's an industrial-strength fan at one end of the gym, its impact the equivalent of an eyedropper vs. a forest fire. It's really bad.
On the gym's back mat, a pale, Mohawked 11-year-old wearing a royal blue shirt with crazy rayfield printed on the chest is preparing for his third fight of the day and a spot in the bronze medal match for 80-pound 10- and 11-year-olds. "Crazy" Rayfield is Derek Rayfield from Corona, Calif. In a world of uniformed teams and professional coaches, he is the rare competitor who attends an event without teammates, just a coach and his family. In the bleachers, there are 10 bystanders wearing Crazy Rayfield T-shirts, making them the most obvious and possibly largest rooting contingent -- in a full gym, at $10 per spectator -- for any one participant.
Rayfield is the third of four boys and the only one of Casey and Jayme Rayfield's sons to hear the siren call of MMA. In an oft-repeated tale in martial arts circles, Derek tried team sports, but nothing stuck. His oldest brother, a high school sophomore, is an accomplished hockey goalie, and his second-oldest brother, a freshman, plays basketball. Derek's devotion to martial arts training, as much as five hours a day at the UFC Gym Corona, compelled his parents to homeschool him. Says Jayme, "He was having trouble and getting anxious at school because he couldn't get as many [martial arts] classes as he wanted."
This hot Sunday is Derek's first multidiscipline event. For the past year, he's competed in a few local jujitsu tournaments, winning a "world title" at one, but never full-on MMA. When it became inevitable sometime during the summer that he would enter MMA competitions ("He was doing all this training, and he wanted to do something with it," Jayme says), the Rayfields took him to a tournament to see if he would be scared off. When he wasn't, they enlisted one of his older brothers to go to the gym and, well, hit him. "He'd never been hit before," Casey Rayfield says with a shrug. "I didn't want to pay money for him to get into a competition only to have him get hit once and start crying."
Jayme Rayfield is teacher, agent and promoter, in addition to her day job as a part-time restaurant manager and waitress. She orders the T-shirts, goes online to find tournaments and plans Derek's school lessons around his jujitsu, Muay Thai and grappling classes, many of which he attends with his father. There aren't too many events that offer UFC-in-training-pants level of contact, but Jayme recently turned down a fight in an all-star show because Derek would have been matched against a 13-year-old. "I have four boys -- I understand testosterone -- and there's a big difference between 11 and 13," she says. "I can never forget I'm a parent first."
MMA'S EVOLUTIONARY TIMELINE leads here, to this place, where parents, kids and coaches see the sport as an avenue of dreams, a pathway to fame and fortune. According to a major market research study in 2011, there are about 30,000 MMA schools in the United States, with 5.5 million teenage participants and another 3.2 million kids under 13. Pankration, an ancient Greek sport that combined boxing and wrestling, is travel ball for the youth MMA set, a logical offshoot of the success of its professional counterparts.
Like the sport itself, the growing popularity of MMA in the prepubescent demographic is difficult to fully embrace and impossible to ignore. In the aftermath of the Newtown shootings, at a time when the national discussion is dominated by violence inflicted on and by young people, youth MMA proponents contend their sport -- and the integrity of the martial arts ethos -- promotes kids who are more respectful of the consequences of brutality. Counterintuitive, perhaps, but Chris Manzo, the youth coach at Adrenaline Combat Sports and Fitness in San Bernardino, Calif., says, "They're not afraid of getting picked on when they're walking around, and they're also not afraid of telling somebody, 'Leave him alone.' "
Not everyone agrees. Says famed MMA fighter/trainer/pioneer Pat Miletich, "I lived it, so I know what's involved and the damage that can be inflicted. The philosophy of martial arts is a search to better yourself, and pieces of that are missing in the MMA mentality. The goal should not be to pound on someone with your fists."
The age group represented in Laguna Hills, 5 to 15, is among the first generation to grow up with MMA as an organized, socially acceptable pro sport. "When we first started [about a decade ago], people were saying we needed to be put in jail and the parents needed to be prosecuted for child abuse," says Jon Frank, a longtime law-enforcement officer who volunteers his time as president of the United States Fight League. "But I feel we've come a long way."
Roughly 50 miles up the road is the epicenter of youth MMA: California's Inland Empire, specifically San Bernardino and Riverside counties, rugged places where many parents value toughness and independence. Together, they've created a thriving subculture centered on MMA. Billboards along I-10 and I-215 advertise "King of the Cage" shows at the seemingly limitless Indian casinos along the pockmarked landscape of freeways and tract homes. "These kids know all these crazy details about the UFC, the same way I would have known Eric Dickerson ran for 125 last Sunday," says Manzo, 39, a former pro fighter. "It's their football, their baseball."
Youth pankration is governed by a set of simple rules, which a referee outlines before the tournament at length and in intricate detail. Walking around the gym with a microphone, the ref tells the fighters it's illegal to strike above the collarbone, to the groin, joints, back and kidneys; no flying knees, no slams, no elbow strikes are allowed. Forearms below the collarbone -- the Mason-Dixon Line separating youth pankration from what you see on Saturday night UFC bouts -- are fair game. Fighters must wear mouth guards, gloves, shin guards. The boys must wear cups. Headgear is not used; the ban on head strikes is intended to render them unnecessary. Points are rewarded by referees who track takedowns, body shots and escapes. If there is no submission or stoppage, then a winner is determined by points. As the rules are relayed, two college-age fighters demonstrate moves -- first the proper way, then the improper -- like an animated assembly manual. The most repeated message is an ominous instruction/warning: " You are responsible for where your strike goes."
Boys and girls compete against each other until age 12, when they must go against their own gender. This is partly because there are not enough girls to form their own under-12 division and partly because prepubescent fighting has proved to be pretty much gender-neutral. (Casey Rayfield has instructed Derek, "If you have to fight a girl, beat her and then apologize to her.") It's not unusual, however, for a disproportionate number of girls to find themselves with a hand held up after matches with boys. "The girls are tough, man," Manzo says. "At that age, it's not about strength. It's about technique, and girls can take what they learn and put it into practice way better than boys."
But technique and experience are not prerequisites. Unlike all-star competitions, there are no qualifying events needed to fight in the U.S. Open Youth National Pankration Championships. You need not have won anything or even have fought before; just pay the entry fee ($45 to $65, depending when you register) and be there for the weigh-in. Just as Little League created divisions based on aptitude, Frank would like to establish a beginner level at his pankration tournaments. The reason for this becomes obvious early on at the Laguna Hills gym: On one mat, an overweight teenager runs away and repeatedly turns his back to a skilled opponent while his parents plead with him to fight. Frank winces and says, "This is the toughest youth tournament in the sport. It's not the place to bring your kid to boost his self-esteem."
Throughout the day, traditional martial arts values are on display: sportsmanship, humility, respect for the opponent. A fight concludes quickly on one mat, a girl beating a boy, and the dad sweeps his teary and defeated 6-year-old into his arms and says, "Way to fight like a gentleman. You made your mom proud."
The dominant feature on display, however, is aggression. A fighter named Mikey in one of the older age groups struggles at the start of a semifinal match while his father, hands cupped around his mouth in an unnecessary quest to increase volume, spews a nonstop stream of instructions. When a late torrent of activity gives Mikey the win, his father bounds onto the mat and gets nose to nose with his son. "Way to get pissed off!" he yells, wrapping Mikey in a bear hug.
"It can get crazy with the parents, especially the dads," says Cliff Jarmie, the wrestling coach at Laguna Hills High, who's helping to monitor the event. "It's like their balls are out there on the mat too."
A FEW WEEKS after the tournament, at a gym in a sketchy part of Riverside, an adorable 7-year-old girl with her hair in a French braid is having her third one-hour practice of the evening. Tonight, she and a group of kids are practicing no-gi jujitsu while parents sit on the hoods of their cars and watch through floor-to-ceiling windows. Arms and legs thin as paper cuts, she completes a quick move that ends with her leg-locking a little boy, rendering him as immobile as a mouse in a trap, and her father punches the air and says "yes" under his breath. She looks up, her huge brown eyes catching his, and smiles.
Regina Awana, all 7 years and 50 pounds of her -- "50 to 50½," clarifies her father, Ricky -- got slapped in the face by a little boy at a birthday party about 18 months ago. Within a week, she was training with her uncle at Riverside Submission's storefront gym. Soon Regina had collected belts, swords, medals and a nickname -- the Black Widow. She now trains four days a week, two to three hours a day.
The Black Widow won her weight class at Laguna Hills convincingly. While the other fighters -- mostly boys, but some girls -- strutted around like predators seeking prey, Regina wore pink compression shorts and held an Ariel doll between matches. Before her semifinal bout, she put down her doll and stepped onto the mat. After shaking hands with her male opponent, she proceeded to take him to the ground and submit him by arm bar in less than 60 seconds. "One minute she's sitting in the corner playing with dolls, all pretty, with her baby face," Ricky Awana says. "The next minute she's putting someone down."
Ricky didn't finish high school and has held a series of jobs: refinery worker, concrete laborer, U-Haul customer-service rep. He sees MMA as an opportunity. "I don't make much money," he says. "People ask me why I spend so much on this. I wouldn't do it if I didn't think she had the potential to keep doing it for a long time. When we go to Vegas or Arizona, I'll hear parents saying, 'Oh, the Black Widow's here.' That's a great feeling. For me, I never really knew what I wanted to do. And she knows what she wants to do at 7 years old? Her dedication is incredible. Man, you better believe I'll do whatever I can to help her."
Every Little Leaguer -- and his parents -- wonders if he can make the big leagues. But in youth MMA, the vibe is different. A professional career doesn't seem as distant. The path seems more direct, the pool of participants far smaller. Coaches and parents openly discuss their children's prospects. It's another part of the culture that bothers Miletich. "Know what's scary?" he asked. "A parent having a vision for their own kid to become a professional fighter."
AT HIS FAMILY'S kitchen table in Corona, Crazy Rayfield is all bright-eyed possibility and little-boy innocence. Here, Derek Rayfield is an 11-year-old, currently engaged in a pitched battle with his R's. He tells me he wants to make a career out of MMA, but "football is my backup -- lineman."
Jayme sits next to him, recounting conversations with friends and relatives that inevitably end with their saying, "You're letting Derek do what?" Her mother, afraid of what she might see, won't attend the meets. Jayme understands. She's been there. "When I hear myself on the videos, I hear myself yelling at him to punch another kid. I never imagined this." Still, she watches and cheers and orders more T-shirts while repeating her mantra: I'm a parent first. It's a delicate balance.
But back at Laguna Hills, balance must wait its turn. Crazy Rayfield is in fight mode. To reach the bronze medal match, he must defeat a fighter from San Diego County coached by 1on1 Fight Co.'s Ken Sells, a thin, rangy guy with a shaved head and a hodgepodge of body ink splashed across his skin, including a pair of bright red lips on his neck. Early in the match, a forearm inadvertently catches Rayfield's nose, and it begins to bleed. He continues with a wad of fibrous, school-district-issue paper towel shoved in his left nostril. He doesn't seem to notice or care that it's there.
After a few minutes of low-wattage stand-up strikes and reasonably elevated jujitsu, Derek wins by a score of 7-4. Sells, in disbelief, challenges the referee: "You feel guilty?" He turns to his fighter: "You won that fight." Then he approaches Rayfield's coach, Phillip Brown, a local pro fighter who runs the kids program at the UFC Gym Corona and accompanies Rayfield to his fights. "What do you think?" he demands. When Brown calmly says he believed the scoring was accurate, Sells heads across the gym to find Jon Frank and argue his case. "He got the score backward," Sells yells to Frank, holding up an iPad with a recording of the fight playing across the screen.
Later, Frank tells me, "I believe in what we're doing. But I often think about the movie Do the Right Thing; it's really hot, really crowded, there's a lot of adrenaline going through that room. Just one incident and the whole thing can go crazy."
Eventually, Sells backs down and leaves the gym, and Derek goes on to finish in a respectable fourth place. Afterward, Brown sits in the stands with the collection of Crazy Rayfield T-shirts. "I love this sport," he says. "But sometimes ... " His voice trails off before he quickly regroups. "This is a good thing for kids. It really is."
THE PRIZE FOR a strong performance at Laguna Hills is an invitation to participate in an all-star youth pankration event in December at Adrenaline's cavernous San Bernardino gym. Tickets are $25 apiece ($35 for VIP seating), and the place is done up right -- balloons, a concession stand with burgers and soft tacos, and a full-size cage. Ninety minutes before the first match on Saturday night, there's a line outside the door.
It's impossible to overstate the lengths to which the organizers have gone to create a UFC-like atmosphere. There's walk-out music, a ring announcer and -- brace yourself -- adult ring-card girls. The rules for the all-star shows are altered slightly. The same bans on head strikes apply, but since fighters must qualify for the honor to compete, it is announced that officials will "trust the fighters." Among other things, this means bouts will be allowed to last longer and strikes must land cleanly to score points. Fights are two rounds, at three minutes apiece, which makes it simple for the ring girls.
The Black Widow headlines the second match of the afternoon. In the commotion of an upstairs prep room, Ricky instructs the ring announcer on pronunciation and protocol. "Regina 'the Black Widow' Awana," he says slowly. The announcer, holding a paper with the schedule, repeats it dutifully while writing it down. He pauses for a moment, his pen over the page, and leans down toward Regina. "You do know you're fighting a boy, right?" Concern is evident in his voice. She nods without smiling.
The entrance is grand. The announcer gets it right, drawing out "A-wah-na" to perfect effect. Regina wears one belt and carries another in her right arm while Wiz Khalifa's "Work Hard, Play Hard" blares so loudly it becomes a physical presence in the room. She is followed by her coaches, father and two Riverside Submission teammates, both of whom carry a belt overhead, like a boxing entourage.
The fight lasts less than 40 seconds. The Black Widow submits the boy with an arm bar. The fight is called, her hand is raised and a medal is placed around her neck. There is a huge roar from the Awana family contingent and openmouthed looks of admiration from everywhere else.
Her work for the day complete, the Black Widow walks out of the cage and toward a clapping and smiling Ricky, her expression never changing.