Children fighting each other in a steel cage is a troubling thought for some parents, but for others, mixed martial arts (MMA) is an extension of what they learned as children. Some states have banned the sport for kids. California was one of those states, but now allows it with restrictions.
Every day this summer, except Sundays, the sound of Kainoa Medina's gloves and feet against foam pads has filled the Train4Life gym in Suisun City.
Kainoa is 11 and is training for his next MMA event, called a "pankration."
"What I like about MMA is I can blend in all the different martial arts that I've learned," he says.
Saturday's event in Rancho Cordova will be his sixth pankration, but he's no stranger to a ring or a mat. Kainoa has competed in nearly 300 judo, jiu jitsu, karate and wrestling bouts since he turned four years old.
Sonny Ramos is Kainoa’s coach. He's a third generation martial arts instructor. He says martial arts competitions are really a demonstration of self-defense skills.
"Being a martial artist has nothing to do with fighting and everything to do with building yourself as a person being able to overcome fear and become the different things you want to become successful in, in your life," says Ramos.
Kainoa’s mom, Mary, sometimes helps with drills. He learned his first moves from her and his father as they took martial arts classes at the local community center.
"He was pretty skilled early on in terms of his ability to really move his body and adapt moves very quickly," she says. "The gym somewhat tailored a kids program around his abilities."
She says her son learns respect and discipline while learning the skills he needs to excel in MMA - the next generation of martial arts.
But It’s not hard to find videos online that represent everything parents fear when they hear "MMA" and "children" in the same sentence.
In one video, a 6-year-old girl wraps her arm around another girls neck and throws her to the ground. The girl on the ground begins to cry and the referee calls time out.
A fan asks, "Why isn't she fighting?"
Mary says the videos are examples of promoters and parents who are doing the wrong thing.
"It's not sanctioned, the kids are not wearing headgear. And the kids are not protected," she says. "I want to say I think the parents are not as well educated. "
Andy Foster agrees. He is executive officer of the California State Athletic Commission. He started shutting down MMA youth events in May of 2013 after seeing a video of a 5-year-old girl being pummeled by a larger boy.
"I was deeply alarmed personally by it," he says. "I was troubled by what I saw."
Foster issued cease-and-desist orders first and then a statewide ban on MMA events. When it became clear the sport’s popularity was only increasing, he says the athletic commission decided it had no choice but to work with promoters to protect the competitors.
"You have to be pragmatic about the situation," he says. "If it's not going away, how can you change this activity so it's safe or at least acceptably safe."
Later that year, the commission negotiated a set of rules for pankration bouts. Foster must review each match to ensure the participants are evenly matched. Children must be at least eight years of age to compete and blows to the head are not allowed. Headgear, doctors and an ambulance on site are now mandatory.
The new rules became a state law, authored by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
Mary Medina believes the rules put MMA-style pankration events on the same footing as other martial arts competitions.
"There are a lot of safety precautions in the same way that there are safety precautions when it comes to wrestling, jiu jitsu and judo," she says. "All of these sports are technically no different."
Under California’s regulations, a private organization called United States Fight League runs the events on behalf of the state and submits post-event injury reports.
Since 2014, nearly 300 kids between 8 and 17 years old have participated in a sanctioned pankration bout. Seven children suffered a mild injury, mostly sprains, while one suffered a broken arm. There were no concussions reported.
Sixteen combatants including Kainoa are scheduled to fight Saturday in a sanctioned event in Rancho Cordova.
Kainoa Judo Match 2014
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