I grunt as Cody Maltais shoots his foot into the base of my ribcage, feeling his toes curl into my abs. Even with tempered speed and force, Maltais's teep—a straight snapping kick used by Muay Thai fighters to control distance and wind their opponents—knocks me back.
I'm learning to flex into the kick to dull the impact. Still, for a moment, I wonder: What the hell have I gotten myself into?
For two months, Maltais has been teaching a group of students the fundamentals of mixed martial arts at his new gym in Durham, Elevate MMA Academy. Twice a week, for three hours a night, we drill on the forms and footwork of boxing, the takedowns and grappling moves of wrestling and jiu-jitsu, and Muay Thai kicks, plus lots of conditioning and mobility exercises.
"We're training athletes who happen to be good at fighting," Maltais says one evening while running laps around the mats. In his pro fighting career, he trained in Raleigh, California, Las Vegas, and, while deployed with the Marines, in Iraq. But he always dreamed of teaching. After selling his stake in Carrboro's Steel String Brewery, which he cofounded, and moving to Las Vegas to fight full-time, he came home last year to open Elevate.
"I want to take what I've seen in California and Vegas, and my opinions on how high-level athletes are trained, and put them into practice," Maltais says.
Honestly, I've never been much of an athlete, let alone a fighter. Until recently, my experience with martial arts was similar to that of millions of other nineties kids. Movies like The Karate Kid and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had made karate appealing to suburban children—and, more important, to their parents. Dojos opened in strip malls across the country. They promised to instill discipline, confidence, and self-defense. But I begged my parents to sign me up because I wanted to be like my cartoon heroes.
I quit too early to realize that goal. Mostly, I just remember crying when I couldn't break a board. Afterward, I experienced martial arts only through UFC on cable, Wu-Tang Clan songs, and Hong Kong cinema.
But two years ago, relenting to my wife's demands that I go to the gym with her, I was drawn to the dojo next door. The marquee at Chapel Hill Quest Martial Arts promised "To-Shin Do Ninjutsu. Japan's Oldest Martial Art; Newest Teaching Methods." I signed up on a whim. Soon I was training almost every day. Martial arts hooks people that way. My ninjutsu instructor, Hardee Merritt, is an advanced martial artist, but his introduction was much like my own.
"I was into G.I. Joe when I was a kid," he says. "Snake Eyes was my favorite character, and he was a ninja. I wanted to follow in Snake Eyes's footsteps."
He started reading all the ninja-related books at the library in Clinton, North Carolina, and he tried the moves with a friend in his garage. When he discovered the dojo in Chapel Hill, Merritt started driving up twice a week to train. Eventually, he bought the place.
But martial arts training today is much different than it was when I was struggling to crack a board. The rise of MMA and access to online information about myriad fighting styles has fueled age-old debates about which style works best in real life. Since its introduction in the early nineties, MMA has been a testing ground for those theories.
In North Carolina, where the sport has a unique history, it has given rise to a vibrant, close-knit community, galvanized by local history and the struggle for mainstream legitimacy. I couldn't imagine a better way to get inside that community than by immersing myself, rib kicks and all, in Maltais's methods, which benefit hobbyists like me as well as people pursuing fighting at the top levels.