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But no matter how chummy the schools are, they're still training fighters. How inviting could it really be? Recalling the first day of class, Maltais laughs.
"Everybody was looking around, deer in the headlights, like, 'Is this going to turn into some crazy gauntlet? Is everybody going to punch me in the face?'" He instructed the class to relax and promised nobody was going to get hurt that night. Despite my lingering preconceptions of the rough-and-tumble old school, I've yet to show up at work on crutches or sporting a shiner.
But I'm the beneficiary of a generation of experience. Dipping a toe in the MMA pool wasn't always this easy. In preparing for his bouts a decade ago, Merritt recalls long, plentiful sparring sessions. Even for seasoned martial artists, the toll was heavy.
"We were lucky," Merritt says. "We had some good training, but about once a week, somebody was going to the hospital. I think everybody is training smarter now."
There's no question that MMA is becoming more presentable, but dangers persist. A Portuguese fighter named Joao Carvalho recently died from injuries sustained in a cage fight in Ireland. And no matter how rare such a tragedy might be, competitive fighting leaves its marks. Cauliflower ears, scarred brows, and torn ligaments are common.
Training can be even more dangerous. Repetitive stress, overtraining, and sparring can all lead to injury.
"You've got to have that ability to bite down on your mouthpiece and really fight," Maltais says. His philosophy is that full-contact sparring has a role in training, but that coaches are responsible for keeping their students safe. And what benefits a full-time competitor might not be worth it for a hobbyist, in no small part because of the risks of brain trauma from repetitive impact.
So I'll probably never test my mettle in a cage, much less battle under the UFC marquee. But, like scores of people in the Triangle, I'll keep training as if I might. I like the confidence that comes from knowing I'm better equipped to defend myself if necessary, and it's a hell of a workout. Mostly, I'll keep going because of the community I've found in martial arts.
"Our lives have become very detached from each other," Maltais says. "Martial arts gyms, CrossFit gyms, and yoga studios are succeeding because people need an outlet where they feel that connection." At the dojo and the gym, each class ends with thank-yous, handshakes, and even sweaty hugs.
In Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee quipped, "Boards don't hit back." It was a dismissive comment, noting that hitting an inanimate object reveals little about a fighter's skill. I could've used the advice as a struggling karate kid—not only to remind me of the board's weakness, but also because Lee's words suggest the key difference between what we can do alone and what we can do with a community. Boards might not hit back, but they won't pull you up, either.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Unstoppable Force"