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Pasco couple teach fellow law officers hand-to-hand combat

NEW PORT RICHEY — Even though they were locked in combat, all their muscles so tense they almost vibrated, Erik Barcelo and Joe Iozzio barely moved.

They were quiet, too. They barely had breath to grunt or pant.

But on the blue mat in the conference room at New Port Richey Police Department headquarters was a puddle of sweat.

Iozzio, with his back on the mat, had his legs clamped around Barcelo's back, his fists grabbing urgently at Barcelo's neck, shoulders and upper arms. Barcelo's head was buried in his opponent's chest, the rest of him trying to wriggle out of Iozzio's hold.

"Breathe, Erik," Dan Rengering shouted to his newest student from the edge of the mat. "Keep 'em there. Work!"

After a few more seconds of silent struggle, Iozzio rolled Barcelo over.

"Good, good, good!" said Rengering's blond, wiry wife, Joanna, as Iozzio got on his knees and held Barcelo down. Barcelo tapped the mat twice, the mixed martial arts equivalent of crying "uncle." Then he picked out his mouth guard, tossed it aside and lay flat on his back, panting.

In the past year, Barcelo, a Port Richey police officer, has already been in three street fights, all hand-to-hand battles he says the police academy didn't prepare him for with the few days of ground-fighting training it offers. So he signed up for the Rengerings' training sessions, which they offer free to all Pasco-area officers.

"I fight for my life — that's basically why I'm here," Barcelo said, catching his breath on one side of the conference-room-turned-makeshift-gym. "Every officer out here should do this."

Dan, 42, a New Port Richey officer, and Joanna, 29, a detention deputy at the Pasco County jail, are both jujitsu specialists who met as officers in Orlando. They opened their own mixed martial arts gym in their garage four years ago. They still train, sometimes practicing against each other, and both competed in the Florida Police & Fire Games in Indian River last week. Dan Rengering won a gold medal in jujitsu, and Joanna won a bronze.

Recently, though, they have focused on teaching other officers what they've done for about a decade: protect themselves.

About twice a week, the Rengerings and a few of their students gather in New Port Richey, wearing gym shorts and muscle tees. The Rengerings estimate they have about 10 regular students, most of them police officers who want to learn how to defend against suspects who might have picked up dangerous fighting techniques — say, karate moves they learned from YouTube.

"This can be the difference between going home and not," Joanna said in between practice rounds Thursday. "Everybody has like 15 stories."

There are only a few rules in MMA, which combines everything from boxing and kickboxing to Brazilian jujitsu. No eye gouging. No groin kicking. No head butting. No hand choking. Fighters can't kick their opponents in the spine, the kidney or the head, and they can't kick someone who is down. The rules are designed to protect against serious injuries.

On the street, there are no rules.

"There's a difference between a sports fight and street brawls," said Dan, whose beefy arms each sport tattoos. "But this is as close as you get."

The Rengerings and their students believe every police officer should be regularly trained in ground combat, and they are asking local law enforcement agencies to step up their training methods. Although officers get some practice at the police academy, they rarely get training after that, if ever.

Academy trainers tell students to avoid fighting on the ground, but nine out of 10 fights end up on the ground, Barcelo said.

Officers might get injured on the mat, but that's better than getting hurt while wrestling with a criminal, Dan says. Defensive training seems even more important in light of Tuesday's fatal double police officer shooting in Tampa, Joanna adds.

Dan might not come home for dinner on time every night if he's training, but Joanna says she doesn't mind. Techniques such as shrimping, where a fighter twists his torso, curls up and pushes away to escape, or clamping legs around an opponent's back could make sure Dan comes home safely.

As a prison guard eight years ago at the Central Florida Reception Center, a male state prison in Orlando, Joanna wanted to be able to go toe-to-toe with inmates bigger than she, she said. So she started training.

"The anxiety was there, so I wanted to be able to control a situation," she said. "I've never had a problem dealing with stuff other people don't want to deal with."

Dan and the others at training Thursday all have similar stories.

But beyond wanting to protect themselves, the Rengerings say they love martial arts.

As the training session wore on Thursday, Joanna and Dan gave their students a break and approached each other on the mat. Joanna, on her feet, slammed her body on top of Dan, who started out on his knees.

She laughed as they gripped each other in combat. He finally forced her to "tap out," prompting clapping from Barcelo, Iozzio and their other students, Dan Durivou and Jason Engel.

"Very nice! You muscled me," she said.

"You scratched me!" she added, examining her arm.

"You almost broke my finger," Dan retorted.

They smiled at each other as Engel and Durivou laughed. Then it was all business. Soon, the mat was streaked with sweat again.

Pasco couple teach fellow law officers hand-to-hand combat 07/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 1, 2010 9:05pm]
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