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Mixed martial arts trains kids to defend themselves

Victoria Costanzo is a four-year veteran of mixed martial arts, a discipline she picked up to defend herself against bullies at school.

Sparring with boys, she holds her own, able to reverse holds and scramble into an advantageous position with ease.

She throws her punches with innocent conviction, a 1-2 combo sweetly snapping off her sensei's mitts in the din of the Xtreme Fighting Championships training facility on Nebraska Avenue.

She is a strong grappler and has the ribbons from various tournaments to prove it. She lost in her last competition. But she'll be back, she says, and ultimately would really like to take first place at one of those tournaments that hand out samurai swords to the champs.

She shrugs when asked what she'd do with a samurai sword.

Victoria is 8 years old.

If the idea of kids training in mixed martial arts is unsettling — and for many, it is — sensei Michele Agius suggests you put the remote control down and come watch one of her classes.

"You can't blame them, I guess, if they turn on Spike TV and see a puddle of blood underneath some guys head and then I tell them that's what I teach my kids,'' she said.

Rest assured, Agius says, her kids are not being trained in cages.

There is no puddle of blood.

There is no violence.

Agius' students wear protective gear and learn to grapple and strike in a controlled environment that a typical viewer would consider tame.

"The kids don't even think of it as violent,'' said Agius, a 22-year-old black belt in Goshin Kaiku Ryu who has never fought in a cage.

"People realize that their kid is going to have to know how to protect themselves, come sooner or later,'' she said. "So I think that's the attraction. … It's not, 'My kid is 8 years old and in 10 years will be making $100,000 in the cage.' That's not it at all. The main attraction is to learn how to protect yourself; that's what it comes down to.''

• • •

Since forever, young kids have been competing in karate and judo. There are kick boxing and wrestling tournaments for all ages. You need to be only 8 to begin boxing in the Silver Gloves, a precursor to the Golden Gloves.

All perfectly acceptable, until they are combined into one form.

"I don't know why that is,'' said Rob Kahn, a black belt under three-time UFC champion Royce Gracie and owner of Gracie Tampa, one of the country's top MMA gyms.

"It's a good question, though.''

Kahn has had as many as 40 kids enrolled in classes at his gym and has been offering classes for youngsters since 2005.

He said he has received nothing but a positive response from parents.

But he understands why others would shy away.

"Is it a tough sport based in violence? Of course it is,'' Kahn said. "But it's safe.''

He and Agius find the notion of no-holds-barred MMA competition — the stuff you see on TV — for kids ridiculous. They say any reputable MMA school would feel the same.

Kahn, 37, is a 14-year veteran of MMA and has fought in a cage twice.

"We're not looking to be a farm for young MMA fighters, and I really don't want to see that,'' he said.

• • •

Agius and Kahn are big proponents of the benefits beyond the mat.

Discipline. Self control. Focus. Respect.

"When you get a kid coming to MMA, when it's done right, all those wonderful benefits are still there,'' Kahn said.

When Jennifer Handly started bringing 8-year-old Andrew to classes, he was a troublesome child, often punished for not following the rules.

Now, he is on the leadership team.

"He's a different kid,'' Handly says, and her sentiments are echoed by Victoria's mother, Denise, and Shannel Britt, mother of 5-year-old Gariel and 8-year-old Benjamin.

Handly confesses that she was unsure about letting her son learn MMA.

But it was important to her that Andrew learn how to defend himself.

"I understand the perception; you watch the people on TV and they look like hoodlums or you see them all bloody. I don't experience a lot of negativity from people when I tell them what Andrew does. Just a lot of surprise.''

In between drills, the kids will head over to their mothers, looking for a drink, some help putting on gloves or an adjustment to their headgear.

After class, Agius gets her students to sit in a circle. She lectures them on showing respect to people, no matter what you may think of them.

You can't, she explains, judge a book by its cover.

John C. Cotey covers boxing and MMA for the Times. He can be reached at johncotey@gmail.com.

Mixed martial arts trains kids to defend themselves 08/05/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 7, 2008 3:04pm]
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