SPRING HILL — The expanding world of mixed martial arts is creating a new horizon for youths with interests in tae kwon do, jujitsu and wrestling. And there is no more perfect example of this locally than the multitalented Carlos Carrasquillo Jr.
Carrasquillo, 16, is entering his junior year at Nature Coast Technical High School and has been studying many different disciplines of martial arts for more than nine years. With his father as the owner and lead instructor at Dragon's Dojo in Spring Hill, he admits to feeling some pressure to succeed in tae kwon do, the school's main focus.
"I feel pressure to be one of the top competitors in the dojo," he said. "Sometimes (my dad) won't even push me, but he'll say, 'Do whatever you want. It's all on you.' It's like a reverse psychology thing."
If there is pressure to succeed, the younger Carrasquillo has handled it well. So far, he has balanced his academics with dancing, which he does part time with his mother, Diana; wrestling, which he took up as a freshman at Nature Coast; and a full competitive schedule of martial arts training. He's done all of this while continuing to be better than average at each one.
For those who aren't familiar with it, mixed martial arts has taken its most notable form in the company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. However, there are many other sanctioned bodies internationally that are allowing the sport to surpass boxing in television ratings.
In the eyes of someone like Carrasquillo or his father, Carlos Carrasquillo Sr., it offers a feasible career option for martial artists that didn't exist decades ago.
"After he's done all he can with (tae kwon do), he's still going to want to do the MMA," said the elder Carrasquillo. "When he turns 18, I want to get him his first amateur match, and we'll see where he goes from there."
The senior Carrasquillo organized an MMA tournament at Powell Middle School recently. The turnout was good. It was obvious to everyone how much people wanted to be involved with the sport.
The young Carrasquillo's talents are well documented through both tae kwon do and wrestling. As an advanced brown belt, he has competed in the National AAU Championships the past few years, showing how good he can be.
Last year, he won the gold medal in points and the bronze medal in Olympic sparring. Determined to top that performance when he made the trip back to Fort Lauderdale for the 2010 AAU Championships last month, he earned gold medals in both sparring and forms and silver in Olympic sparring.
Still, he wasn't satisfied.
"I really wanted to sweep all three gold," he said.
While the rest of the competitive team from Dragon's Dojo makes the trip to the Junior Olympics during the summer, Carrasquillo takes that time off to rest before school begins again. Next summer will be his last shot to compete in the tournament since one can't do it as an 18-year-old, so he's already making plans for 2011.
After running track in middle school, Carrasquillo said he wanted to focus on an athletic venture that would highlight his martial arts experience a little more. He tried wrestling and never looked back. He's gotten better every year.
"Wrestling is really similar to Brazilian jujitsu," he said. "I work on it a lot in the dojo, and there are some bad habits I get into that I have to break when wrestling season starts. But once the season starts, I am 100 percent committed to what I have to do."
As a sophomore wrestler, he went 13-11 with seven pins and qualified for the region tournament for the Sharks. Since the majority of big-time MMA stars have wrestling backgrounds, he knows the experience will only help him in the long run.
Regardless of the venture that Carrasquillo undertakes, there is a fine line that the young man seems to be walking. His father describes his aggressive fighting style as "brawling" in every sport, whether it's wrestling, tae kwon do or MMA, which may be why the last one suits him so much. In his handful of matches, Carrasquillo is undefeated in MMA action.
"That's what he's best in," his father said.
"His matches turn into all-out brawls. Truthfully, he's a sloppy tae kwon do fighter, but a great MMA fighter."