BRANDON — Sledgehammers lean against the back wall. A heavy bag sits between a full-size boxing ring and an octagon. A female trainer/instructor barks commands at her students. And small white receptacles line the edge of the mat, each with an ominous message written on the side: Puke Bucket.
"They get their fair share of use," said John Prisco, president of the Extreme Fitness Championships or XFC.
Prisco, a former boxing promoter, started the XFC — a professional mixed martial arts or MMA organization — out of Tampa in 2006.
"We had our first show in January 2007 at the Dallas Bull off (U.S.) 301," Prisco said. "We've come a long way in a short period of time."
Since its humble beginnings at a spot known more for country music than mixed martial arts, the XFC has grown exponentially. The company set a state record for attendance at an MMA event when it drew more than 13,000 fans at the St. Pete Times Forum Nov. 11, 2007. All three shows at the Forum have drawn more than 10,000 fans each, and the XFC expanded to host shows in Kentucky and Tennessee. In September 2008, Yahoo Sports called the XFC "the best kept secret in MMA," and the organization recently inked a deal with HDNet to have its cards broadcast live.
"We had three times as many people for that show (Nov. 11, 2007) as any other MMA show in the history of Florida," Prisco said.
The XFC can also claim another first — the company operates a pair of MMA-themed gyms. The first facility opened about a year ago on Nebraska Avenue in Tampa and the second, the XFC Mixed Martial Arts Training Facility, debuted in February on State Road 60 in Brandon. The gym in Tampa is 2,400 square feet while the Brandon location is 7,500.
"The gym on Nebraska was a testing ground, and there was a learning curve for us," Prisco said. The Brandon "one is going to be a template for future sites."
Most casual sports fans are familiar with the Ultimate Fighting Championships or UFC, the pre-eminent organization in MMA. But the XFC has forged a reputation of developing younger, lesser-known fighters with a more grass roots, fan-friendly approach. Prisco believes opening gyms like the one in Brandon adds to that.
"This gym is a huge benefit for us in terms of name recognition," Prisco said. "It helps to develop fans and to build our brand."
But the XFC facility isn't exclusively for serious MMA fighters. Prisco said about 95 percent of the gym's members are there to get in shape. And a tepid economy hasn't weighed on business. Prisco said the gym adds about 40 to 50 new members a month.
"We just keep getting more and more interested people," he said. "And not only is it a place to get in better shape, it's a great stress reliever in these economic times."
The gym offers classes ranging from novice to advanced and all points in between. There is a Women's Boot Camp and a Kids MMA program for youths ages 7 to 15.
"From weight training, to cardio(vascular) training, to mixed martial arts training," Prisco said. "We have something for everybody."
For people interested in actual combat, the XFC has a host of skilled instructors. Two of the trainers hold black belts in jiu-jitsu, another has a black belt in judo and the striking coach is a former professional boxer.
Keeping with the grass roots approach, the Brandon location holds an open tryout prior to its events, and the winner moves on to fight on the next card. Prisco said about 40 MMA fighters showed up June 20, with Julien Williams earning a fight slot Sept. 5 at the St. Pete Times Forum.
"The last guy who won the open tryout (Chris Barnett) fought his first pro fight and beat a guy with 60 fights (Jonathan Ivey) at our card in Tennessee," Prisco said. "There is a ton of undiscovered talent in this sport, and we want to find those guys."