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Kristian Ibarra, Spring 2014

Kids in a cage: Mixed martial arts attracts young fighters

A young boy trains inside Alliance Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. on Monday, April 21, 2013.

A young boy trains inside Brazilian jiu-jitsu at Alliance Training Center in Chula Vista. Photo by Kristian Ibarra

Some kids grow up playing football. Others grow up playing soccer. Eight-year-old Tyler Casillas isn’t a typical kid, though – he’s been training to be a cage-fighter for the last two years.

Tyler’s father, Eric Casillas, said cage fighting creates a healthy lifestyle because the required discipline is greater than in other martial arts practices.

“You’re training everyday, so you’re in good shape,” Eric Casillas said. “Your coaches are teaching you how to eat, what to drink and what to stay away from.”

Mixed martial arts, a sport that combines several different types of individual combat sports – such as boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, karate, and muay thai kickboxing, to name a few – has, by many accounts, become the fastest growing sport in the world.

Popularized by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport’s most successful promotion, people of all ages have begun participating in the sport.

The rules of MMA

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The rules are fairly simple – two fighters of equal weight enter an enclosed ring and compete against each other. Fights are typically either three or five five-minute rounds.

A fight can end when:

  • Time expires. In which case, three judges submit scorecards to determine the winner.
  • A fighter physically or verbally taps out due to a submission hold or strikes.
  • A fighter is knocked unconscious.
  • A referee, official ring physician, the fighter’s corner team or the fighter decides that a fighter cannot safely continue to fight.

As per the unified set of rules, not every type of strike is allowed.

Depending on age, the rules are slightly altered for children who participate in competitive MMA.

Starting cage-fighters off early

Located in Chula Vista, Calif., Alliance Training Center is home to some of the best mixed martial artists in the world – such as former UFC Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz and UFC light heavyweight title contender Phil Davis. Looking to find the best bang for his buck, it wasn’t difficult for Eric Casillas to find a gym for Tyler, he said.

“The team we have here and the coaches we have here – these kids get the best,” Eric Casillas said. “They get the best coaching there is in San Diego, for sure.”

Raised by a father who once dabbled at a boxing gym in Westminster, Calif. and a mother who used be a high school wrestler and now works as a personal trainer, Tyler’s interest in MMA stemmed from his parents, his father said.

Tyler Casillas, 8, awaits instruction from coach Danny Martinez on Monday, April 21, 2014.

Tyler Casillas awaits instruction from coach Danny Martinez. Photo by Kristian Ibarra

Tyler’s mother, Brandi Casillas, has no issue with allowing her son to participate in MMA. She often attends her son’s practices as an expression of her support.

Depending on whether or not Tyler’s scheduled to fight, he trains anywhere from four to six times per week for two to three hours. He doesn’t mind spending all that time in the gym, though.

“What I like most about it is how much fun I have,” Tyler said.

The amount of fun he has is imperative to Tyler’s dedication, his father said.

“Being a parent, your kids are going to let you know when they don’t want to do something,” Casillas said. “Who’s going to drag their kids here four, five, six days a week when they don’t want to do it?”

After two dedicated years of training, Tyler and his parents don’t necessarily have their sights set on pursuing a professional career in fighting. His training has hardly altered what many parents typically want for their children – an education.

“I want to keep fighting until I’m done with college,” Tyler said.

At 8 years old, Tyler isn’t even the youngest kid to train in MMA at Alliance. Kids as young as 3 are welcomed to come in and train, said Juan Luis Miranda, kids MMA trainer at Alliance.

“We can show the kids the martial arts and the movements with no real contact,” Miranda said. “Once they start moving up a little bit in weight we start letting them become a little more active and start engaging.”

Kids are allowed to increase contact once they’re equipped with sparring gear ­– such as shin guards and gloves. Once they’re geared up, it’s up to the coaches to determine whether or not they’re ready for minimal contact, said Miranda – who’s been coaching kids for the last six years.

Though they’re being taught how to throw a proper jab, or how to perform a proper double-leg takedown, Miranda is confident in knowing his students won’t take their newly-learned techniques outside of the cage.

“They know they’re not supposed to go home and practice with their siblings or friends from the block,” Miranda said. “They’re only supposed to do that here (in the gym).”

Creating a new breed of fighter

Reaching the professional level of any sport is and always will be a difficult challenge. Most athletes who make it to the pinnacle of their respective sport started at a very young age. Professional MMA – relatively young compared to the NFL, NBA or MLB – is not one of those sports.

In fact, many of the sport’s most famed fighters were either grapplers who learned how to strike or strikers who learned to grapple. Either way, many of today’s fighters continue to lack skills in at least one facet of the game. Now, with many young athletes leaning toward MMA, the sport and its fighters are evolving.

“It really, really excites me,” Miranda said. “I know that pretty soon it’s going to be nothing but MMA fighters. They’re not going to be going into the big show labeled as a grappler, or as a striker. Pretty soon, it’s all going to be washed away and MMA is going to take its pure form.”

Fighters like 11-year-old Nahdia Barrientos are a prime example of this new breed.

MULTIMEDIA: Nahdia Barrientos trains for her championship fight at Alliance Training Center.
Miranda is confident he’ll see some of the kids he coaches, like Nadhia, make it to the UFC – if they want to, that is.

“I think anybody here (at Alliance) can make it (in the UFC) if they pursue it and stay consistent with it,” Miranda said. “The opportunities will come, and if they’re ready for it, it’s theirs.”

While some kids have their eyes on making it big, others just want to learn how to protect themselves and others.

“I wanted to train in self-defense to protect my family,” said 11-year-old Abigail Alvarez, Tyler’s sparring partner. “If there was ever any harm, I would want to protect them.”

The medical concerns with youth MMA

Regardless of how transparent of a picture MMA supporters like Eric Casillas and Miranda try to paint, some parents simply cannot approve of allowing children to participate.

Carolina Leverette, mother of two, is one of those parents.

“I would never allow my children to participate in this ‘sport,’” Leverette said.

Some medical professionals frown upon the sport, too. The American Academy of Pediatrics took a stance against combat sports back in 2011.
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“Parents should not be allowing their children to participate in mixed martial arts or boxing due to significant risk of head and facial injuries,” said Dr. Michelle Dern, treasurer of the American Academy of Pediatrics in San Diego and Imperial Counties. “Children are more susceptible to concussions, which may be sustained from punches or kicks to the face or head.”

Though the children competing in MMA aren’t allowed to strike each other in the face or head, they – akin to the professional athletes who train in MMA – expose themselves to grappling injuries, as well.

Approximately 46.5 million kids in the United States participate in organized sports. Of those children, 1.35 million sought medical attention for a sports related injury in 2011, according to a study conducted by Safe Kids Worldwide – a non-profit advocacy group for youth health.

Ensuring fighter safety: The rules of kids MMA

While professional fighting is sanctioned by individual state athletic commissions, youth MMA is not – it’s currently illegal to host youth fighting tournaments in California. In an effort to allow the sport to continue to flourish, the United States Fight League – an organization that oversees youth combat sports in California – hosts its tournaments on Native American reservations.

According to the USFL, fighters are separated between two classes – “C” Class and “B” Class.

The “C” Class consists of kids from all ages. General rules set in place for this group are as follows:

  • Grappling only – no strikes are allowed.
  • Matches cannot end with malicious intent to cause injury.
  • Dangerous takedowns and submissions are prohibited.
  • Matches can only be won by scorecard or safe submissions.
  • Fighters must wear padded shin guards and gloves.

The “B” Class is only for children ages 8 and up. The rules are fairly similar to the “C” Class, with a few minor differences. Major differences are as follows:

  • Limited strikes are allowed. Strikes above the collarbone are prohibited.
  • Fights cannot be won by knockout.

Weight class also separates fighters, where kids as light as 45 pounds are allowed to fight.

Two boys play around in between jiu-jitsu practice at Alliance Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. on Monday, April 21, 2014.

Two boys play around in between jiu-jitsu practice at Alliance Training Center. Photo by Kristian Ibarra

Per the USFL rules, no child can be more than a single year older than his or her opponent. The possible age difference doesn’t bother Tyler or Eric Casillas, though.

“My son is confident, I’m confident in him,” Eric Casillas said. “He trains with kids who are a lot older, bigger and stronger. They push him every day, so going against a kid who’s a year older but weighs the same – it’s not really a big deal.”

As expected, allowing such young, and light children to physically compete against one another has drawn some negative attention from some parents.

“Two kids can go wrestle for a competition and that’s okay,” Eric Casillas said. “Two kids can go to a jiu-jitsu match and armbar and triangle (choke) each other and that’s okay. But as soon as they’re inside of a cage they’re perceived as vicious pit bulls. That’s not the case.”


About Kristian Ibarra

Journalism senior at SDSU.


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