The nation is seeing an increase in fighting among kids, and their parents are encouraging it. Already boasting a strong following among high school participants
, MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) classes have drawn more than 3 million children under the age of 13 across the country. While pro MMA organizations like the Ultimate Fighting Championship have given the sport a reputation for no-holds-barred blood baths, it's also gaining acceptance as an athletic discipline, spurred in great part by its preteen participants.
Classes do teach kids to hit, kick and grapple, at a level appropriate for their age, but they also offer many of the same benefits kids get from participating in any other sport. "It's not about fighting," says
Jonathan Burke, owner of The VI Levels MMA gym in Ocoee, Fla. "It's about getting in great physical shape, improving your mental focus and discipline."
Moreover, MMA, built in part on the principles of various martial arts disciplines, teaches kids how to defend themselves. "There's such a problem with kids being bullied these days," says
Jake Brennan, an instructor at GymX in Waco, Texas. "MMA gives them that boost of confidence to know they're alright walking around school."
The boost of confidence may do more to prevent bullying than the actual defensive skills taught. "Bullies tend to pick on people who are victims," explains Chris Conolley, owner of Spartan Fitness in Hoover, Ala. "These kids carry themselves different, they have the confidence to deal with someone messing with them."
Even so, the classes are a comfort for parents, who know their children have been trained not just physically to be able to protect themselves but also given the mental discipline to discern when it is appropriate to do so. Among those who train at Burke's gym are the sons of MLB's Prince Fielder, who hopes to prevent them from becoming victims of bullying. "It happened to me as a kid, and it happens to them as well," says Fielder.
The sport is not without its risks, but no sport is. Concussions or other injuries are a concern, but perhaps the greatest objection is that children will use their skills in inappropriate ways.
"I can't guarantee they won't be a bully," says Burke, "but I can guarantee that the way we present the information, we're going to make bullying look so bad, they're going to be ashamed to be associated with that word."