The following article is appearing courtesy of FiveOuncesOfPain.com content partner FIGHT! magazine. The article below appeared in FIGHT!’s September issue featuring Chuck Liddell on the cover. This month’s issue, featuring Josh Barnett on the cover, is currently available on newsstands and in major bookstores all over the United States. You can also subscribe to FIGHT! and receive 12-monthly issues for $18.95 by visiting the magazine’s website and clicking on the “Subscriptions” link.
Back in the day if you wanted to train MMA, often times the only real option for an aspiring fighter was to drive 1-2 hours away and train in a neighborhood in which you needed to wear a bullet proof vest. To say things have changed would be an understatement. These days, MMA gyms are popping up everywhere at a rate that is almost surreal.
Growing up in the quiet suburb of Jenkintown, PA, the idea of a world class jiu-jitsu black belt opening up a first-rate gym 10 minutes from my house seemed unfathomable. But that’s exactly what happened last summer when Jared Weiner, the first-ever person promoted to black belt by Lloyd Irvin, moved his school, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu United from a crummy area in Northeast Philadelphia into Jenkintown’s high-rent business district.
There are so many MMA gyms opening up that in this day and age if you live more than 45 minutes from a gym that teaches MMA, chances are you live in Montana. But the thing is, just because a gym has the initials “MMA” on their signage it doesn’t mean they are qualified to teach mixed martial arts.
In order to practice law, you need to pass the bar; in order to be a stock broker, you need to pass a Series 7 test; and if you want to be a doctor then you need to graduate med school. However, there is no law that prevents someone from opening an MMA gym.
I live just outside of Philadelphia, which has become a hot bed for the sport. I’m very fortunate in that I have the option of training at multiple top-notch gyms that are all within sixty minutes of my home. The problem is that there are also an additional six gyms within the same distance that have no business being in operation. If you’re looking to take up training, you have to be careful no matter how excited you are about getting involved.
You do not run to the nearest MMA gym with cash in hand. If you were going to buy a car, would you just go to the lot and choose whatever looked nice and was available? Or, would you go online and research the safety record of the models you’re looking at? Would you not look at other dealerships in order to get comparative pricing? You need to adopt a similar approach when searching for the right gym for you. Granted, it’s a lot cheaper to train MMA than it is to buy a new car, but training in a martial art is not inexpensive. Most gyms are going to require that you make an extended commitment of at least six months and possibly more. You don’t want to walk into a gym and sign on the dotted line right away simply because you got excited by seeing someone throw an amazing high kick.
The reality is that a lot of people out there are being ripped off. There are instructors out there who claim they are black belts in jiu-jitsu when they are not. There are former Karate instructors who claim they can help people become pro fighters even though they’ve never fought or trained MMA. Simply put, you need to be careful of wannabes with false credentials or credentials that are meaningless in MMA. A lot of people see the sport and are excited by it. They see how much money can be made and instead of starting over and paying their dues in a new martial art, they believe they can actually teach you something they aren’t qualified to teach.
Right about now you’re probably asking about how you can determine whether a gym is legit or a joke. Here are some important things to look for when choosing a place to train.
1. Are the people willing to answer questions – If you’re talking to an owner at a prospective school or a head trainer and they are put out that you are asking questions, that’s a red flag. They are running a business and you are a customer. You have every right to want to know what you’re getting yourself into. If an instructor is running a legitimate gym, then he or she has nothing to hide and should relish the opportunity to tell you about what the gym has to offer.
2. Does it look reputable - You can’t always judge a book by its cover, but you can tell a lot about a martial arts gym by its appearance. Is the gym in a well-lit area? Is it in its own space or does it lease a smaller space within an existing business, such as a fitness gym? Are there windows so that people from the outside can see inside? Have they put money into redecorating? If a gym doesn’t even feel a need to put money into their surroundings, there’s a chance they don’t feel a need to put money into their staff. Do they have newer heavy bags and clean mats? If you’re at a gym that resembles a shack or a garage, chances are that’s the level of instruction you’re going to get.
3. Price - In martial arts, just because you spend a lot of money, you aren’t guaranteed to get good training. However, it’s a rule that if you buy cheap, you get cheap. The only exception I’ve seen in regards to this rule is the Philadelphia Fight Factory (home to Eddie Alvarez, Tara LaRosa, and Stephen Haigh), which only charges $99 a month.
Most people suffer sticker shock when they see the cost of training. A legitimate fight gym located in a major metropolitan area is going to cost you between $125-to-$250 per month for a full MMA program. You can train for less at most gyms if you’re only interested in Muay Thai or just jiu-jitsu, but you need to be careful about a full MMA program that is less than $125 a month.
If you have no aspirations of competing and are simply looking to get into shape, then you can get away with training at a cheap gym so long as it’s being operated in a professional manner. But if you want quality training, you’re going to have to pay for it.
4. Be sure to inquire about the MMA credentials of the instructors - After brainwashing their students for years that MMA was just a fad, many Karate, Kung Fu, and Taekwondo schools are closing up shop and re-opening as MMA schools. Some of these former traditional martial arts schools are no more qualified to teach MMA than I am, and I suck. You want to train under someone who has either one or more of the following: certification from a widely recognized MMA school; fights professionally in MMA; is a top-level competitor in Muay Thai or jiu-jitsu; or has trained for a significant period of time in MMA.
Look, there’s nothing wrong if an instructor has a background in traditional martial arts. Chances are that any instructor over 30 got his or her start in traditional martial arts before transitioning to MMA. Pat Miletich, one of the greatest MMA trainers of all-time, holds a black belt in Karate. But he’s also boxed, wrestled, and trained jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai. You only need to be concerned about an instructor if the only thing they have to fall back on is their traditional martial arts background.
Almost as bad as schools closing and re-opening with a new identity is that some traditional martial arts schools are simply adding the initials “MMA” to their signage. These gyms are trying to pass off Karate as a contemporary MMA striking technique while simply going out and getting a blue belt to head their jiu-jitsu program.
I’ve trained at strip mall Karate dojos so I speak from some first-hand experience. And my experience has been that most McDojos are bad and I’m alarmed that some of them are now claiming they can teach people MMA. A lot of them have already watered down traditional martial arts so what reason do we have to believe they’re not going to do the same to MMA?
So don’t be afraid to ask for credentials. And once you get the credentials of the instructors, be sure to check them out. We live in the information age. If someone makes a claim that you can’t verify through a routine Google search, there’s a chance they are telling you a tall tale. If someone says they’ve fought in the UFC, their name should show up on Sherdog’s fight finder. If someone is telling you they have won big-time grappling tournaments in the past, you should see something when you enter their name into a search engine.
5. Read a contract before you sign it - You’d be surprised how many times people sign something without reading it. Some gyms have straight-forward contracts that were downloaded from a template site. Others are extremely litigious and put you in a situation where you are signing away basic rights. The reality is that just because you sign something doesn’t mean it’s binding (a contract still has to be within the law) but chances are you will require the services of a lawyer to get out of a ridiculous contract even if it’s not legally enforceable. With most gym contracts I’ve signed, it’s the gym’s position that they cannot be found liable for anything — not even if someone were to spar while tripping their face off and beating the piss out of you in the process.
So read contracts and know what you’re getting into ahead of time. Most gyms are either not insured or under-insured, which is insane considering that injury is inherent to combat sports simply by sheer nature. You shouldn’t just assume everything is going to be okay if you get caught in a kneebar and you tear ligaments because someone didn’t let go in time. And if you have health insurance, it might not be a bad idea to review the terms of your policy. Chances are the typical HMO isn’t going to cover martial arts injuries.
6. Ask if pro fighters train out of the gym - The odds of becoming a pro fighter are already against you unless you’re a former NCAA Division I competitor; a standout Muay Thai fighter; or a jiu-jitsu prodigy. Even if you have a strong pedigree, success in MMA is still not a guarantee. No matter how much respect you have for the sport, it’s still ten times harder than it looks on television. But if you have pro aspirations, your chances of developing into a pro-caliber fighter are depressed further if you are training at a gym that either has no current pros or has never produced a pro.
7. Observe the demeanor of the student body - Whether you’re training during a free trial period or just observing a class, be mindful of how the students act. There are a lot of knuckleheads that try and train martial arts. MMA is attracting a lot of people who are insecure with their place in life. These are the types of people who think they are a bad ass just because they gave someone a black eye while sparring.
The gym I train at, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu United, is knucklehead-free because the owner of the school, Jared Weiner, would rather run a clean program than to allow people to get away with murder simply because he wants their money. Any school worth its salt has ways of weeding out undesirable students from their population. While weeding out methods can vary greatly, legitimate gyms do not allow assholes to run the risk of soiling their gym’s reputation just so they can get an additional $150 a month.
If there is no policing method in place at a gym, that’s a sign that unprofessional conduct is tolerated and you do not want to waste your time at such a place.
8. Take advantage of any trial offers and then trust your gut instinct – You should never commit to a gym until going through a free trial period. There is no better way to determine if a gym is right for you than to go through a trial period. After that trial period is up, you should have a good idea of whether the gym is right for you. If you find that there are a lot of unanswered questions and too many red flags, take that as a sign that you should probably keep looking for a gym that feels like a better fit.