It’s an easy story. Redneck parents strap up their kids for MMA brawls in a rural Missouri garage, under the tutelage of some redneck Tyler Durden. Talk TV’s hyperbolic hosts couldn’t ask for anything more. It’s sensational, titillating, and timely. The only problem is that it’s not entirely true; at least not the way television told it.
In late March of this year, the Associated Press picked up a local story about the Garage Boys Fight Club. Located in Carthage, Missouri, Garage Boys is operated by a professional fi ghter named Rudy Lindsey. The story, which spread like mat rash, told of children as young as six training and competing in mixed martial arts, and painted the kids’ parents and Lindsey as complete yokels.
Soon, television crews were visiting southwestern Missouri, and Fox News producers began requesting interviews with parents and coaches. Accusations of child abuse and exploitation were made, and Missouri state legislators pounced on the issue, making bold statements about a sport they admittedly knew very little about. Within weeks, the furor died down and the country forgot about the fi ghting kids from Carthage.
But the folks in Missouri didn’t forget. They feel burned because the reporters and television producers they spoke to didn’t understand the basics of MMA, burned because some members of the media lied to them, burned because strangers accused them of child abuse, and because when they needed their friends the most, some of those friends suddenly became casual acquaintances.
Legislation outlawing youth MMA in Missouri goes into effect August 28, but the important questions about child safety and exploitation raised by coverage of the Garage Boys Fight Club remain unanswered. As MMA continues to grow in popularity, it will become increasingly important to fi gure out what to do with all the kids who want to pursue careers in the cage. Lindsey, the parents of his students, and his friend, fi ght promoter Nathan Orand, want to have that conversation.
Lindsey knows that his gym’s name played into the perception that he is an irresponsible adult training hooligan kids, but the Garage Boys Fight Club moniker was just an acknowledgement of his team’s humble beginnings. “When I fi rst started studying [Jiu-Jitsu], my teacher taught out of his garage,” said Lindsey. The coach didn’t set out to run a kids MMA program, he just wanted to keep his youth wrestlers busy during the off-season. He kept kids on the mat by teaching them the rudiments of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu. The off-season program took on a life of its own, and soon he had a crew of pre-pubescent pugilists to go along with the adults he trains.
The United States Marine Corps veteran was stung by accusations that what he was doing wasn’t as honorable as so-called traditional Brazilmartial arts. Lindsey believes that what he does is closer to traditional martial arts than what’s available at a strip mall dojo. Honor, discipline, respect, and confi dence come not from executing katas against imaginary attackers, but acquiring practical skills and testing them in real time. “Until we put on the gear and go in a live situation you’re never gonna know if [a technique] is gonna work,” Lindsey said.
With no national sanctioning body for amateur and youth MMA, trainers like Lindsey are left to do what they think is best to protect the health of young competitors. The twelve children who competed under the Garage Boys wore grappling headgear, shin guards, and chest protectors. No striking was allowed on the ground. “The last thing I want is for these kids to get hurt,” Lindsey said.
Safety was the biggest concern for Larry Swinehart, one of the parents involved in Garage Boys. The Joplin Police Department patrolman was hesitant to let his three children – Larry, 14, Shelby, 12, and Hayden, 10 – participate in Lindsey’s program, but the alterations to rules and equipment earned his confi dence. “They all played full-contact football, so them getting hit wasn’t a big deal with me,” Swinehart said. Swinehart became comfortable enough with kids MMA that all of his children competed at Freestyle Kombat League events. Based in Tulsa, 120 miles southwest of Carthage, FKL is a youth-specifi c MMA promotion founded by professional fi ghter Nathan Orand.
Orand operates a Miletich Fighting Systems affi liate gym in Tulsa, and is a true believer in kids MMA. “It’s the safest contact sport,” Orand said, noting that youth boxing, wrestling, and kickboxing are all sanctioned in Oklahoma and surrounding states. In Orand’s mind, the FKL is analogous to Pop Warner football, Little League Baseball, or CYO basketball. “The goal is to start them young and build them up to [full contact MMA],” the promoter said.
The fi ght promoter appeared in several stories and television segments this past spring, refusing to tap out or quit even when it was clear that he was there to get pounded out. On Geraldo at Large, Orand suffered through inane and offensive questions with a smile, even laughing when Geraldo Rivera asked him why he didn’t just give the children baseball bats and let them bludgeon each other.
Sean Hannity was slightly more fair and balanced when Orand appeared on Hannity and Colmes, but he also hammered the promoter on the subject of child exploitation. No promoter is in the business of losing money, but Orand is passionate about what he does and sees it as an essential component of the sports’ long-term health. Orand thinks that many of his critics are opposed to the idea of contact sports for kids in general and therefore doesn’t believe he can convince them that kids MMA is safe with any amount of statistical or anecdotal evidence.
The lynchpin of Orand’s argument is the National Safety Council’s report on youth sports injuries, which lists injuries treated in hospital emergency rooms associated with sports and recreational activities. The report arguably shows a lower rate of injury for youth boxing, wrestling, and martial arts than that of football. No fi rm conclusions can be made that combat sports are indeed the safest of the contact sports, but by the same token there is no evidence to suggest that it’s as dangerous as some critics would have you believe.
Orand also claims to have overseen more than 250 youth MMA fi ghts without seeing an injury worse than a bloodied nose. Still, the Oklahoma Boxing Commission is pushing to ban kids MMA and Orand is digging in his heels. The promoter is planning an international tournament-style competition and claims to have the support of major players in the industry. But not everyone in the MMA world is so keen on the idea of kid’s competitions.
The founder of American Top Team is an ardent supporter of MMA training for children, even going as far as enlisting Tanya Edwards, wife of pro fi ghter Yves Edwards and former school principal, to help him develop the educational aspect of ATT’s kids program. But that doesn’t mean that Ricardo Liborio’s young pupils will be fi ghting any time soon. “I don’t believe that before eighteen years old kids should be allowed to compete [in MMA],” Liborio said.
ATT is home to more than 150 tykes who learn striking without sparring, takedowns, hip movement, grappling, and body control. Those students older than six who demonstrate a certain aptitude, maturity, and interest in competition are handpicked for the competition team, and can participate in submission grappling tournaments as well as youth boxing and kickboxing. But Liborio believes that competitive MMA, with all its risks and rewards, is strictly an adult’s domain.
Though fi ghters, trainers, parents, and fans within the MMA community come down on opposite sides of the issue of children’s competitions, everyone see
ms to agree on the virtues of MMA training for children as well as the need for a national sanctioning body for young combat sports athletes.
Orand hopes to keep kids MMA in the news in Tulsa long enough to gather momentum nationwide, because he believes that youth MMA is necessary for the continued growth of the sport. Both he and Lindsey think that youth and amateur MMA need a national governing body to set and enforce rules and standards. Every time we go fi ght, the rules are different,” said Lindsey. “The sport is growing so fast we need some kind of uniformity.”
Many of Orand’s fi ghters cross state lines to compete, but Swinehart’s kids won’t be among them. The lawman doesn’t believe in traveling to a neighboring state to do what is illegal at home, so his kids’ careers are temporarily on hold. Months after Carthage welcomed the media circus, Swinehart is trying to make heads or tails of the coverage, the political grandstanding, and the righteous indignation of people who spoke from positions of total ignorance. “[Kids] can still participate in grappling and they can still kickbox, but it can’t be on the same mat,” said Swinehart. “Does that make sense?”