American Top Team offers great opportunities for fighters

Friday, April 24, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Ben Askren, a former MU wrestler and U.S. Olympian who has recently gone professional in MMA, trains at Columbia's American Top Team gym in 2009.

COLUMBIA – When former fighter Wade Rome moved from Florida to Columbia, he brought with him his business career, his family and his love for Mixed Martial Arts. American Top Team is the most established MMA academy in Florida, and Rome hoped to make that true for Missouri.

American Top Team has produced several elite MMA fighters, and Rome helped make Columbia home to an American Top Team facility 2 1/2 years ago. The gym features an octagon MMA replica cage, a boxing ring and several mats.

Wrestlers, boxers, Muay Thai specialists and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belts have reaped the benefits of this gym because MMA fighting requires fighters to specialize in all four of these areas. A fighter can win an MMA fight by submission, technical knockout or by points decided at the end of each of the three rounds.

Former Missouri wrestler and 2008 Olympian Ben Askren started training for MMA fighting after the Olympics concluded this past summer. Askren experienced his first MMA fight in February and will have his second at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Holiday Inn Expo Center.

Askren has had an interest in MMA fighting since he was kid. He became more intrigued when his former wrestling teammate Tyron Woodley started fighting and training at American Top Team.

“I didn’t really hear about it that much at the beginning because I was so focused on the wrestling, but then Tyron Woodley started coming out here to train," Askren said. "When he started fighting, I started becoming more aware.”

Askren brings the wrestling aspect to American Top Team, and others have benefited from his wrestling expertise. Francisco “Kiko” France said he has benefited greatly by wrestling with Askren.

France has been Askren’s teacher in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which is a form of martial arts that involves grappling and ground fighting and focuses on submission. France is a black belt and was brought by Rome from Florida to help train fighters. France said he was excited when he heard about the wrestlers MU had.

“I looked up on the Internet and found out about the wrestlers at Missouri,” he said. “The first thing I thought was that’s going to be great. It’s a college town. So many guys want to train. There are a lot of tough guys here.”

France said the days of pounding your opponent with pure strength to win a fight are over. Fighters must learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in order to compete.

Askren said Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has come easy to him, but the striking involved in boxing and Muay Thai is still new to him. Fortunately for Askren and other aspiring fighters, American Top Team has this covered as well.

MU graduate Jake Hecht has a lot of experience in boxing and teaches striking at American Top Team. Hecht was a Golden Gloves champion in 2004 and a runner-up in 2002.

“Eighty percent of fights end up on the ground, but 100 percent of fights start on your feet,” Hecht said. “You obviously have to know how to defend yourself and be offensive on your feet. Traditional boxing plays a huge roll in MMA. To teach them the striking game is to teach them a very important fraction of the game.”

Muay Thai specialist Lucas Lopes moved to Columbia from Brazil earlier this year. Lopes, who cannot speak English, came to Columbia to help fighters learn his craft and hopes to learn wrestling from Askren and others. Muay Thai is a form of martial arts that incorporates striking with your hands, elbows, shins and knees.

“Muay Thai is a very aggressive martial arts where you work knees, kicks, elbows and everything,” Lopes’ translator said.

The gym offers all of the tools a fighter needs to become elite, but it also offers non-fighters a chance to work out differently. Hecht said 85 percent of the members of American Top Team aren’t there to train for fighting, and Askren said a person who doesn’t want to fight can still make good use of the gym.

“I think fitness in America is boring,” Askren said. “People are bored. Why is America obese? Because jogging and lifting weights is boring. We needed something new. That was a fad of the '70s and '80s. To come in here and roll around with Jiu-Jitsu is 10 times a better workout than jogging for that same amount period, and it’s 10 times as fun also.”

Saturday's event will feature Askren as well as three other American Top Team professional fighters and three amateur fighters. France said everyone who gets a chance to fight has earned it.

“People think to fight in MMA is just to put on gloves, get in a cage and fight,” France said. “Some guys come in and say they’re a really tough guy. In the first class, they realize it’s not like that. They have to train a lot.”

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