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Getting their kicks

More than two dozen mixed martial artists train at Powell Sport and Combat Systems in Columbia.
Sunday, December 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:00 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

The gym isn’t visible from the street.

You won’t find it on Broadway or Walnut, as its address suggests. Maps are of little use, considering the building isn’t technically located on a street.

To find Powell Sport and Combat Systems, the only gym in Columbia that specializes in mixed martial arts, you must make your way down the narrow alley behind D Sports at 1034 E. Walnut. Walk past the dumpsters and broken beer bottles that line the pavement and through a glass door, on which a small sign hangs, offering the gym’s hours of operation.

In a way, the gym is a microcosm of the sport it offers: If you don’t go searching for it, you probably won’t find it.

Mixed martial arts lives in the dark buildings and tiny gyms of the world, a type of underground competition that hasn’t yet found its way into mainstream sport.

You’ve most likely never heard of any of its stars. The sport certainly doesn’t offer much possibility for fame and fortune and is, at best, a career choice.

“It doesn’t provide the best retirement plan,” said Travis Day, the gym’s owner.

But that doesn’t stop the 25 to 30 people who train at Powell’s from spending countless hours there. They give up their weekends and evenings and time with family and friends because of a passion they’ve developed for an activity that goes largely unnoticed by the general public.

“I don’t know if there’s a more pure form of sport,” fighter Ryan Williams said. “There’s no ball or goal, no apparatus. It’s just two individuals, and whoever the better man is, wins.”

The sport, which combines different aspects of boxing, wrestling and kickboxing, originated in ancient Greece, when fighters would use any means necessary to defeat their opponent in what was called pankration.

Today’s amateur matches consist of three 3-minute rounds in a boxing-style ring, with a judge who determines a winner if neither fighter is knocked out. The rules are based on an almost “anything-goes” policy, with the exception of elbow strikes and knees to the head.

“There’s also no biting, eye gouging, kicks to the groin, things like that,” Day said.

Still, it takes a certain type of person to subject themselves to the rigors of mixed martial arts, and the fighters at Powell’s are no exception. Many are ex-wrestlers who developed an interest in contact sports at an early age and see mixed martial arts as a way to continue the adrenaline rush of hand-to-hand combat.

There’s Nick Sarna, the 19-year-old Moberly resident with a pair of menacing eyeballs tattooed to the back of his shaven head. And Joe Halvorson, an MU freshman from Minnesota, who made his college decision only after confirming the presence of a mixed martial arts gym in Columbia.

Day is an unlikely leader of the crew. He wears glasses and a sandy-blonde goatee, his hair hidden by a worn MU hat. At 5 feet 7 inches and 145 pounds, he is one of the smallest fighters in the gym, but no doubt one of the most respected. Day is one of two members, along with Williams, who fight professionally, traveling the country for matches because the state of Missouri has outlawed the sport at the professional level.

He works out of a cramped office in the corner of the gym, and spends upwards of 30 hours a week at Powell’s, both training and coaching.

“There are a lot of people that come out and want to learn the art,” Day said. “But not everybody wants to work that hard. We work extremely hard in here. I’m not sending these guys out there to get hurt, I’m sending them out to dominate. Working out in here is intense, very intense.”

Indeed. It’s not uncommon for many of the fighters, in the months leading up to a show, to spend three hours a day, six days a week training. Many juggle school, work and training in an effort to prepare for the three or four shows the team enters each year

And the bond the fighters develop clearly reflects their commitment. The fighters routinely spend time together away from the gym, fishing or hunting on the weekends and throwing the occasional barbecue, weather permitting.

“Sometimes, after the fights, a little drinking might be in order,” Day said, before quickly adding, “But not too much. We’re not big drinkers in here; we’re health nuts more than anything.”

On a chilly evening last month, a handful of fighters congregated around a small television in a corner of the gym, watching footage of the previous weekend’s show at the Field House in Columbia.

The team faired well that weekend (Oct. 30), winning each of the four matches in which it competed. In the past two years, Powell’s fighters have gone 26-3 in amateur fights and have dominated many of the other mixed martial arts teams in Missouri.

When asked what it takes to become a standout in the sport, Jake Hecht, who defeated his opponent in 96 seconds at the Field House, barely glances up from the video before answering.

“You need discipline,” he said. “A lot of heart. You know, you’re out there and sometimes it gets real tough, like in the third round. But you’ve got to be able to just push through.”

Halvorson, who is sporting a cast on his broken right hand, defeated his opponent in barely more than a minute, and Sarna handily won the first fight of his career.

“I’ve learned a lot, but not enough, obviously,” Sarna said, referring to his bruised left eye. “You grow, and as you train you get more experience. I definitely plan on doing this for awhile.”

Although Sarna’s shiner and Halvorson’s broken hand suggest otherwise, the sport historically is not as brutal as one might think. No fighter has ever been killed in a mixed martial arts fight in America, and, Day says, the increase of safety precautions make it unlikely that any serious injuries will take place in the future.

“A lot of people think we’re a bunch of barbarians out to kill each other, which we’re really not at all” Day said. “The last two shows we haven’t had anything worse than a black eye or bloody nose.”

And to a man, the fighters are more than willing to clear up any other misconceptions that might exist about the sport.

“I’ve heard a lot of people, like professional journalists, say that it’s a bare-knuckle sport with no rules, and I don’t know what they’re watching because we wear 4-ounce gloves, which is enough to protect the knuckles and protect the other fighter,” said Halvorson, who is visibly irritated as the thought lingers in his mind. “And there are so many rules, like no shots to the groin and in amateur they’re making it safer because you can’t knee someone’s head on the ground.”

The sport’s growth has also been hindered by the illegalization of professional fighting in Missouri. Long considered a West Coast activity, and recently gaining popularity on the East Coast, mixed martial arts hasn’t yet been accepted by decision-makers in the Midwest.

Two years ago Powell and Jay Damato, owner of neighboring Gold’s Gym, tried to pass a bill that would legalize the professional level of the sport in Missouri. After a meeting was held in Jefferson City to discuss the details of the bill, Powell and Day haven’t received much feedback in the past few months.

“It’s basically just sitting there right now,” Powell said.

Day hopes the passing of the bill would lead to a rise in popularity of mixed martial arts and a general increase in exposure. He’d like to see a larger number of fans at shows, and wouldn’t mind the business Powell’s would get if the sport gained popularity.

But for now, he and his fighters are content to live in the relative obscurity that their chosen art delegates.

“I just like being in here everyday,” Williams said. “You know, having a goal, and working hard for it; trying to plan out and achieve it.”


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