OAKLAND — A new generation of young Maine residents is growing up watching mixed martial arts, a full-contact combat sport, on television.
The result has been a dramatic increase in popularity for MMA classes and competitions in Maine, according to Wes Littlefield, owner of Littlefield’s Gym on Fairfield Street in Oakland.
“In the last seven years, it’s been really getting crazy,” Littlefield said.
Research shows that mixed martial arts fighters are likely to suffer injuries but not at a rate that is inconsistent with other combat sports.
Maine legalized mixed martial arts as a sport in 2011, sparking a flurry of events in the state that have drawn thousands of spectators. In September, a crowd of nearly 2,000 showed up to watch a handful of fighters do battle at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.
On Saturday, one of Littlefield’s students, Phillip Exner, a Marine veteran and student at Thomas College in Waterville, will face his first opponent during another event at the Colisee.
Littlefield said the public events have fueled even more demand for MMA classes. Eight months ago, he opened a new MMA-only room, where every week as many as 15 students, many of them teens, gather to hone their skills in what many of them refer to as the ultimate in combat sports.
Before the training begins, they sit barefooted on the mats that cover the floor, stretching their legs out as they engage in small talk.
Kurtis Scott, 17, of Fairfield, recently earned a black belt in karate after 12 years of training. Scott was a pre-teen when mixed martial arts became widely popularized on cable television about a decade ago. Now, he considers it to be a higher level of combat than karate, in part because combatants can use any mixture of a number of fighting styles, from wrestling to boxing to jujitsu.
That not only widens the range of possible moves, increasing the complexity and excitement, he said, but it is also of more practical value, because he is better able to defend himself, should he be attacked.
He’s not sure where his interest will take him, but he’d like to find out.
“I’d like to do a couple amateur fights, maybe even a pro fight,” he said.
Exner, 24, who graduated from Messalonskee High School in 2008, also said the appeal of mixed martial arts is partially its practical value in real-life combat.
“It’s the ultimate sport,” he said. “It’s the combination of everything. Boxers use just their hands. Wrestlers just grapple. In a street fight, this is way better.”
Exner, who also works at JR Metal Frames in Belgrade, said his military experience gained during two tours in Afghanistan will help him during his first amateur fight on Saturday.
“When you’re in the cage and the enemy has you in a tight spot, you’re going after each other’s weaknesses and assets,” he said.
Much of the criticism of the sport has centered on the idea that it is dangerous for its participants, who are allowed to punch each other wearing only four-ounce gloves and no protective headgear.
A 2006 study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that 40 percent of matches end with at least one fighter being injured; its authors concluded that the likelihood of injury is high but in line with other combat sports that involve striking, such as boxing or judo.
A separate 2008 study by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that the most dangerous combat sport is boxing, which results in more brain injuries than MMA.
A third study, published in 2009 by the North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, found that inexperienced fighters are far more likely to sustain injury because they are less likely to follow safety precautions and to successfully execute defensive maneuvers.
The worst injury Exner has faced during his mixed martial arts training is a lost tooth; he said the tooth’s replacement has been knocked out five times. He’s also suffered minor concussions and stresses to his joints.
He said his mother doesn’t like that he exposes himself to injury, but he feels much safer than he did in Afghanistan, where a concussive blast ruptured both of his eardrums and caused them to bleed for several days.
“There, you risk your life,” he said.