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Mixed Martial Arts Attracts a Global Following, Leading to Interest in Competing in Lansing Area

Martial Arts
Michael Duke

MMA, thanks to the UFC’s reach, is bringing fans to local martial arts gym to train. But the experts are wary of using martial arts training to become a cage fighter. MMA, thanks to the UFC’s reach, is bringing fans to local martial arts.

EAST LANSING, Mich. – The sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has gone globally mainstream, thanks to marquee UFC stars such as Conor McGregor and Daniel Cormier.

MMA’s popularity is prompting people to join training gyms and try to fast-track into sanctioned cage matches. But a few Lansing-based MMA instructors believe the art form should be taught for different reasons other than cage fighting.

Daniel Smith, the owner and head instructor at Michigan Muay Thai Academy in Lansing, focuses his teachings on the self-defense aspect of martial arts.

“What I teach people to do is: I educate them on fighting, and how it works, why it works, when it works and who it works against,” Smith, 51, said.

Smith has practiced martial arts for 40 years and taught Michigan State’s self-defense kinesiology course from 2003-17. He said it’s important for his students to learn the basics of martial arts as an art form before jumping into the sport, and UFC.

“I teach my students more about the functional and practical parts of the arts, more than the fanciness of the arts,” Smith said.

T. Kent Nelson, the founder and guru of K.S.K. Martial Arts in Lansing, said the teaching of martial arts as a sport is entirely different from teaching it as an art form.

“There’s mixed martial art concept, and then there’s mixed martial art sport,” said Nelson, 40, who taught out of his home before opening his school five years ago. “Mixed martial art sport would be the cage fighting and UFC…those kinds of things where there are rules and referees. Much older than that though is the mixed martial concept, which is just simply the idea of bending different ideas, concepts and theories that work.”

Nelson has over 30 years of martial arts training, and like Smith, uses his expertise to teach self-defense instead of developing future UFC fighters. Nelson sees learning self-defense as one of the main reasons why parents enroll their kids at his school.

“Very often nowadays, schools have these policies of zero tolerance for fighting. So, if one kid walks up and punches another, both kids get suspended, which is ridiculous,” Nelson said. “That drives the parents nuts, so a lot of times I’ll get parents that come up to me and say, ‘I don’t care if he gets suspended I want him to be able to defend himself’.”

Martial Arts
Credit Michael Duke

But as people come to train, it’s more than just self-defense. Smith believes the growth of the UFC has caused many to become interested in martial arts for the wrong reasons.

“I think the UFC really does help in the aspect that people might want to do it. I get a lot of people who say, ‘I want to learn how to do this, I saw it on TV’,” Smith said. “You’re going to learn how to do it but it’s going to be better than what you see on TV because you’re actually going to learn the art. You’re going to learn how to more practically use the art…most people want to fight but they don’t want to learn how to be a fighter.”

John Faett, master and director of Victory Martial Arts in Okemos, believes the UFC, and the behavior of its more controversial fighters, are bad for martial arts.

“I actually think the UFC hurts my business more than it helps it, because of the types of people that are portrayed as heroes in the UFC,” Faett said. “I think Conor McGregor, for example, is a   misrepresentation for who a martial artist is, and I don’t condone their actions or how they act.”

He referenced the post-fight Oct. 6 brawl at UFC 229. It occurred after the McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov fight, where Nurmagomedov immediately climbed out of the cage and hurled at McGregor’s training partner and Bellator fighter Dillon Danis. This was followed by members of Nurmagomedov’s team jumping the cage and attacking McGregor.

“I thought the last UFC – where the guy jumped out of the cage and started punching somebody – was disgusting, and for me, that’s not martial arts,” Faett said.

But the UFC organization has seen growth, despite its not-so-perfect image. In 2001, the first year of current UFC President Dana White’s tenure, the company averaged about 70,000 pay-per-view buys per event. Last year, UFC averaged approximately 333,000 pay-per-view purchases per event, according to Forbes.

Nelson said the increasing popularity of UFC will often cause fans to call his school and look to train in cage fighting.

But they don’t usually get what they are looking for.

“We’ll get two types of people. We’ll tell them we’re not competition-based, but we still teach the same material,” Nelson said. “So, you’ll get people who will come in and be like, ‘Cool, awesome, I want to come in and get the technical aspect’, and they’ll come in and they’ll love it. But you’ll get the other types of people who will say, ‘Oh, you’re not competition-based, OK then never mind’, which is fine, that’s their choice.”

“It’s about what you want.”

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