Cover Story: MMA momentum

Cover shot: Jason MacLean, 37, is a brown belt training out of United MMA in Tsawwassen. - Rob Newell Photo
Cover shot: Jason MacLean, 37, is a brown belt training out of United MMA in Tsawwassen.
— image credit: Rob Newell Photo

It was after being hit four times in the head with a piano bench and surviving a swarming in Maple Ridge that convinced Andrew Davis to open a self defense school.

The 29-year-old founder of United Mixed Martial Arts (UMMA) in Tsawwassen says his background in MMA was his saving grace.

"The only way you can survive something like that is if you know how to defend yourself," says Davis of the incident that happened eight years ago.

He had been asked by friends to help at a rowdy party and made the mistake of trying to break up a fight. Nearly a dozen people attacked him at once.

Fortunately for Davis, he'd been training in MMA since he was 15. He began under instructor Ivan Lee, who taught an early form of MMA called Hap do Sool, meaning combined martial arts in Korean.

There weren't very many MMA academies back in 1996, only three years after the debut of the now-popular Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

UMMA founder Andrew Davis is beginning his pro MMA career in February. Rob Newell photo.
"The thing about mixed martial arts is it's always supposed to be developing," says Davis, who believes Hap do Sool was a good first step in MMA development, but it needed to be taken to the next level.

When Lee left the school, Davis left as well and would later open Total Defense System, inspired by his near-death experience in Maple Ridge.

Davis spent the next five years refining teaching techniques for striking, grappling, and self defense, before buying Tsawwassen's Hap do Sool and merging the schools into UMMA.

UMMA maintains the traditional colour ranking of skill progression but the system itself isn't traditional. By the time a person reaches black belt he or she is completely well-rounded, says Davis. And although most people join MMA for fitness or fun, there are definite practical benefits.

"People are aware of the fact they're getting in good shape, but they're also learning techniques that can save their life."

Competing with the sharks

One fighter who came through the Tsawwassen school into the world of professional MMA is 25-year-old Michael Hill, a contestant currently fighting on Season 16 of The Ultimate Fighter reality TV series.

Hill was a young, scrappy kid living in Powell River, drinking, partying and getting into trouble with the law. He says it was a police officer that helped him reform his life back in 2005 when he told him about MMA, just around the time the first Ultimate Fighter show aired on TV and the sport was "blowing up."

He moved to Tsawwassen to live with his mother and walked into Davis' gym shortly after. He began training MMA from day one.

It didn't take long before Hill decided he wanted to fight in competitions. Davis and the TDS team began taking Hill to tournaments where he showed real potential.

"I actually got disqualified from one of the tournaments for hitting too hard," laughs Hill as he remembers his earlier fights.

It was in 2009 that Chris Franco of FKP MMA in Vancouver told him about the Ultimate Fighter trials in the United States. He jumped on the opportunity.

Although he needed three professional fights, he lied about his resume and got an assessment from the world's elite MMA organization.

TUF 16 contestant Michael Hill from Tsawwasen gets some corner advice from coach and UFC fighter Roy Nelson between rounds in a recent fight. Al Powers, Zuffa, LLC photo.

They told him he needed to go to a bigger training camp, so after three years of training in Tsawwassen, Hill didn't return home. He took a bus straight to Kelowna and joined Team Toshido, the same camp that developed UFC star Rory MacDonald.

"It was tough, man. I walked in as a minnow into a pool full of sharks and I thought I was a fighter then but I wasn't even close," says Hill.

Hill won his first professional fight last September in Edmonton, and won his next three fights, before being accepted as a contestant on the reality TV show. Although the show is pre-taped, the world learned Hill won his quarter-final match against Matt Secor in the show's most recent episode which aired Oct. 26.

But the show is no walk in the park, says Hill. There are 16 fighters all competing for one professional UFC contract and they jump on any sign of weakness.

"That house, it's almost worse than—I've never been to prison but—you get no contact with the outside world."

Evolving sport

Like many professional MMA fighters, Hill lives hand to mouth and counts on prize money to pay the bills.

"It's definitely not a fun living, that's for sure, and you don't make any money. I mean, I'm broke."

But Hill says he loves fighting for a living and believes one day all the hard work will pay off when he gets a big contract in the UFC.

"I've met a lot of great people along the way through this sport and they've really helped change me as a person, as a human being, as a brother, as a son, as a friend to my friends, better boyfriend."

Young children learn how to strike, grapple and other self defense techniques at United MMA in Tsawwassen. Rob Newell photo.

The perception of MMA has changed over the years, from a time when people thought it was barbaric, to today, when parents are even putting young girls into the sport. UMMA has several female black belt instructors, and young children train there from as young as five.

Jason Hanger, the founder of Red Tiger Martial Arts in Ladner, says the popularity of MMA has brought an increase in participation to all forms of martial arts.

UFC Welterweight (175 lb. limit) Champion Georges St-Pierre (GSP) may be a part of that popularity in Canada. The 31-year-old fighter from Montreal, a third degree black belt in Kyokushin Karate and first degree black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), has won nine consecutive UFC fights, defended his championship six consecutive times, and will defend his belt again Nov. 17 in Montreal against Carlos Condit at UFC 154.

But Hanger is concerned some professional fighters have allowed the marketing and money-making side of MMA take over. He says people need to understand martial arts are based on courtesy, respect, and discipline.

"Unfortunately, it brings some of these creeps out of the woodwork to do martial arts, but they want to do it from a, 'I'm going to smash somebody's face in' mentality."

Hanger has spent 23 years practising martial arts, including Taekwondo and BJJ.

"A kick is a kick, a punch is a punch. It doesn't really matter if it's Kung Fu or Karate. They're all based on the same tradition."

Going pro

Black belt instructors at United MMA in Tsawwassen, Asia Mattu (right) and Anna Battison, hit targets. Rob Newell photo.

Hanger has thought about MMA before, but says the intensity of training and propensity for injury is daunting.

"When you actually look at the training you have to do and the amount of injuries that pile up, it is a tough go," he says, adding the prize money for lower level fighters is usually a matter of diminishing returns.

Andrew Davis is set to make his MMA debut soon, happening Feb. 15, 2013, in Vancouver at the Fraser Youth Hall. He'll intensify his training over the next several months in order to be in peak physical condition on fight night.

"I don't think I've been at a stage in life when I could focus on it before. I wasn't at the mental state until now."

Davis has spent the last three years getting UMMA to the point where he can train full-time and launch his own career. He now trains or teaches eight hours a day in Tsawwassen or sometimes goes to Dynamic in Richmond.

At 29 years of age he knows it's a pivotal moment to get into competition or leave it to the next generation.

But who knows? The next "GSP" could be from Delta.

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