Jeff Pineda’s eight-year-old daughter, Aalijah, spends every day after school in the gym. Ten hours a week, the pink-loving third grader from Anaheim, California, steps into a cage to perfect her skills in jujitsu, wrestling, and kickboxing. Some parents might wince watching these sessions; after all, Aalijah gets repeatedly pummeled by fists and kicked hard in the ribs. But the level of physical contact isn’t unusual--it just comes with the territory of being ranked #1 in the country in youth mixed martial arts for her age and weight.
“This sport boosts her self-confidence and self-esteem,” Mr. Pineda said. “When she fights boys and beats them, she can say to herself, ‘I can do this.’ She gets a huge sense of accomplishment with every win.”
And win Aalijah does. Since she started fighting at age five, Aalijah’s been crowned United States Fight League All Star Show Champion three times, and earned the 2011 North American Pankration Champion title in the 50-pound category, beating out every girl--and boy--in the division. Nicknamed “The Prodigy,” Aalijah trades hair bows for fierce cornrows when she steps in the ring. Her signature move? The guillotine, a submission chokehold.
Watch Aalijah compete:
To be clear, youth MMA, or Pankration as it’s widely known, bares little resemblance to your neighborhood karate or Tae Kwon Do. While it’s built on skills learned in martial arts--targeted strikes to the torso--children earn points by their ability to put various skills together during fights. “There’s no grappling in karate and no strikes in wrestling. Pankration combines both in one sport,” explained Jon Frank, president of the United States Fight League, the leading organization of youth MMA in the country. “Kids can win by applying submission techniques like joint locks and chokes or by points from properly applied martial arts techniques,” Frank said.
The sport has exploded in the last 10 years; according to ESPN, an estimated 3.2 million kids 13 and under now participate. Kids can start classes as early as age 6.
Mr. Pineda realizes parents unfamiliar with the United States Fight League and its rules (unlike in adult MMA, kids 15 and under can’t hit each other in the head and takedowns intended to cause injury are prohibited) find fault with his decision to let Aalijah compete. But the reality, Mr. Pineda insists, is quite different. He says the worst injury his daughter has suffered is a sprained ankle, and he’s convinced the benefits of the sport far outweigh the risks. “MMA teaches her to work hard. She understands that being a winner takes dedication and focus. She realizes that to get such good results she has to put in the effort,” Mr. Pineda said. The USFL says in its 12-year history no child has ever been seriously hurt.
For Clay Carpenter’s three teenage children, a significant upside to participating in mixed martial arts has been meeting kids from around the world. His two sons and daughter have left their home just outside Phoenix, Arizona to compete in Canada, Ukraine, Russia, Hungary, and Greece. Connor, 13, Clayton, 16, and their 14-year-old sister, Mika, have each been named World Champions in various fight league competitions. “Exposure to other countries and cultures has been an incredible experience for my kids,” Mr. Carpenter said. “The fact that they now stay in touch with new friends through Facebook gives them a tangible connection to children all over the world. It's common for them to exchange small gifts at the events with their competitors.”
Watch Mika Carpenter compete:
Mr. Carpenter adds that his children are learning lessons they’d never be exposed to in team sports like football, lacrosse, or soccer. “It’s a personal sport. It’s just them out there. If they lose, they can’t blame someone else,” he said.
No matter the perceived rewards, MMA is now capturing the attention of lawmakers. Since the beginning of 2013, at least eight states, including Alabama, Michigan, and New York, have introduced legislation targeting the dangers linked to the sport, according to the latest data available from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Watch Clayton Carpenter compete:
Medical experts are also voicing concerns. Dr. Rebecca Carl, member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, says the potential for concussion worries her the most. “Kids don’t need to be hit in the head to get a concussion,” Carl warned. “The force of being thrown to the ground is enough to injure the brain. I don't think there's enough data available to say that MMA is safe for children.” she said.
“I would never let anything happen to my daughter,” Mr. Pineda insists. “I was skeptical, like any parent, at first. Aalijah is a girl, and I didn’t want her to get hurt. But her coaches are terrific and the referees are highly trained. I’ve only had to stop a fight once.”
Watch Connor Carpenter compete:
Allison Gilbert writes regularly about parenting and family. She’s also author of Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children. She previously wrote about youth MMA for HLN’s Raising America.