A fighting chance
Mixed martial arts is kicking and fighting its way into the mainstream
As a child, Kenji Alejandre’s heart and fists began to beat to the staccato rhythm of a well-disciplined fighter. His father, Rob, already an established fighter, began ingraining the skills of a pugilist in his son at an early age.
Kenji’s uncanny knack for fighting began to reveal itself at a very early age.
“When he was 2 years old he was doing things that were scaring me,” his father recalled.
In June, the 23-year-old Alejandre set an amateur record in mixed martial arts (MMA) competition with a four-second knockout. Since then, he has hired a promoter with the intention of going pro, which could potentially earn hime some $20,000 per fight.
Alejandre’s lithe 5-foot-6 frame carries nothing but bone and lean muscle, which he hones through vigorous training and dieting. Perhaps most impressive is the young man’s demeanor. Alejandre carries himself with a radiant sense of confidence and assuredness.
But even with all this in his corner, he’s not cocky. His only outward aggression appears to be dedicated to the thrill of the sport—which may be his most advantageous attribute. And if he is to compete—and succeed—within the ranks of today’s professional MMA fighters, he will need any and every advantage he can muster.
As the popularity of boxing begins to fade, MMA has a fighting chance to emerge as America’s next contact sport of choice. MMA’s influence is spreading and has even eked its way into docile Northern California. Last year Rob Alejandre opened his Alejandre Training Systems in the sleepy town of Red Bluff, and more facilities are opening in Chico.
MMA’s no-holds-barred approach has been drawing large audiences, beginning in the late ‘90s on pay-per-view television. From the comfort of their homes, audiences could experience fighters pitted against one another where punching, kicking and wrestling were all part if the evening’s ticket. Organizations like Pancrase, Ultimate Fighting Championship and Pride Fighting have helped propel mixed martial arts to what it is today.
The sport draws a lot of criticism, however, because of its seemingly brutish nature.
“It’s a little barbaric,” Rob admits.
What differentiates MMA from boxing is its hard-hitting, fast approach to fighting, which seems to appeal to a younger generation.
“I think boxing is always going to be around,” Alejandre said. “But as far as fan popularity and it being one of the most dominant [contact sports], it’s already dying out.”
Alejandre’s take on boxing is nothing new. Sports writers from around the country have been toying with the idea that boxing is dead.
Bill Simmons, a writer for ESPN the Magazine, wrote in a recent column: “Sure, it’s a completely corrupt sport that lacks any semblance of organization, but that’s been the case since, well, forever. The bigger issue? Lack of star power. American kids don’t grow up hoping to become the next Ali or Sugar Ray anymore; they’re hoping to be the next LeBron, Griffey, Brady or Tiger. The thought of getting smacked in the head for 20 years, soaked by the Don Kings of the world, then ending up with slurred speech and a constant tremor doesn’t sound too enticing.”
Even boxing’s pay-per-view revenues have been trumped by MMA in recent years. As reported in March by the online magazine MMAWeekly, the 2006 Ultimate Fighting Championships brought in more than $220 million in pay-per-view revenue, overtaking boxing’s previous record of about $200 million in 1999.
If cultivating fighters was the only thing an MMA academy sought to achieve, then as a business it would probably fail. That’s why these bastions of hurt thrive mostly off students who are there either to learn self-defense or simply to get in shape.
In an old warehouse off Highway 32 is Chico’s very own house of pain. Here, students can be found wrestling, kicking and sparring on any given day.
StandAlone Mixed Martial Arts Academy is a modest, but clean training facility. Next to the entrance, an information table offers various books and articles about MMA, along with class schedules and a display that reads: “He who bleeds with me shalt always be my brother.”
Matting consumes most of the 3,000-square-foot warehouse. A full-size fight ring gleams in one corner, and a collection of various punching bags hangs on the opposite end of the room.
Most of the students enrolled at StandAlone don’t go there to become fighters, but because programs such as Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai (a form of strike fighting) tend to be extremely challenging. By the time the academy had its grand opening in late September, enrollment had swelled to about 100 people.
StandAlone head coach Jason Pietz, who trained and fought under the tutelage of two-time UFC champion Ken Shamrock, said workouts are not for the faint-of-heart.
“If I only get two pukers a week, I’m just not happy,” said Pietz, who will headline a fight at Gold Country Casino later this year.
StandAlone’s ideology regarding enrollment isn’t that different from other MMA academies. Alejandre’s Red Bluff academy relies on self-defense and fitness classes to support its business. Some of the most popular programs taught at ATS are the self-defense classes for women and children.
Rob Alejandre combines 106 amateur boxing matches, 25 fights overseas and three-plus decades of coaching martial arts as experience for the classes he teaches. In the mid-'70s he coached boxers in the Army, and fought several martial-arts fights overseas. Back then, it was not uncommon to see fights where competitors wrapped their hands with rope for gloves.
“I pissed blood for two weeks after each fight,” Rob said of the experience. “It gave me an understanding of what a real warrior is.”
And with MMA’s popularity increasing in recent years, the Alejandres are now banking on their combined skills to establish a name for their business. But the younger Alejandre knows there are no guarantees. Kenji is studying to be a dietician just in case the prospect of competition fighting doesn’t work out, and Rob encourages him.
But if there’s any time to jump in the ring, it’s now, while Kenji is young and fit.
“I’m coming in at one of the best times in this sport because the paydays for these fighters have gone up,” Alejandre said. “Coming from a small town like [Red Bluff], that would be huge, because we’re coming out of nowhere.”