“It's all about the drive, the push to be resilient," says Joe McLaughlin, one of the coaches for the Sipayik Boxing/Mixed Martial Arts Club, about one of the fastest growing sports that is offering a healthy alternative for young men in the area. A number of mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters are training regularly at the Pleasant Point Youth and Recreation building, with two of the members preparing for upcoming matches.
Devon Newell will be fighting on May 10 during the New England Fights night at the Androscoggin Bank Colisée in Lewiston, facing Sean Evans of Massachusetts. Another member of the Sipayik club, Stephan Bassett, may be fighting on June 21 at the Combat Zone in New Hampshire. McLaughlin believes that one of the Sipayik fighters might make it into Ultimate Fighting Championship events, and he understands that the fight promotion company is considering eventually hosting matches in Bangor.
Newell, who is 24, says he's been interested in mixed martial arts since he was 10 and has always been involved in sports such as football and basketball. "The competitive drive's always been there my whole life." He says the fighters are treated with respect, and that there's "no showboating," as in professional wrestling or boxing. "In my opinion, it's one of the most pure forms of combat outside of going to war. Two men go in and one comes out with his hands raised." The respect and sense of community among different fight clubs and camps, Newell says, "make me proud to represent my people, my club and the sport."
About the training regimen, Newell, who is currently a super-heavyweight and is working down to qualify for the heavyweight class, comments, "You eat right, you train hard and you sleep well." He notes that a previous member of the club was smoking, which showed in his performance. One of the goals of the club is to promote a healthy lifestyle, including eating well, so that a fighter is lean and in the right weight class. Newell observes that one needs discipline to practice and train. "You've got to have the discipline and put the time in."
McLaughlin says, "You have to treat your body like a temple, with no drugs or alcohol and no fighting outside the ring. You have to be fighting at your optimal level." The rigorous training includes running and sprints, he says, since "you have to have endurance, along with the different moves and technique."
McLaughlin hopes that the positive behavior demonstrated by older fighters "will carry on to the younger guys." Noting that drug addiction is a significant problem in Washington County, he says that the program will help keep youth and young men off the streets. "There's so much potential here. If we can get guys in there, sticking to the rules, they'll set the standards for the younger guys."
Paul Bernard, who has fought in over 100 amateur and several professional boxing matches, is the boxing coach for the club. "I try to make them a better boxer and get them in the best shape I can get them in," he says.
The two coaches lead by example. "How will they know at what level to perform at if we don't show them the level they need to be at?" McLaughlin asks. He says there's a lot more to the sport than "throwing your hands and feet" at an opponent. The process involves choosing opponents for the fighters who are at a similar level of experience so they'll have a chance of winning and can work up to tougher fights. "Coaches want guys to be able to come up the right way," he says. "We need to look out for our guys." Safety is stressed during training, so that participants "are not just waling on each other," and fights are stopped before anyone becomes injured.
Along with the physical training, Bernard observes, "You have to force yourself to work through tough moments," noting that a boxer does not want to be nervous or have any self-doubt. He points out that controlling one's emotions is essential, with Newell noting that fighting "is about being relaxed," while being vigilant. He comments, "The mental aspect is just as crucial as the physical part. The smallest emotional duress can throw your game off." Bernard adds, "If you're too tense, it sucks the air and life right out of you."
"When they go up against someone, they are facing themselves," McLaughlin says. "It's a challenge to themselves to really perform in the cage."
The first mixed martial arts events began back in 1993 with "no holds barred" fighting, Newell relates, but now the sanctioned fights have rounds, time limits, weight classes and rules to protect the fighters. Bernard points out that referees "will stop a fight if a fighter is hit and hurt."
McLaughlin, who had a chance to box professionally but instead joined the Marines, where he used to take part in pit fighting, says he would have participated in mixed martial arts if it had been around then. Mixed martial arts combines a number of different styles, including boxing, wrestling and jujitsu. It reflects a philosophy of the martial artist Bruce Lee, called Jeet Kune Do, that uses kicking, punching, trapping and grappling for different situations.
Newell believes that wrestling is the best foundation for mixed martial arts, noting, "You learn how to control the fight and take the fight where you want it to go."
Pointing to how the lessons learned from mixed martial arts can help with other aspects of one's life, Newell quotes from The Book of Five Rings, a treatise on the strategy of confrontation and victory by the 17th century Japanese samurai Miyamoto Musashi: "Once you know the way broadly, you can see it in all things."
McLaughlin relates that along with the MMA club, which is in its first year, the Sipayik Boys and Girls Club has a wrestling program both for adults and for youth. The youth program is for grades Pre-K through high school and has about 15 to 20 members. McLaughlin notes that the high school students provide mentoring for the younger youth. "We're passing the knowledge onto the high school kids, and they're helping with the younger ones." The same type of mentorship occurs with the mixed martial arts program, with those who have boxing and wrestling experience helping younger participants.
"This gives the opportunity to be in a sport to some kids who might not be in one in school," says McLaughlin of the programs that are offered. "Some of these kids have a smile on their face the whole time."