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I grunt as Cody Maltais shoots his foot into the base of my ribcage, feeling his toes curl into my abs. Even with tempered speed and force, Maltais’s teepa straight snapping kick used by Muay Thai fighters to control distance and wind their opponentsknocks me back.

I’m learning to flex into the kick to dull the impact. Still, for a moment, I wonder: What the hell have I gotten myself into?

For two months, Maltais has been teaching a group of students the fundamentals of mixed martial arts at his new gym in Durham, Elevate MMA Academy. Twice a week, for three hours a night, we drill on the forms and footwork of boxing, the takedowns and grappling moves of wrestling and jiu-jitsu, and Muay Thai kicks, plus lots of conditioning and mobility exercises.

“We’re training athletes who happen to be good at fighting,” Maltais says one evening while running laps around the mats. In his pro fighting career, he trained in Raleigh, California, Las Vegas, and, while deployed with the Marines, in Iraq. But he always dreamed of teaching. After selling his stake in Carrboro’s Steel String Brewery, which he cofounded, and moving to Las Vegas to fight full-time, he came home last year to open Elevate.

“I want to take what I’ve seen in California and Vegas, and my opinions on how high-level athletes are trained, and put them into practice,” Maltais says.

Honestly, I’ve never been much of an athlete, let alone a fighter. Until recently, my experience with martial arts was similar to that of millions of other nineties kids. Movies like The Karate Kid and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had made karate appealing to suburban childrenand, more important, to their parents. Dojos opened in strip malls across the country. They promised to instill discipline, confidence, and self-defense. But I begged my parents to sign me up because I wanted to be like my cartoon heroes.

I quit too early to realize that goal. Mostly, I just remember crying when I couldn’t break a board. Afterward, I experienced martial arts only through UFC on cable, Wu-Tang Clan songs, and Hong Kong cinema.

But two years ago, relenting to my wife’s demands that I go to the gym with her, I was drawn to the dojo next door. The marquee at Chapel Hill Quest Martial Arts promised “To-Shin Do Ninjutsu. Japan’s Oldest Martial Art; Newest Teaching Methods.” I signed up on a whim. Soon I was training almost every day. Martial arts hooks people that way. My ninjutsu instructor, Hardee Merritt, is an advanced martial artist, but his introduction was much like my own.

“I was into G.I. Joe when I was a kid,” he says. “Snake Eyes was my favorite character, and he was a ninja. I wanted to follow in Snake Eyes’s footsteps.”

He started reading all the ninja-related books at the library in Clinton, North Carolina, and he tried the moves with a friend in his garage. When he discovered the dojo in Chapel Hill, Merritt started driving up twice a week to train. Eventually, he bought the place.

But martial arts training today is much different than it was when I was struggling to crack a board. The rise of MMA and access to online information about myriad fighting styles has fueled age-old debates about which style works best in real life. Since its introduction in the early nineties, MMA has been a testing ground for those theories.

In North Carolina, where the sport has a unique history, it has given rise to a vibrant, close-knit community, galvanized by local history and the struggle for mainstream legitimacy. I couldn’t imagine a better way to get inside that community than by immersing myself, rib kicks and all, in Maltais’s methods, which benefit hobbyists like me as well as people pursuing fighting at the top levels.


Though people have fought for sport for most of human history, the origin of MMA dates to November 12, 1993. In the first Ultimate Fighting Championship, aired on pay-per-view, fighters from various disciplineskarate, sumo, boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and othersfaced off with only two rules: no biting or eye gouging.

By locking two people in a cage until one of them quit or lost consciousness, UFC 1 was a coldly clinical settling of centuries-old pissing contests. The winner, a lanky Brazilian named Royce Gracie, took his family’s arta grappling-focused judo descendant called Gracie jiu-jitsuto wide acclaim. Soon, fighters of all disciplines were adding grappling to their arsenals, and mixed martial arts was born.

Brandon Garner owns Gracie Raleigh, a gym on West Davie Street. Between 2005 and 2010, he had a successful pro career; his 8-1 record earned him a spot on reality show The Ultimate Fighter. It’s easy to trace his career to those early UFC bouts.

“My dad would have a party and everybody would come from the gym and watch the UFC,” he says. Inspired, Tom Garner flew to California to convince Gracie to train his friends in jiu-jitsu. In 1996, one of them, Greg Thompson, was among the first to receive a black belt from Gracie, who eventually tied one around Brandon Garner’s waist, too.

North Carolina became a jiu-jitsu hot spot. Thompson taught in Hillsborough, then Fayetteville, developing the Army’s Special Operations Combatives Program and uniting a network of training facilities as Team R.O.C. Many of his students became teachers in turn. In the Triangle, there are at least six jiu-jitsu schools, many led by practitioners who trained with Gracie, who has awarded more black belts in North Carolina than anywhere else in the country.

Today, MMA is more popular than ever. UFC stars Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm show up on daytime talk shows. Ireland’s Conor McGregor landed on a Sports Illustrated cover. And in March, New York lawmakers voted to legalize and regulate MMA, making it the final state to do so.

But before MMA fought its way to mainstream acceptance, it resembled Fight Club more than a sport. In 1996, Senator John McCain condemned it as “human cockfighting.” At the time, he wasn’t wrong.

“It was kind of a Wild West back then,” Garner says. When he started as an amateur in 2001, weight classes were managedor weren’ton an honor system. Amateurs competed under the same rules as professionals, allowing more dangerous strikes and submission holds, and referees sometimes failed to stop bouts before fighters sustained injuries. And there was no required blood testing to insure against infectious disease.

“It’s definitely safer now than it used to be,” Garner says. Indeed, from the can’t-look-away spectacle of its early days, MMA has evolved into something almost civilized. In a 2007 piece in The Guardian, David Mamet called MMA “the true marketplace of ideas.”

“The mixed martial artist,” he wrote, “will and must school himself in the forms evolved out of many cultures: Britain and the U.S. for boxing, Japan and Brazil for jiu-jitsu, Thailand for Muay Thai, Okinawa and China for karate … capitalism meets globalism, and the question of free trade versus protection is addressed in a canvas ring.”

Rather than just pitting styles against one another, MMA gradually evolved its own hybrid stylenot just a combination of staple techniques but a fully integrated system.

“MMA is its own thing. It’s not just jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai and wrestling. It’s the in-between spaces,” says Durham-based fighter D’Juan Owens. MMA also gained a full set of rules and regulations. After McCain’s crusade, UFC introduced weight classes, gloves, and a long list of illegal techniques, which started to shift mainstream perceptions of the sport.

“People are now more willing to try it because of the rule structure. It seems softer,” says Jason Culbreth, another Gracie black belt, who founded Forged Fitness in Raleigh. “From a true fighter’s perspective, they made it a candy-ass sport.”


Candy-ass or not, the regulation of unsanctioned brawls made it possible for MMA to find a foothold in North Carolina, which banned all kinds of “ultimate fighting” competitions in the nineties. Early adopters traveled out of state for matches in Virginia and Kentucky. Merritt went all the way to Kansas to win two amateur bouts.

Advocates like Culbreth and promoter Doug Muhle lobbied the state to sanction MMA under the N.C. Boxing Authority in 2007’s Act to Define and Regulate Mixed Martial Arts. They had to educate lawmakers and the Boxing Authority, convincing them that the dangers of MMA weren’t as extreme as they were perceived to be. In fact, while fights often leave combatants’ faces bloody, traumatic injuries are statistically much rarer than in boxing or football.

Culbreth proposed a “progressive system” of skill divisions that would allow fighters to gradually rise from rookie, through amateur, toward pro. Instead, the state adopted existing rules from Ohio.

“That’s why our rules are kind of screwed up,” Culbreth says. “Rather than being cutting-edge and having some initiative, they just adopted somebody else’s.”

MMA fights in North Carolina are booked as amateur or professional, with slight variations on legal techniques (no elbows or kicks to the head in amateur fights) and round-lengths (three minutes for amateurs, five for pros). Still, the legalization of the sport made way for promoters to give local fighters an arena, matching them to ensure fair and entertaining bouts.

“Fans want to see two skilled guys who know what’s going on in a fight,” Culbreth says. “There are now enough legitimate academies across the state that you have a much better pool of athletes to pull from.”

Culbreth estimates that only two to five percent of martial artists step up to MMA. But with more gyms around for students who want to try some aspect of MMA, the number of aspiring fighters grows accordingly.

“What you see is a bigger pool of people wanting to learn jiu-jitsu for fun,” he says. “They have a moment like, ‘You know what? I want to test my skills.’ So they enter a tournament. Then they’re like, ‘Wow, I’m pretty good at this. I might want to learn to fight.’ It’s a great way to see where you stand.”

Nevertheless, the logistics of putting on competitions still make it difficult to foster active competition without looking beyond the Triangle.

“There aren’t enough promotions putting on enough events,” Garner says. Until recently, the Bull City Brawl was a reliable source of local pro-am events, but after renovations at the Durham Armory required multiple cancelations and postponements, it seems to have run its course. Greenville’s Next Level Fight Club hosted its first event in Raleigh in February; the next is in May.

“If you’re serious about fighting you probably need to go to a different state to pursue that,” Maltais says. “It’s a shame because we have every single resource that you could use. We’re not missing anything.”


In my training, the first hour-long class of each night is devoted to MMA’s basic mechanics. We fine-tune our MMA footwork, a galloping step that ensures balance, by moving in a three-step square, throwing jabs and crosses in time with our steps. We learn simple movements like “shrimping” and “break-falls” before building a wrestling-based takedown flow.

For the second hour we train in jiu-jitsu, in which sparring is safer. Each two-week stretch of the jiu-jitsu course emphasizes a different defensive posture, like “butterfly guard” or “turtle.” We roll from our featured position and try to choke or joint-lock our partners at almost full speed.

The night ends with an hour of striking. Wearing boxing gloves and shin guards, we hit each other’s palms or kick thighs in rhythm, building combos to confuse and counterstrike an opponent.

This is followed by more conditioning to build hand speed and resilience. In one drill, I hold a sit-up two-thirds of the way up while my coach tries to push my shoulders to the mat in irregular thrusts. I go home sore, limbs spotted with bruises even though I haven’t worked up to full-contact sparring.

One of my training partners, Shayaan Sarfraz, remembers watching the Canadian welterweight Georges St. Pierre starch Matt Hughes for the division championship at UFC 65 in 2006.

“I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” he says. Now an electrical engineering major at N.C. State, Sarfraz holds onto his dreams of fighting in the Octagon. With a background in wrestling and karate, he’s adding jiu-jitsu and kickboxing to help him pursue that goal.

“I’m going to try this MMA thing out, and if it doesn’t go my way, well, I have this degree,” he says. “I don’t want to be eighty and think, ‘Man, what if this happened?’”

Whether or not it’s poised to launch the next UFC star, North Carolina has built a remarkable scene for people interested in the martial arts. Jiu-jitsu practitionerJeff Shaw is the cohost, with kickboxer Trevor Hayes, of Cageside ConcussionCast, a weekly podcast and radio show on Hillsborough’s WHUP-FM. The six-month-old program covers a local martial arts scene Shaw describes as “passionate, vibrant, diverse, and growing.”

“We have an identity in North Carolina,” Shaw says. “We have something that is different than it is any place else in the world.”

Reporting from regional competitions and offering in-depth interviews with local fighters, Shaw and Hayes didn’t expect a huge following, but their show became a popular segment on the community station.

“What I thought was this weird niche show that would animate me and twenty of my friends immediately found a really feisty core audience,” Shaw says.

In Durham Central Park on Sunday, Shaw and Hayes cohost ConcussionCast Carnival, which draws support from sixteen regional schools to help Triangle Jiu-Jitsu and Cageside MMA move to a bigger Durham facility. Bearing out Shaw’s assessment of the scene, it’s about much more than one gym.

“This is about the whole community,” Shaw says. “We have people from just about every local school competing, volunteering, or participating in some way.” In addition to food trucks and music, the Carnival offers seminars in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and women’s self-defense as well as cage matches between some of the region’s most notable fighters.

Caitlin Huggins and Samantha Faulhaber face off in North Carolina’s first-ever women’s black-belt superfight. MMA pro D’Juan Owens takes on black belt CJ Murdock. Maltais faces Virginia’s Dave Porter. Mary Holmes, who took home gold medals at the Pan Jiu-Jitsu IBJJF Championship, fights Laurie Porsch, who brought home her own gold from IBJJF’s New York Open.

James “Boomer” Hogaboom, owner of the Durham-based Cageside MMA and Toro BJJ brands, has watched the scene grow for a decade to achieve this unique cooperation.

“We are so lucky in the Triangle area,” he says. “We all get along, and that’s not that common. I understand that in California, if you go train at another gym, it is very frowned upon. In North Carolina, we welcome one another with open arms.”


But no matter how chummy the schools are, they’re still training fighters. How inviting could it really be? Recalling the first day of class, Maltais laughs.

“Everybody was looking around, deer in the headlights, like, ‘Is this going to turn into some crazy gauntlet? Is everybody going to punch me in the face?’” He instructed the class to relax and promised nobody was going to get hurt that night. Despite my lingering preconceptions of the rough-and-tumble old school, I’ve yet to show up at work on crutches or sporting a shiner.

But I’m the beneficiary of a generation of experience. Dipping a toe in the MMA pool wasn’t always this easy. In preparing for his bouts a decade ago, Merritt recalls long, plentiful sparring sessions. Even for seasoned martial artists, the toll was heavy.

“We were lucky,” Merritt says. “We had some good training, but about once a week, somebody was going to the hospital. I think everybody is training smarter now.”

There’s no question that MMA is becoming more presentable, but dangers persist. A Portuguese fighter named Joao Carvalho recently died from injuries sustained in a cage fight in Ireland. And no matter how rare such a tragedy might be, competitive fighting leaves its marks. Cauliflower ears, scarred brows, and torn ligaments are common.

Training can be even more dangerous. Repetitive stress, overtraining, and sparring can all lead to injury.

“You’ve got to have that ability to bite down on your mouthpiece and really fight,” Maltais says. His philosophy is that full-contact sparring has a role in training, but that coaches are responsible for keeping their students safe. And what benefits a full-time competitor might not be worth it for a hobbyist, in no small part because of the risks of brain trauma from repetitive impact.

So I’ll probably never test my mettle in a cage, much less battle under the UFC marquee. But, like scores of people in the Triangle, I’ll keep training as if I might. I like the confidence that comes from knowing I’m better equipped to defend myself if necessary, and it’s a hell of a workout. Mostly, I’ll keep going because of the community I’ve found in martial arts.

“Our lives have become very detached from each other,” Maltais says. “Martial arts gyms, CrossFit gyms, and yoga studios are succeeding because people need an outlet where they feel that connection.” At the dojo and the gym, each class ends with thank-yous, handshakes, and even sweaty hugs.

In Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee quipped, “Boards don’t hit back.” It was a dismissive comment, noting that hitting an inanimate object reveals little about a fighter’s skill. I could’ve used the advice as a struggling karate kidnot only to remind me of the board’s weakness, but also because Lee’s words suggest the key difference between what we can do alone and what we can do with a community. Boards might not hit back, but they won’t pull you up, either.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Unstoppable Force”