Mixed martial arts students go head-to-head for good health

By Holly E. Thomas
Sunday, May 2, 2010

In the basement of Calvary Methodist Church in Columbia Heights, kicks and punches strike shinguards and headgear, sending muffled booms echoing off the yellow walls. It's Monday night, just after 9, and a mixed martial arts fighter training class is under way.

The class is among the offerings at the Academy for Body-Efficient Tactical Arts -- Beta Academy for short -- a multidisciplinary martial arts school founded in 2008 by former professional fighter and gold medalist Nakapan Phungephorn. His fighter training program combines two main disciplines: Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, and Brazilian jiujitsu. Anyone older than 16 can sign up for the classes, but Phung-ephorn must approve if a student wants to move into fighter training after at least six months of study.

Phungephorn, who began studying martial arts when he was 10 and in 2001 won the gold medal for Muay Thai at the World Amateur Martial Arts Championships, fought professionally through his late 20s. Now, nearing 30 and nursing five herniated discs in his back, he teaches full time and hopes to dispel the notion that all fighters are "knuckleheads."

While the aggression inherent in fighter training may be a turnoff to some, the students in this cavernous, padded space bear little resemblance to the steely-eyed brutes who beat their opponents to a pulp on Spike TV. Tonight's trainees seem reserved. They have desk jobs, girlfriends and have never been in a street fight. For some, this is their preferred form of exercise, a stress reliever, a chance to throw a few punches and still be friends when the 60 minutes are up.

"I'd say less than 10 percent of my students are the ones who are serious about fighting," Phungephorn says. "You get a lot of people who think they want to do it, and then they realize this is a lot of work. It's a real sacrifice."

Those who embrace the martial arts lifestyle compete in regional matches. But all share a common goal: to push themselves physically and mentally.

"It's a sport, not fighting in the street," Phungephorn says. "It's almost like a chess match. It's about being able to expose the weaknesses in your opponent. It's not two ruffians trying to knock each other out."

A small group of students begins jumping rope and doing push-ups in three-minute intervals. Dressed in shorts and T-shirts, they look like average gym-goers, except for their black shinguards and bare feet. The students drop to the mat for push-ups, which three perform on their fists. Then it's back to jumping rope. Then back to push-ups.

The District's David Klock, 24, a music teacher, has joined the group for his first time sparring. He began Muay Thai training at Beta Academy in August because work left no outlet for physical activity. Seven months later, Phungephorn asked him to join the fighter training class.

"It's a really supportive environment, which made the transition to combat sports from traditional sports a lot easier," Klock says. Now, he trains six to seven hours each week. "Some of these guys have been doing it so long," he says. "And I just want to see if I can do it, not necessarily beat them, but hold my own."

Doing push-ups in energetic bursts next to Klock is Ryan Hill, 25, of College Park, a telecom company account clerk who has been studying mixed martial arts since 2004. Tall and lanky with impossibly long legs, Hill was encouraged to pursue martial arts by his parents. "They thought I'd do it as a workout or as a form of self-defense, just in case," says Hill, who still hasn't told his mother he fights competitively.

But Hill now views fighter training as somewhat of a calling: "I can't play basketball. I can't play baseball. Fighting is my gift, and I enjoy doing it."

The two are joined on the mat by Rudy Telles, a Census Bureau statistician and an apprentice instructor. Telles, 25, played tennis at New York University until an injury sidelined him; he joined the university's Brazilian jiujitsu club and was hooked. He picked up Muay Thai in graduate school and a year later began competing. He won two amateur bouts but realized he had to make a choice between fighting and, well, everything else. "You almost have to treat it as a job," he says. "There are just so many ways you can get hurt if you haven't trained."

Telles trains about 10 hours a week and competes occasionally in Brazilian jiujitsu matches. "People don't understand why ... I choose to get beaten up as a hobby," he says. "My parents don't like it. They don't see why I don't just play tennis. But I've actually gotten hurt worse playing tennis than I have doing jiujitsu or Muay Thai."

Soon, six fighters in shinguards, mouthguards and boxing gloves are gathered at one end of the gym. They pair off and practice punching and blocking, each lightly tapping his partner with gloved fists. While tonight's session is strictly men, two female students in the program train with the group. One is Phungephorn's wife and fellow instructor, Melanie Metropolit-Phungephorn, a longtime student of Muay Thai, observing this night from the sidelines.

Slowly, the pairs begin to spar more aggressively, occasionally knotting up in twisted, sweaty tangles until Phung-ephorn breaks them up. Klock, the music teacher, takes his first turn in the ring. He seems assured, never taking his eyes off his opponent, until suddenly, a well-aimed glove catches him on the chin, and his head snaps back. "You all right? You all right?" Phungephorn calls. Klock nods and keeps circling.

The class ends just after 10 p.m. as the students exchange handshakes and claps on the shoulder. Workday tension is left behind, alongside the headgear and gloves.

Holly E. Thomas writes for the Magazine. She can be reached at thomash@washpost.com.

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