A wave of sparring partners came one at a time to Christopher Freire. And one by one, he dismissed them with a flurry of kicks and punches. His final opponent threw a hard right hand, which he countered with a well-placed kick to the abdomen. Session over.
The usually stoic Freire, exhausted from another intense workout, pulled out his mouthpiece and took off his headgear to listen intently to Omar Carrion, a trainer of mixed martial arts at Gold's Gym in Ronkonkoma.
"There is fury in the ring at all times and the one time that you let down your guard, it's over," Carrion told his 15-year-old protege, a sophomore at Connetquot High School. "Be prepared for everything and always be aggressive."
Freire has been a quick study and Carrion's prize student. His first official amateur fight will be Friday, March 19, at St. Joseph's College at 7 p.m. Freire, who juggles a full high school schedule and trains five days a week, is a straight-A student. His Team Atlas trainers Carrion and Darryl Porter are excited about his growth and potential.
"Students like Christopher don't come along too often," Carrion said. "He's a special kid. He's soft-spoken, respectful, intelligent and very, very tough. He's just the complete package and that will help him succeed in the mixed martial arts."
Freire is Carrion's first student at the high school level to get an opportunity to participate on a fight card at such a young age.
"You know how many kids walk through that door and think they can fight," Carrion said. "We find out rather quickly how tough they are after they get punched in the face for the first time. Most don't come back."
It is another daunting challenge for the mild-mannered Freire. He has experienced more than his share of pain at a young age. He has survived a brain tumor and watched his mother battle breast cancer. She was diagnosed in 2003, went through the rigors of chemotherapy and radiation, and has been in full remission for seven years.
"This is what I love to do," said Freire, who added that his mother is his inspiration. "There are many benefits to my training. I learn nutrition, discipline, respect and self-control. It's a tough sport and definitely not for everyone."
Freire is the youngest competitor for Team Atlas. He frequently spars with athletes much older and much more physical. And he seems impervious to fear and/or pain. But don't be fooled by those challenges because they are nothing compared with the one he faced when he was 5 years old.
"He was having severe headaches, vomiting and bright lights were bothering him," his mom, Cristina Freire, said. "Our pediatrician thought he needed glasses and sent us for a routine eye exam."
But a simple exam at the ophthalmologist turned into the family's nightmare. Cristina Freire recounts the details of September 1999.
"The ophthalmologist looked through Christopher's eyes and saw a large brain tumor," she said. "It had gone undetected. The doctor immediately called Stony Brook Hospital to set up an emergency surgery."
The Freires met with renowned surgeon Dr. Michael Egnor, who performed a six-hour operation to remove the tumor. The good news: the tumor was benign, and after a five-day hospital stay, Freire was back home and on the mend.
"My husband and I were scared to death," Cristina said. "Our baby was fighting for his life."
Freire's hair now covers a long scar from the middle of his head to the base of his neck - a reminder of his brush with death. But don't tell him he doesn't have a fighter's chance to live a normal life.
"I'm fine," he said. "I don't even think about it anymore."
Cristina Freire doesn't worry about the potential dangers of mixed martial arts. She sees it as an evolving sport that has grown in popularity.
"There's danger in all sports and kids get injured often enough in football and cheerleading during high school sports," she said. "My son is learning mixed martial arts in a controlled environment and I trust the trainers with all of my heart. It's well supervised and they take care of him. It's not a dogfight. There's beauty in the sport."
Carrion says the benefits outweigh the negatives. "We develop and mold young people," he said. "There's much to learn."
Christopher Freire will combine a few styles in his first fight. He is studying Muay Thai, Sanda, American wrestling/kickboxing and submission wrestling. He takes a little technique from each style, learning the body throws of Sanda and the elbow and knee strikes in Muay Thai.
"He understands the manipulation of the joints in our submission classes and he enjoys the techniques in the Muay Thai classes," Carrion said. "When he puts it all together, watch out. He's a humble kid but in the ring, he has a killer instinct."