The combat sport of choke holds, jabs and uppercuts, armbars and double-leg takedowns is captivating a new audience, feeding Long Island's growing business of mixed martial arts training.
Reality TV shows such as FX's "The Ultimate Fighter" and MTV's "Caged," along with the success of the Island's homegrown fighters, have fueled growth of the area's MMA schools, owners said. Participation among the core audience of 18- to 34-year-old men has increased, and expanded to include women as well as men in their 40s and 50s -- doctors, lawyers and housewives, among others. All are looking for a more challenging workout and empowerment from a sport that incorporates boxing, kickboxing, and wrestling techniques drawn from different martial arts.
"We went from a 1,500-square-foot space in 1995 to a 6,000-square-foot gym in 2012," said Ray Longo, owner of Ray Longo's Mixed Martial Arts Academy in Garden City, who has appeared on reality TV and coaches fighters. "I doubled my membership from five years ago."
Owners at several of the Island's more than 50 MMA gyms reported membership increases between 50 and 100 percent since 2007.
"The number of mixed martial arts schools on Long Island has easily quadrupled in the past five years -- both from legitimate MMA facilities to traditional martial arts schools putting the 'MMA' in front of their name to catch onto the craze," said Mike Hauben, president of Merrick-based Fight Summit, an annual MMA business conference in Las Vegas.
Competition heats up
At Bellmore Kickboxing MMA, it's not uncommon to see fighters sparring in an octagonal metal cage while a ladies' kickboxing class takes place nearby. Membership is up 50 percent in five years and the gym has nearly doubled to 6,000 square feet, co-owner Keith Trimble said, "all because of growing membership from ladies and then guys wanting to learn and be fit." Women make up 30 percent of his 200 clients.
Yet, there have been business casualties, Hauben said. Fighters often open a gym only to close it in six months because of a lack of business expertise and increased competition, he said. "The speedy increase in the number of local schools makes competition fierce, diluting the ranks of potential students."
In the sport's early days, it was known as no-holds-barred fighting, drawing criticism as a barbaric free-for-all. But during the last two decades, rules for professional competition have been adopted.
New York State bans professional fights, so local pro fighters compete in Atlantic City, N.J., Las Vegas, and elsewhere on the national circuit.
The nationwide audience for a July 7 Pay-Per-View event produced by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, one of MMA's biggest promotional brands, was close to 9 million, said Bryan Johnston, UFC's chief marketing officer.
The greater New York area's fan base is slightly older than it is nationally, and 49 percent of fans have incomes of $75,000 or more, Manhattan-based Scarborough Research reports.
Being a fan doesn't necessarily translate into participation, but older fans with disposable income bode well for these gyms, said Bill Nielsen, vice president of sales for Scarborough Sports Marketing. Monthly memberships with classes can run about $140 to $160.
"You have to have disposable income to do these extra curriculars," Nielsen said.
Many gyms started out specializing in one or two disciplines and branched out as they trained more fighters in mixed martial arts. The Tiger Schulmann's franchise, with 10 Island locations and a stable of competitive fighters, incorporated MMA into its curriculum in 1996 but didn't put MMA in its name until about six years ago, said Nick Gravina, owner of the Syosset franchise.
Winners bring business
Producing winning fighters is a critical marketing tool for gyms, providing credibility and free advertising. Long Island has generated major MMA figures such as Matt "The Terror" Serra, who helped put the sport on the map, UFC's Johnston said.
Serra, who won the UFC welterweight championship in 2007, earned a shot at that title bout by triumphing on season four of "The Ultimate Fighter." He used his winnings to upgrade and expand his two Serra Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academies in Levittown and Huntington, each more than 10,000 square feet.
" 'The Ultimate Fighter' took us to a different level," he said.
Longo coaches Serra, and now the two train a number of high-level fighters, including undefeated top UFC middleweight contender Chris Weidman and Wantagh's Al Iaquinta, a finalist in the most recent "Ultimate Fighter" season. "It's nice knowing you're training where the best are," said David Di Bartolo, 32, a Massapequa Park radiation therapist and Longo's student. "Even when you're watching them, you're learning."
But owners also realize they need to temper a potentially intimidating environment for newcomers to the sport.
Ryan LaFlare, an MMA fighter in the Strikeforce league, and his partner Gregg DePasquale built up a membership of 300 students in two years since opening Long Island MMA in Lindenhurst. They offer a free initial private class and a 60-day money-back guarantee if the customer comes at least twice a week. This fall, they will move from their 4,000-square-foot facility to 10,000 square feet in East Farmingdale.
"We want to make it a positive experience for the average person who is interested in getting an alternative workout to the gym, for people who have no interest in fighting whatsoever," DePasquale said.
Tyisha Torres, 32, of South Huntington, started kickboxing two years ago to get in shape and build confidence. Later, Torres, a workers' compensation account supervisor, began taking Muay Thai kickboxing at Serra's school. Now she's studying Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a grappling discipline. "It teaches you a lot about yourself and your strength," she said.
Elements of mixed martial arts
-- Jump rope to work up a sweat.
-- Do 5 to 10 minutes of shadow boxing and wrestling moves.
-- Do 15 minutes of squats and sit-ups and 9 minutes of heavy bag work.
-- Practice a fight technique with a partner, using mitts or pads if necessary. Test the technique "live"