Mixed martial arts defies many perceptions, especially those of people who view it as nothing more than two people beating each other to a pulp. To those who participate, it is very much a sport, and its fighters are well-conditioned, highly trained athletes.
A group of martial-arts students stand in a row before an instructor.
With each punch and kick that strikes the air, they’re burning calories and tightening muscles while building endurance and self-confidence. Those were their goals when they joined John Geyston’s Premier Martial Arts studio.
But a handful of Geyston’s students are training for the next time they step inside a ring, and those punches and kicks are intended to land squarely on the body of an opponent. Their goal: knock that opponent out.
A Navy veteran, a high-school student and a 30-year-old mother of two are among those involved in mixed martial arts competition — competitive fighting that combines various styles and techniques, including Muay Thai kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
MMA defies many perceptions, especially those of people who view it as nothing more than two people beating each other to a pulp. To those who participate, it is very much a sport, and its fighters are well-conditioned, highly trained athletes.
“I don’t see it as violence because I understand the martial arts,” said Geyston, head instructor and owner of Premier Martial Arts. “You have people out there for five minutes straight using almost every major muscle in their body.”
Geyston knows firsthand the skills, endurance and mental toughness that must be developed to master any form of martial arts. He competed in competitions for 17 years, winning multiple grand championships, and has been an instructor for 27 years. His students know him as Hanshi John, a title that signifies his mastery as a teacher of martial arts.
Premier Martial Arts has about 360 active students at its studio. Most enroll to get in shape, learn self-defense or discover the respect and self-confidence that martial arts can instill.
About 15 of those students, however, are training for MMA competition.
Vincent Eazelle is one of five who has already fought in a sanctioned event.
Eazelle, 27, grew up in Chicago, in a neighborhood where fighting was common. When he moved to Springfield, he sought out martial-arts training as a way to become better at something he said was an unfortunate part of his life. After he enrolled at Geyston’s studio, he quickly discovered that much more would be expected of him.
“When you come into this school here, Hanshi John will tell you he’s not going to train a thug,” Eazelle said.
“I don’t take on anybody who just wants to be a fighter,” Geyston concurred.
Geyston insists that everyone who enters his studio become a martial-arts student so they can learn what he describes as the triangle of success: attitude, discipline and respect.
With these principles as a foundation, he believes his fighters will have a much greater chance for success when they step into the ring, as well as in everyday life.
Eazelle is undefeated after six competitions, his most recent victory coming last November against a more experienced opponent who already had 23 fights under his belt. He attributes his early success to his speed.
“I don’t stand still. When I need to use my power, it’s there,” he said.
The six-year Navy veteran is respectful and reserved outside the ring. Even in the hours leading up to a fight, Eazelle describes his demeanor as relaxed. As captain of the Premier Martial Arts team, his main concern is that the other fighters are prepared and confident.
“I make sure they know I’m behind them 100 percent,” he said.
In addition to serving as team captain, Eazelle works as an instructor and performs marketing and community relations duties for the studio.
MMA has become a major part of his life. Through his involvement, he’s found a home and a structured environment where everyone cares for each other and is taught responsibility. This, the longtime fan of martial arts legend Bruce Lee said, has had the biggest impact on his life.
“Anybody can fight. It’s how you present yourself, and it’s the people that surround you, that make the difference.”
Search for structure
Bob Hoogland, a junior at Springfield High School, is Geyston’s youngest fighter competing. He’s also the most blunt about what drew him to the sport: the opportunity to inflict pain upon his opponent.
“I like to get in the mindset of a Viking, right before he goes into battle,” Hoogland said of his prefight ritual.
Even with all of the safety precautions, MMA is a full-contact sport, and there is an obvious element of violence. As with football, the opportunity to hit with reckless abandon appeals to many young men.
Hoogland played football in the past and trained with a boxing team a few years back. He and his friends also would hold informal boxing matches in his garage. This led his father, Eric Hoogland, to look for a more positive outlet for his son’s interests.
“(Eric Hoogland) approached me and said, ‘My son’s done some boxing. He’s got an aggressive personality; I want to channel it the right way,’” Geyston recalled of his meeting with Bob Hoogland’s father.
The formal training he’s received from Geyston is paying off for the younger Hoogland. After only five fights, he’s already drawing interest from the World Combat League. The WCL is a kickboxing organization with eight teams, including the St. Louis Enforcers. A representative from the league’s St. Louis affiliate has let Hoogland know he has a future in the sport.
Hoogland is still unsure of what lies ahead after high school. College is definitely in his plans, but where and when may depend on what opportunities MMA provides. He’s more certain of the impact the training and his embrace of the triangle of success will continue to have on his life.
“Ultimately, just be a better person,” he said.
A woman’s touch
Like many students, Jamie Worthy was drawn to MMA as a way to stay in shape.
But she admits the combat aspect has its appeal.
“I’m one of those people who walk around with a lot of aggression, and when I started coming here I was able to let it out. For me, it’s really therapeutic,” Worthy said.
Worthy, 30, moved to Springfield from San Diego three years ago. She and her husband have two daughters, ages 2 and 4. Worthy is a self-employed computer consultant, providing virus cleanups and other services, while continuing her education. In addition to her duties at home, work and school, she’s been busy putting in the required MMA training she needs before she’ll be allowed to compete.
“I went to a fight in Decatur and saw (Eazelle) fight, and I just thought it was great,” she said of her inspiration to enter into competitive MMA.
Her first fight will most likely take place this spring. She’s getting mixed reactions from family and friends, but acknowledged that many are concerned for her well-being. Although she’s still uncertain what to expect when she faces off against a real opponent, she doesn’t fear getting hurt.
“The first concern for everyone here is the safety of the fighters,” she said.
More stringent regulation by the Illinois' Division of Professional Regulation has made the sport safer and placed greater responsibility on MMA promoters, some of whom no longer schedule events in the state as a result. Although this means fewer opportunities close to home for his fighters, Geyston welcomes the changes because they enforce safety policies he says he insists upon.
“I want to make sure my guys are going into a legitimate show against legitimate competition,” Geyston said.
Worthy said she probably won’t allow her daughters to be ringside at her first fight — but once she’s more experienced, she’ll be proud to have them there to watch mommy tussle.
For now, she’s more than content knowing that her instructors and teammates will be in her corner.
“I’m really happy to work with such a great team, and I know they’re going to do everything they can to get me trained and help me win the fight.”
With growth comes regulation
As mixed martial arts has grown in popularity, so has the list of rules issued by the state to ensure the safety of competitors and credibility of bouts.
Mixed martial arts bouts in Illinois are regulated by the same group that regulates barbers, accountants and others who need professional certification to do their jobs.
The Division of Professional Regulation, part of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, oversees athletic competitions such as boxing and mixed martial arts in Illinois. It does not, however, regulate professional wrestling.
Starting Jan. 1, rules went into effect requiring a mixed martial arts sanctioning body to sanction all amateur MMA events in Illinois.
Mixed martial arts fighters who want to compete in Illinois must provide proof they are in good physical health, show they have fought at least five times as an amateur before turning pro, wear certain types of clothing (shorts can’t fall below the knee; no shoes allowed), and meet a number of other regulations.
The major league in the MMA world is the Ultimate Fighting Championship. A number of other leagues and teams are scattered throughout the nation.
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