Inside the Outrageous World of Child Cage Fighting: Tiny Boys Who Are Trained to Attack Each Other in America’s Baby MMA Arenas
Children’s MMA or Pankration is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States with an estimated 3 million kids involved.
It is the heat of battle between two MMA fighters hemmed inside an industrial metal cage. One kicks, punches and strangles his way to brutal victory. His opponent breaks down and cries tears for his mother.
But this is not an unusual end to another televised brawl between two fully grown brutes; this is kids’s MMA, or Mixed Martial Arts, which is rapidly becoming one of the nation’s fastest growing sports among children.
It is estimated that three million boys and girls, some as young as five-year-old launch themselves at each other weekly across the nation engaged in Pankration – some wearing no head protection and throwing punches boasting gloves little more than one-inch thick.
Critics call it barbaric and fear for the children’s safety and the effect on their behavior.
Supporters compare its benefits to boxing and traditional martial arts and claim that it encourages self-discipline, fair play and exercise.
A New-York based photographer, Sebastian Montalvo, traveled across the country and compiled a photographic essay in which he attempts to shine a light onto the ferocious sport, giving names and faces to the little children whose parents are encouraging their fighting spirit.
One such child, is Kristopher Arrey. He is seven years old and his success in the MMA ring is so fearsome that he has earned the nickname ‘The Arm Collector’.
In one striking and arguably disturbing image from Montalvo, Arrey is on his back, inflicting a painful choke-hold on another boy.
Once this fight ends in victory for Arrey, his defeated opponent, Mason Bramlette, who is also seven, is seen crying – an illuminating image which reminds the viewer exactly how old the fighter’s are.
Montalvo told CNN that parental encouragement is key to the growth of MMA.
‘Are you OK?’ Montalvo heard the referee asking Mason as tears streamed down his face. ‘Do you want to stop fighting?’.
His father urged his son to stay in the ring.
Indeed, Montalvo said that the key aspect of kid’s MMA was how competitive the parents are.
‘They’re mega-competitive,’ Montalvo said. They ‘love their kids 100%’ and ‘they just want them to win.’
And while critics may reel at the sight of children placed in a ring and asked to fight like adults, supporters say it encourages a culture of losing fair and winning well.
‘After every match, the kids are supposed to shake hands,’ said Montalvo. ‘One father started screaming at his son because he didn’t want to shake hands after he lost.’
As MMA classes pop up around the country, some catering for children as young as five, there are concerns about the safety risks of young children taking part in such a violent contact sport.
A quick search of YouTube throws up countless videos showing boys and girls competing in MMA. Some of the videos are more violent than others, boys and girls in cages punching, kicking and choking each other.
Chris Conolley is an MMA teacher, who owns Spartan Fitness in Hoover, Alabama; he is quick to point out that what the kids get taught is very different from the adult version.
Rather than fighting each other, his pupils are taught the techniques to get in shape and have fun.
‘It’s an outstanding way for them to get in shape, exercise. Childhood obesity now is a big issue [this can] get them on the right path conducive to fitness,’ Conolley said in an interview with Fox6 earlier this year.
Nevertheless injuries, especially concussions, are a constant risk and doctors recommend that children should always wear headgear even when training.
The kids of MMA are taking their cues from the ‘Ultimate Fighting Championship’ or ‘UFC’ where moves like the ‘Ground Pound’ and the ‘Cobra Strangle’ have millions tuning in every week.
Prominent critics of MMA for adults including Senator John McCain, who called it ‘human cockfighting’ and in 2008 wrote a letter to the governors of every state asking them to ban it.
‘I think it’s dangerous from a physical standpoint,’ pediatrician Lisa Thornton told Good Morning America.
‘It can lead to significant injuries to the neck and bones and ligaments.’
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