Inside the colorful, controversial world of youth MMA
ONTARIO, Calif. — A six-sided steel cage illuminated in the middle of a dark amphitheater. A tuxedo-clad ring announcer with a day-glo tan and a golden voice. A fighter walking out with title belts draped over both shoulders and an entourage trailing behind him.
Everything about Kris Arrey's entrance is reminiscent of a UFC event except for one thing: He's only 10 years old.
More from the 'Coming Attractions' Series on sports phenoms:
• June 22: Parents of world-class athletes reveal secrets to raising a superstar
• June 23: Teenager Kaylin Whitney hailed as America's next great sprinter
• June 30: Linebacker has 11 scholarship offers before starting high school
• July 2: DeAndre Ayton's long road from Bahamas project to basketball's No. 1 prospect
• July 7: Taylor Harry Fritz may be the rising star American men's tennis has lacked
• July 30: Fifteen-year-old swimmer Reece Whitley is chasing a spot on Olympic team
• August 26: Hagen Danner's rise from Little League World Series hero to top prospect
• Sept. 2: The struggle to make youth MMA safe enough for kids like Kris Arrey
Arrey is one of four dozen kids as young as 8 competing in a children's mixed martial arts event at a church an hour east of Los Angeles. Boys and girls with nicknames like the Black Widow, the Savage or the Anointed One come as close to participating in full-contact MMA as California law will allow without anyone being led away in handcuffs.
In one of the day's first fights, a young boy exits the cage with a welt already forming under his left eye as a result of an accidental blow to the face the referee didn't spot. In another bout, a preteen girl slams her opponent to the mat and pummels her with blows to the chest as a man standing beside the cage shouts, "Keep smashing her!"
When it's Arrey's turn to enter the cage, he's confident he'll dispatch more pain than he endures.
Arrey began grappling at his father's martial arts gym as a toddler, entered his first jiu jitsu competition at age 4 and now boasts a 24-3 record in MMA bouts. His strategy entering fights is typically to ground his opponent, isolate one of his arms and lock in an arm bar, a submission hold Arrey has used to win so many fights that he has earned the nickname, "The Arm Collector."
"That's always been my favorite move ever since I started," Arrey said. "Most of the time it's just get in, take 'em down, arm bar. I like to get it done as fast as possible."
The threat of Arrey's signature hold forces opponent Cross Betzold to defend against it throughout the fight. Betzold tries to stay on his feet as deep into rounds as possible, striking mostly with long-range kicks and punches and protecting his arms at all costs whenever Arrey manages to take him down.
Only once late in the fight does Arrey's father see an opening for his son to go for an arm bar.
"Keep punching that arm, Kris. Keep punching that arm," Richard Arrey shouts. "This is your chance. Finish this."
And try Arrey does, pounding his fists into Betzold's left arm to weaken his resolve before attempting to lock in his favorite move.
Arrey does this for two reasons. The first is because this is how he has been trained. The second is because a committee of adults from California decided all of this was OK.
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Children's MMA first drew the attention of California legislators in 2013 when many of them received an alarming video via mass email that compelled them to take a closer look. The eight-second clip showed a young boy landing a hard right cross to the chin of 9-year-old California resident Aalijah Pineda during a bout earlier that year.
Though full video of the fight revealed Pineda was unharmed and the referee had immediately disqualified her opponent for striking above the collarbone, members of California's State Athletic Commission remained concerned. They temporarily prohibited all forms of children's MMA within the state and appointed a sub-committee to examine the safety issues the sport presented.
"Our job is to protect the safety of the public, so we felt like we had to take a hard look at this," said Andy Foster, Executive Officer of the State Athletic Commission. "I can't emphasize enough the level of seriousness that went into this decision. I've been around the commission world awhile, and I can't recall any one thing where I saw commissioners work so hard. They really wanted to make sure that our children were safe."
What the committee learned was that children's MMA was in the midst of a nationwide popularity surge mirroring professional MMA's rapid growth. As the sport gradually shed its underground roots and began catering to a more mainstream audience, parents started enrolling their kids in jiu jitsu or judo classes and entering them in MMA tournaments despite safety protocols that were sometimes frighteningly lax.
In one gruesome 2011 fight preserved on YouTube, a 10-year-old boy hammers his opponent's unprotected face with his fists more than a dozen times before forcing a tap-out with a rear naked choke hold. In a similarly cringeworthy 2009 bout between two slightly older boys, one sits atop his defenseless opponent and unleashes a barrage of punches to the head until a referee finally intercedes.
Whereas legislators in every other state were content to either allow children's MMA to continue without any regulation or ban kids from participating altogether, committee members appointed by California's State Athletic Commission sought a middle ground. They spent more than a year collaborating with the United States Fight League to create a modified version of MMA that reduced the injury risk for kids yet maintained the integrity of the sport.
The USFL since 2004 had organized youth tournaments in California that awarded points for the demonstration of a mastery of various skills instead of damage done to an opponent. The State Athletic Commission created a strict set of guidelines based on that concept and reinstated the sport last fall under the USFL's jurisdiction, a landmark decision that makes California the only state in the nation to sanction a form of youth MMA.
Among the most significant changes the commission made was to require that an ambulance and physician be present during every event and that all fighters undergo a physical examination the day of their bout. The rules also mandated that fighters only face opponents of a comparable weight and always wear headgear, gloves, shin guards and a mouthpiece while competing.
Before every event, referees gather all participants and coaches together and meticulously review which strikes and holds are still permissible and which result in disqualification. Punches or kicks above the collarbone and certain dangerous takedowns and holds are prohibited. Refs will also end fights as soon as some legal submission maneuvers are locked in place in hopes of minimizing injury risk.
"For the most part, I think the changes are good for the sport," USFL president Jon Frank said. "Actual MMA is based on punishing your opponent. This scoring is based on applying as many techniques as possible and thus getting as many points as possible. So the criteria of the scoring and the elimination of a lot of the dangerous techniques makes it a lot safer."
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As legislators in other states examine the risks of sanctioning children's MMA, they'll look to California for answers. The recent events the USFL has organized in California provide the best litmus test for whether a sport as violent in nature as MMA can be converted into an activity safe for kids.
Seventeen participants suffered injuries in the 11 sanctioned events since California reinstated children's MMA last fall, according to data from the USFL. Those ailments included anything from groin and elbow strains, to an Achilles' tendon injury, to broken noses and split lips.
No fighters appeared to suffer any major injuries at the event in Ontario last month, yet there were a few disconcerting moments.
An 8-year-old boy withstood a blow to the right cheek that got his opponent disqualified. A 12-year-old boy suffered an index finger injury that forced him to retire from his bout. Another preteen boy needed medical attention during his fight when he endured a shot to the nose that sent blood streaming down his face.
Pediatric sports medicine specialist Rebecca Demorest acknowledged the new rules California has implemented are a big improvement over unregulated children's MMA, yet she still believes participants are gambling each time they get in the cage.
She noted that even an accidental direct blow to the head puts the recipient at risk of sustaining a concussion, and brain injuries have a more devastating impact on a child than an adult. She also pointed out that children are in danger of bone damage if significant force is applied to the joints, or ligament damage if a volunteer referee allows a submission maneuver to be held too long.
"I think what it comes down to is how well the new rules are enforced," Demorest said. "How well-trained are the refs to see this stuff and what are they really going to stop? That scares me. These rules are a step in the right direction, but for a lot of us it would be hard to let our kids participate. Unless you're going to wrap both kids in bubble pack and not let them touch each other, there's risk involved."
It frustrates many in youth MMA circles that their sport draws so much bad publicity for being dangerous when activities like Pop Warner football, skateboarding or hockey also put kids at risk. USFL leaders suspect the use of a cage, ring announcer and walk-out music contributes to the negative attention, yet they insist financially they have no choice but to create a UFC-like atmosphere at their events.
Hiring a physician and ambulance, renting a venue and paying each referee a small stipend can cost the promoter of a children's MMA event thousands of dollars. That entire financial burden falls to the parents of the children competing unless a corporate sponsor steps up, or ticket and concessions sales cover some of the costs.
"We used to hold some of these events on a wrestling mat with no walk-out music and multiple matches going on at once, but it wasn't spectator-friendly whatsoever," Frank said. "If we do these shows without the fluff, people won't come. That's probably the biggest downside of government regulation. For us to be able to do these now, we have to make it a spectacle to pay for expenses."
Frank fears the consequences of leaning too heavily on families to pay the costs could be more serious than many realize. Parents who can't afford to have their children participate in USFL bouts might instead opt to send them to unsanctioned competitions with less stringent rules and no medical personnel on hand.
Some of those are held outside the state of California's jurisdiction on Indian reservations. Others are unadvertised as head-to-head live sparring between rival gyms. Regardless, they represent a return to the safety risks of the unregulated days of before last fall.
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All the recent handwringing over whether youth MMA is too dangerous often seems like overkill to Richard Arrey. After all, he encouraged his two sons to participate in the sport because it was safer than the family's previous hobby.
When 23-year-old Xavier and his cousins were in grade school, Richard often took them all to the desert to ride dirt bikes. That ended abruptly about 15 years ago when one of Richard's nephews suffered an accident that left him paralyzed, leading the rest of the family to sell their bikes and seek a new activity.
"One day we saw this jiu jitsu school, and I enrolled Xavier in it," Richard said. "Three months later, I started learning too so I could help him out. It ended up being something that I loved. I thought about it every day at work. I couldn't wait to go to practice."
The family hobby became the family business in 2005 when Richard opened his own gym not far from his Riverside home. Now Richard runs Riverside Submission, Xavier assists as a part-time coach, and Kris demonstrates proper punching, kicking and grappling technique during novice classes.
Many friends have questioned why Richard would let his sons participate in a combat sport at such a young age, but he firmly believes the benefits outweigh the risks.
Xavier credits jiu jitsu and mixed martial arts for imbuing him with the confidence and discipline to make the honor roll in high school, to enter the National Guard at age 18 and to apply for sheriff gigs in Los Angeles and Riverside County this year. Kris too has expressed interest in a career in the military or law enforcement, goals that make his older brother very proud.
"It's my job to be an example for him," Xavier said. "We don't come from a lot, so if I can lead the way for him, that would be great. If he decides to pursue MMA for a career, he's going to be one of the greatest in the world, and Dana White and the UFC better watch out. But if he pursues whatever dreams he has outside of this sport, I hope it teaches him the discipline he needs to accomplish them."
The way Kris fought last month inside that church auditorium in Ontario, he certainly isn't lacking for courage or perseverance. He tried as hard as he could to finish off Betzold with an arm bar late in the third round of their fight, but he had to settle for a 26-5 victory by decision.
As Kris' walk-out song played while the referee raised his hand in victory in the middle of the cage, it was easy to forget the fighter with a new title belt strapped around his waist was still a few weeks away from starting fifth grade. Then Kris stepped out of the cage, tugged on his father's arm and became a 10-year-old kid again.
"Dad, can we go get pizza now?" he asked.
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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter!