By, JOSÉ PATIÃ'O GIRONA
Here's what most people know about mixed martial arts: Two men step onto a mat. They kick and punch each other until one falls to the ground. Then the action really gets violent.
Oh, and they're fighting in a cage.
But this is what 12-year-old Dawson Baker knows about mixed martial arts, which he's been practicing for three years now. He likes it better than Little League, more than football.
The sport makes him feel stronger, more confident, more in control.
More than that, he says, he feels safe when he's on the mat training in mixed martial arts.
"I don't feel like I'm going to get hurt,'' Dawson said. "They're all my friends in there."
At Gracie Tampa, which teaches mixed martial arts, or MMA as it's commonly known, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, children made up 10 percent of the clientele in 2004.
Today, it's 50 percent and growing, said Rob Kahn, owner of three Gracie Tampa schools. Owners of other Tampa-area martial arts academies similarly report shifts of younger students from traditional disciplines like tae kwon do to mixed martial arts.
Jon Frank, president of the United States Fight League in California, said the growing interest that adults have in the sport has spread to children.
"Kids used to want to be baseball players, football players, "Frank said. "Now they want to be MMA fighters."
"If you're a kid in school and you are a Little League player or an MMA fighter, who's cooler? "Frank asked. "It's the cool factor."
The exposure of the sport and to the professional fighters has also endeared fans, he said.
"People can relate to the fighters, "Frank said. "The MMA guys are like average Joes. They are more like regular, approachable people."
Those who teach the sport, particularly to children, say mixed martial arts, like the other martial arts, emphasizes sportsmanship, respect and safety. Children are heavily padded and the rules are strict in what kind of contact is allowed when sparring, which takes place on an open mat, not in a cage.
Kahn knows how the sport was once "and sometimes still is "promoted and doesn't like it.
In the 1990s, mixed martial arts was marketed as a blood sport, aimed almost exclusively at men, Kahn said. But MMA is now promoted as a competitive combat sport and has crossed over to popular culture, he said.
"People saw it wasn't a bunch of barbarians, "Kahn said. "It was skilled athletes working hard at their discipline and (the) different disciplines that were needed."
That persuaded Dawson's mother, Dawn Baker, to let her son enroll in mixed martial arts classes.
Her son is so enthused about the sport he's worked hard at perfecting his technique, become methodical in his training, she says.
She also says that, like other forms of martial arts, mixed martial arts emphasizes discipline and good sportsmanship.
"I feel every sport has a violent aspect, "Dawn Baker said. "But these kids never go after each other to hurt each other. There is a respect among them."
Even watching adults fight on television in Ultimate Fighting Championship matches has been a good influence, she said. The children see athletes who train exhaustively, work hard and eat right.
"It shows them what (coach Cristina Rodriguez) teaches _ that hard work pays off, "Dawn Baker said.
Rodriguez, lead instructor and co-owner of the school's youth program, teaches the students the disciplines that encompass MMA: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a technique of ground defense and submission grappling; kickboxing and Muay Thai, a striking art that includes elbow and knee strikes; wrestling, with a focus on taking an opponent to the ground; and boxing.
Paired up on the mat, her students challenge each other, trying to get the upper hand with leg hooks, armbars, rolls, twists and take-downs.
Rodriguez walks among them on the mat, issuing encouragement and tips.
"Yes, coach! "the boys shout through their mouthpieces.
When Rodriguez yells, "Time!", the students break off from their holds and retreat while the other group of students who waited patiently on the wall approach the mat to repeat the drill.
Ken Bland and his wife, Hitomi, who both train in martial arts, have three sons "ages 8, 9 and 11 -- in the MMA advanced youth class at Gracie Tampa, 13719 N. Nebraska Ave.
Ken Bland likes the training his children get in self defense.
"If they ever have to worry about being bullied, it's good that they can defend themselves standing or on the ground, "said Ken Bland, of Tampa.
He's proud of his children for the training they do and says he doesn't worry when they step on the mat.
"We hardly see injuries in tournaments or in training, "Ken Bland said. "Even with this controlled violence, the kids know when to dial it back."
Eleven-year-old son Jonathon Bland, agrees. He says he likes knowing that he'll be better prepared if he ever has to defend himself but said participating in the sport is safe.
"Some people might mistake it as very violent, "said Jonathon, who also takes piano lessons with his brothers. "It's not really violent. You have to experience it for yourself. I can't really describe it."
"The benefits will outweigh the disadvantages, "she said. "It would be better than sitting at home and watching a violent movie."
Kirsh recommends that parents enroll their children in programs that focus on discipline, concentration and peer respect. If a program encourages violence, parents should take their children out, she said.
"There's a philosophy of respecting the other, a tool that you don't abuse, "Kirsh said.
Mixed martial arts has its share of critics, who say the sport is too inherently aggressive and violent.
Nenad Omerovic has been teaching traditional tae kwon do for six years at the martial arts studio he founded in Carrollwood. He feels the business pressure to include mixed martial arts but refuses to teach it.
"I don't like it, "said Omerovic, 31, a native of Croatia who trained in Germany. "It's too aggressive. It's not my art."
He said he's been asked to fight in adult MMA bouts but always says no.
"I'm an artist, not a fighter, "he said. "I don't have to prove how strong I am."
He also won't encourage his children -- ages 13, 10, 5 and 2 "to train in mixed martial arts. He says the sport emphasizes violence, not technique and discipline.
"What do you see on TV? "Omerovic asked. "Kick and punch and they are hugging each other."
That's not how Rodriguez sees it. She says MMA teaches realistic self defense.
Some martial arts disciplines teach "jump flying kicks "and "jump spinning kicks "to get out of a situation where someone is the aggressor, but that's unrealistic, she said.
MMA teaches a combination of traditions that work, including ground self defense, because the majority of confrontations end on the ground, she said.
"It's not realistic to think that I'm going to do a jump spin kick and knock this kid's head off who is trying to hurt me, "said Rodriguez, who has a bachelor's degree in elementary education from the University of South Florida.
"A lot of schools, that is all they teach, "she said. "They are not teaching realistic self defense. That's the beauty of MMA. It's realistic. It might get this bad rap of being violent, but when it comes down to it, I want my students to be able to protect themselves."
Rodriguez says it's a myth that children learning mixed martial arts are violent, emphasizing that youth training doesn't include cage fighting.
There are no sanctioned youth MMA fights "where the children use all disciplines at once "in Florida, Rodriguez said.
Last year, a tournament for children in Lakeland allowed opponents to strike while standing up, though no punches or kicks were allowed to the face. When they went to the ground, no punching or kicking was allowed, Rodriguez said. Each contestant wore head gear, mouth piece, thick gloves, shin guards and a groin cup for boys.
In tournaments, students usually compete in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, grappling, wrestling, amateur boxing and amateur kickboxing.
At Gracie Tampa, the youth advanced MMA class has sparring lessons once a week where students train at 50 percent and it includes a boxing round, a kickboxing round, a kickboxing with wrestling round and an MMA round, where students can use all disciplines, including Jiu-Jitsu. All students wear protective gear during the sparring sessions, Rodriguez said.
Through the MMA training, the students gain confidence, she said.
"They're going to walk a little taller, "said Rodriguez, 27. "They're not going to be afraid of making eye contact. They're going to talk with a little bit more enthusiasm."
"Do I teach mixed martial arts? Yes, "Rodriguez said. "But what's important to me is the life skills that come with training in the martial arts."