BRUNSWICK — Every Wednesday at 7 p.m., two different groups gather on the second floor of a commercial building at 119 Bath Road.
Everyone who enters the building walks up a flight of stairs. At the top, those who turn right attend a service in a space leased by the local Pentecostal church, where the faithful gather to offer their praises.
Those who turn left are headed to a mixed martial arts class where, to put it plainly, people get punched in the face.
MMA Athletix opened in January 2010, two months before then-Gov. John Baldacci signed a bill that legalized mixed martial arts competitions in Maine.
The training center’s owner, Ryan Cowette, said the sport is virtually exploding.
“It’s blowing up,” he said. “When we opened, we had 15 or 20 students. Now we have 75 or 80.”
The facility, one of only a few of its kind in the state, is aggressively trying to spread a mixed martial arts culture to a wide range of customers that includes children, women, and those seeking to lose weight.
Attendance at Maine-based MMA events has been steadily increasing, from a starting point of about 2,500 to an expected 5,000 sell-out crowd at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston on June 16.
But defenders of the controversial sport are trying to get beyond attracting a demographically homogeneous crowd made up of young men wearing tattoos on their arms and chips on their shoulders.
Cowette’s level of success in broadening the appeal might be a good indicator of whether MMA will be a fad, or an enduring American tradition.
The actions that take place in an MMA cage would draw felony charges if they happened anywhere else.
Two combatants wearing shorts and small gloves enter a cage to fight by punching, kicking, grappling or choking their opponent into submission. The rules are few, and are designed to minimize the risk of serious injury. The goal is to achieve victory by either knocking the opponent out, forcing him to submit, or winning by judge’s decision.
Fans say that the wide-open nature of the contests allow a variety of strategies that add to the excitement; detractors describe it as brutality, and call for outlawing the fledgling industry.
Cowette is one of many in the sport who are caught in a delicate position; they have to simultaneously reassure the wary that MMA doesn’t promote violence or aggression, while maintaining an edgy, tough-guy appeal for the young people who are drawn to those very aspects.
Students are asked to spend years training to become a fighting machine, and then to consistently resist the temptation to engage in non-sanctioned fights.
Cowette admits he sometimes has a difficult time straddling that line. He doesn’t advocate violence, but he said there have been times when it has seemed appropriate.
“A person was going to meet an underage girl I know,” he said. “He had no business meeting up with an underage girl. I went there to set him straight, and I did slap him. I ‘big brothered,’ him, you could say. I mean, I had to make sure that he knew not to do that, but I did it with love. I love the kid.”
Ultimately, however, Cowette makes the case that MMA training stops far more fights than it starts.
“It doesn’t promote violence,” he said. “If I hadn’t had any training, I would have gone there and just battered him. It gave me control.”
“Knowing how to defend yourself allows you to defuse a situation,” agreed Brent Dillingham, a 23-year-old instructor at MMA Athletix.
“It’s very violent. But nightclubs are violent, too,” he said. “Here, it’s controlled.”
Dillingham said he’s seen the training have a positive impact on local youths.
“The younger kids come in cocky, thinking they’re the toughest guy in the world,” he said. “You start out, you don’t know anything, and they beat you up. It takes a lot of will to stick with it. After a few months, they learn.”
After going through this process, Dillingham said, students learn how to restrain themselves and to achieve a level of humility about their own abilities.
“We have lots of teens here, and they never get in fights outside of the gym,” Cowette said.
In order for MMA to be embraced as a national pastime, training facilities like MMA Athletix need to attract a customer base that goes beyond the young men to whom it has an obvious appeal.
By this measure, Cowette and his team of instructors are succeeding.
Nina McLauglin is not your typical MMA student. A slight 22-year-old intern in the state Senate Republican office, McLaughlin said she is less interested in competing in a cage, and more interested in the quality of the workout that an MMA class provides.
“I like the intensity of it,” she said. “After this, a treadmill, or any other exercise, is just boring.”
McLaughlin estimated that an hour of practicing grappling with opponents is worth three hours of time on a treadmill. She has picked up bruises along the way, but they don’t stop her.
“I enjoy the intense aspect of being able to get out aggression in a healthy way,” she said.
Many of the people involved at MMA Athletix, like Dillingham, aspire to succeed as professional fighters.
But Cowette’s students come in all ages and aspirations.
“We train doctors, sons of doctors, people trying not to do pills or smoke weed, upper class business owners,” he said. “… There is no common denominator.”
MMA Athletix offers a series of courses targeted toward those who are not prepping for an imminent cage match, including MMA4Kids, a course for children that teaches basic skills.
Reid Majewski, 21, is one of seven students, including five women, in an eight-week weight-loss challenge program.
Majewski’s weight has been up and down over the past few years, he said, from a high of 275 to a low of 190 during a stint in the U.S. Army. He has had only middling success at traditional gyms.
For $150, Majewski gets access to the small MMA Athletix gym, any combat sports class he feels like attending, and personal direction from Cowette on nutrition and exercise drills.
Majewski is a big fan of MMA events, but his primary motivation is weight loss and health. To him, the group setting and tough love from instructors are important.
“I need someone pushing me,” he said.
There’s also something about the dog-fights-dog nature of MMA culture that helps him to keep on task, and lose weight.
“There’s definitely a lot more motivation,” Majewski said.
Instructor Brent Dillingham squares off with student Nina McLaughlin for a sparring session at MMA Athletix, a Brunswick training center that is taking the lead in making mixed martial arts a sport with mainstream appeal.
Mixed martial arts student Nina McLaughlin works to secure an armbar against instructor Brent Dillingham during a sparring session at MMA Athletix in Brunswick. McLaughlin is one of many students who are changing the face of mixed martial arts.