It stands six feet tall with eight sides. It’s known around the world as the octagon, a cage home to mixed martial arts fights. Four students are in the octagon sparring. They can’t be much older than eight-years-old. Decked out in protective padding they circle each other in pairs. Their helmet straps fully buckled, their feet overly protected by large pads so as to prevent injury. Music blares throughout the facility as a cardio thai boxing class takes place behind curtains designed to segregate the two groups. The blaring music though can’t drain out the constant thud sound from a leg kick landing square in the ribs. Heavy breathing is a common sound. “Keep those hands up high,” says a voice. Feet continue to graze the padded flooring creating a swish sound every other second. “Use different combinations,” the voice bellows. The Cagetrain white octagon glares throughout a dimly lit section of the gym. “Make sure you move at ninety degree pivots,” the voice says. “Nice right hand,” he shouts. “Boom!” He stops the class. He calls over the group and tells them to sit down. “You guys are doing great, but make sure you get your hands up,” he tells them. “But let’s continue. We’re going to work on some combinations.”
The instructor is Andy Young, owner of Evolution Fight and Fitness gym in Fredericton. He is a world renowned kick boxer and has won numerous titles throughout the world. He’s decided to come back home to Fredericton to help improve the area’s mixed martial art scene and provide an opportunity for others to learn from his experiences.
“I moved back home after years of training and learning from top people. A lot of people in Fredericton who are teaching martial arts have never left Fredericton. So, it’s not about how many training facilities we have. It’s about having more awareness and better instructors,” he said.
The New Brunswick MMA scene however is struggling to expand outside of Moncton, especially when it comes to putting on events. Moncton is considered the hot-bed of New Brunswick MMA, where many live events are held each year by promotions such as Cagerage and Elite 1. Hosting events outside of Moncton has become a constant problem for the province. A scheduled event to be held in Saint John was abruptly cancelled because Moncton’s commission, who holds the provinces boxing license, declined to give the city permission to hold the event. With Moncton seemingly controlling the spread of MMA in the province, it makes it a lot harder for the sport to expand and become more popular.
That’s exactly why Young decided to come home. But he says it’s not all smooth sailing in Fredericton when it comes to people teaching MMA.
“The stuff they’re teaching is irrelevant. They’re learning stuff from the internet,” he says. “I mean I trained around the world, I learned from the best and fought the best so I think it’s about quality and so people don’t get injured when they’re training. And that’s the biggest thing, the quality of the training facilities and the quality of the instructors, which in the Maritimes, I think it lacks a little bit.”
Young became a martial arts fanatic when he was 11-years-old and always held the dream of competing at the highest level. He competed in a variety of tournaments around the Maritimes during his teenage years and earned his black belt in different disciplines when he was just 16-years-old. At 20 though, he decided to leave. “I decided to move away to take it to the next step,” he said. That next step would land him in London, Ontario.
Mixed martial arts is the fastest growing sport in the world. The most popular and well known organization is the Ultimate Fighting Championship. However, smaller organizations such as Strikeforce and Bellator are also widely considered great promotions which attract large fan bases.
In New Brunswick, MMA continues to grow. There are currently 17 MMA training facilities in the province. In Fredericton, there are six MMA gyms which offer a variety of MMA disciplines such as muay thai and jiu-jitsu.
Marcos Cromwell is in the process of honing his MMA skills in Fredericton. Although he has yet to step into the cage for a fight, he is working on technique and cardio before he takes the next step. But he says that he sees more and more people learning the skill set, although not always in physical combat.
“Champions like Georges St-Pierre representing Canada, it makes kids and adults want to join the sport that achieves the ultimate fitness,” he says. “MMA is for everyone really. It’s not all about fighting. People join MMA for the cardio and strength training exercises that help the athletes perform to their fullest and for the regular people that join to keep fit.”
When Young arrived in Ontario he immediately went to find a gym to train and fight out of. Little did he know, he would end up training with one of his karate idols he had as a child, Michael Bernardo. “It was kind of a fluke. I happened to be there, and so did he,” says Young. “So I trained with him seriously for about a year, seven days a week.”
It was Bernardo that also gave Young his chance to break through on the international stage. Bernardo was the head coach for the Canadian national karate team and he asked Young to try out. Young made the team at his first attempt.
“After that is where my career took off,” Young says. “He [Bernardo] began flying me all over the world to fight and compete.” Young stayed in London for about seven years, fighting and training out of Bernardo Karate and Kickboxing, but travelling the world on a regular basis, in particularly to Europe. After travelling the globe, Young decided to pack up and move to a new gym once again.
While both Young and Cromwell believe that MMA in New Brunswick is growing, they both believe that there are too many misconceptions about the sport. Cromwell suggests that first and foremost, the people of New Brunswick need to realize that MMA is not just two men punching each other as they would outside a bar. “MMA fighters are disciplined athletes who train their whole lives with years of training and intense workouts,” he says.
Young agrees with Cromwell while adding that people need to realize that MMA hurts despite what others say. “It’s popular in the Maritimes and around the world for watching it. Everyone thinks they want to do it when they’re watching it…until they come in and get kicked in the legs, punched in the nose, and slammed on the ground.” Young says he’s had plenty of people come in wanting to learn MMA but have changed their mind rather quickly when they begin to fight because they genuinely believe they wouldn’t get hurt. He says it’s a misconception far too many New Brunswickers have.
Upon leaving Ontario, Young moved to San Francisco where he would join the Fairtex Muay Thai gym, renowned as one of the world’s most famous muay thai gyms, that has produced some of the top fighters in the world such as Gilbert Melendez and Jake Shields, two guys Young has trained with. After a few years in California, Young would move to Vancouver and then on to Winnipeg. He would then return to London for a brief time to finish up his teaching and training, until moving to Montreal and the world renowned TriStar gym, where he repeatedly worked with Georges St-Pierre and his coach Firas Zahabi.
But Young would eventually decide to come back to Fredericton. “Finally, I said to myself, it’s time to move back home and open the gym. I’ve paid my dues, I’ve fought around the world and was successful at kickboxing…I wanted to come back and set up a quality gym for people to train at in the Maritimes.”
While the set-up of gyms and training facilities in the province hasn’t been a problem, setting up live events outside of Moncton has. Moncton currently holds the provinces boxing license, which also covers MMA, and they won’t grant any other city the use of their license. Young understands that the city wants to be the center point of the provinces MMA commission, but he doesn’t think it helps other cities. He uses Fredericton as an example, citing that it’s nearly impossible to pull off any kind of MMA event because the provinces government and Moncton’s MMA commission will try to nullify any event. That was the reason that the Saint John card was ultimately cancelled.
“They put up a lot of stipulations, a lot of hoops and things you’ve got to jump through to try and actually get things going here in Fredericton…It’s too bad. Hopefully in the future we’ll be able to have them in every city.”
Over the course of 2005 and 2006, Young won three world championships in three different organizations. He would become the W.K.A World Continuous Kickboxing Champion, the I.S.K.A World Continuous Kickboxing Champion and the A.K.S.A World Hard Contact Karate Champion, an event that was held in Moscow, Russia.
Despite all the success Young’s had, he says he’s glad to be back in Fredericton where he can continue to teach MMA to others. Young still competes himself, but not as often as he was when he was younger. Now 34, Young is more focused on increasing his gyms reputation and helping his fighters improve their skill set. He currently teaches all aspects of MMA using his own experience to teach stand up MMA. However, he expects within the next year for his gym to become a qualified Grace Jiu-Jitsu Academy, named after the legendary Gracie family that teaches self-defensive and wrestling techniques. He hopes that the academy will allow his Evolution gym to teach a more rounded MMA discipline and thus attract more people.
For Young though, he sees only one way to improve MMA in New Brunswick and that’s by having more amateur fights. He says too many people are jumping into professional organizations without having one amateur fight and therefore not getting the experience they need before calling themselves professional fighters.
“It’s getting better now but I think they need to get more amateur leagues and build up their credentials that way. It’s going to make it that much better in the Maritimes.”