In his second-story office at his gym in the eastern San José suburb of San Pedro, Milton Marín sits back in his desk chair and lists the things you can do in a mixed martial arts fight.
“There are punches to the face, elbows in the head, knees to the head, all kinds of holds, arm bars, arm locks, leg locks, boxing punches, karate kicks.”
Fighters can choke each other. One can sit on another’s chest and punch him in the face, school-bully style, until he goes unconscious or taps out. Sometimes the two fighters compete in a cyclone fence cage, giving the match an extra touch of grimness.
It sounds brutal, and the Costa Rican Sports and Recreation Institute (ICODER) passed a resolution frowning this type of this fighting.
But members of the tight-knit mixed martial arts fighting community in Costa Rica say that what they do is something different.
There are rules, refs, judges, doctors, and a number of gyms and promoters are working to bring this relatively new sport out of the shadows.
There have been more than 20 professional tournaments in Costa Rica since 2004, some put on by MMA Costa Rica (Marín’s academy) and most others by CR Fights, a fight promoter owned by United States citizens Anthony Albanes and Walter Alvarado.
There is also a small group headed up by MMA Costa Rica working to form a referee organization, which would be the first of its kind in the country.
While martial arts academies – karate, tae kwon do, judo and kickboxing – have a long history in Costa Rica, mixed martial arts fighting in its current form is a recent arrival, both in Costa Rica and the world.
The original idea of mixed martial arts fighting was to see whose fighting system was best. Boxers fought karate experts, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu masters fought everyone.
In 1993, the combat sport came to the United States with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, joining parallel movements underway in Japan, Brazil and other places.
The sport has been maturing since those early days, adding rules, standards and training styles. Fighters who want to do mixed martial arts fighting must train in several different fighting styles, usually at least one striking art and one grappling art.
“At the highest level it’s all about strategy for the fight,” said Warren Stout, the former owner of a martial arts gym in Escazú. If fighters are well matched, the fights are usually not as bloody as it sounds like they could be.
Often fighters spend much of the time on the mat, grappling for advantageous holds, and though it’s legal for one fighter to sit on another’s chest and pound him in the face, it’s surprisingly difficult to get off a clean shot if the other fighter knows what he’s doing.
Today there are quite a few rules as well, and they include everything from no eye gouging to no punching in the back of the head or the spine.
Despite all this healthy athleticism, mixed martial arts fighting in Costa Rica has a seedier side as well. One fight promoter held a competition in a strip club.
Betting on the fights does not appear to occur on location at the fights, but CR Fights’ online videos available on YouTube.com give the odds at the beginning of each fight, and its VIP tables are bought by sports book companies.
Alvarado said CR Fights does not make books and is trying to move away from the association.
Underground fights may be a bigger problem. One promoter in Jacó was holding nightly fights in a bar, advertising around town and in The Tico Times for amateur fighters off the street. That drew the ire of Rafael Vega, a vice president of the ICODER board and president of the Costa Rican Boxing Association.
“I have to say ‘sport’ because it’s in that vein, but I feel it’s something inhumane and that can’t be,”Vega said.
In December, ICODER passed a resolution condemning the ad hoc fights and sent a letter to the country’s municipalities encouraging them to deny permits to activities that “threaten the safety of human beings.” Vega was particularly bothered at the lack of training of the combatants and said there were rumors that similarly underground fights were going on in the streets of San José and in Desamparados, a neighborhood south of the capital.
While the mixed martial arts community acknowledges that such fights might go on, they say that they’re outside anyone’s control and not being promoted by the big gyms or fight promoters.
The Jacó fights, for example, have stopped mainly because the promoter couldn’t find enough fighters, said several sources.
Likewise the company that promoted fights in the strip club hasn’t had a very good reception.
As for the street fights Vega referred to, Marín said that “nobody knows until after they happen. That’s where the problem is.”
Stout was more dismissive.
“That kind of stuff has been going on forever, street fighting and that,” he said. So far, the mixed martial arts community remains small, with only between 30 and 40 fighters in the country who have fought in a match, and four who have fought in international competitions in Panama, Canada and the United States.
Tournaments in Costa Rica take place only about once every three months, though Marín said that in two years he expects that to go up to once a month.
Alvarado said CR Fights’ events are growing in popularity, which is why the last tournament had to be held in the National Gymnasium, a venue with enough capacity to hold the more than 2,000 spectators that come to the fights.
The next tournament will also take place in the National Gymnasium. It’s scheduled for March 15, and tickets will be available through www.crfights.com.
“We’re like a triple A team trying to get to the minors, and eventually the majors,” Alvarado said.