A dozen tiny explosions rattle off the wall of the gymnasium.
Inside, two rows of kick boxers stand in pairs. One member of each pair holds a large, black, rectangular cushion.
When the instructor shouts a command, all of them know what to do. The fighter with the soft cushion braces for impact. The partner lifts a leg off the ground and slams it into the cushion. Skin meets leather. The air vibrates.
Boom. “Two in a row.”
The fighters appear in a variety of guises: spiked blonde hair, shaved heads, black tank tops, blood-red gloves, way-too-tight tights and loose-fitting shirts with slogans.
Boom boom. “Three in a row.”
Upstairs, a group of white-robed students practice karate.
Boom boom boom. “Stop. Take a break.”
The furious sounds of kickboxing cease inside the MMA Costa Rica building in San José.
Five nights a week, six classes a day, these eruptions go off at Milton Marín’s gym. The academy has 350 students, up from a few dozen when the gym opened three years ago.
Students will often practice multiple fighting disciplines. MMA Costa Rica, like most academies, offers kickboxing, muay thai, Kyokushin karate, wrestling and Brazilian jujitsu. Hence, the name of the sport they all practice: mixed martial arts (MMA). After televised competitions took off in the United States, the sports’ influence spread in Costa Rica.
“Three years ago we had two schools in Costa Rica of MMA,” Marín says. “Now we have more than seven or eight schools. That’s a lot of schools, and a lot of people in each school.”
Most of the mixed martial arts students do not look to brawl. The sport challenges trainees with a strenuous cardio workout that doubles as a stress release. Wipe away the sweat, and keep battering the punching bags.
Participants at MMA Costa Rica range in age from 12 to 45, Marín says, but most are in their 20s. The school also has 70 female trainees, though only three are amateur fighters.
The most popular academies are in San José, though Mandarina MMA in Heredia, north of the capital, and Ringside Gym in the eastern suburb of Curridabat also churn out some top combatants. A few of these Costa Rican fighters have had success at the professional level.
Juan “Juanito” Barrantes rests near a window in Athletic Advance gym in San José. The 22-year-old recently recovered from an injury that stalled his fighting career for more than a year. A Nicaraguan champion broke his jaw in a fluke during a training session; Barrantes’ mouth had to be wired shut, forcing him to subsist on liquids for a couple of months. Still, Barrantes chalks up the injury to “bad luck,” saying MMA’s reputation as brutal or dangerous is overstated. Professional fighters know how to handle themselves.
“I don’t mind getting hit in the face,” Barrantes says. “I’ve been hit so many times. You just get used to it.”
Barrantes is scheduled to return to the professional ring tonight in Jersey City, New Jersey. Despite his success, he worries about the future of MMA in his home country. He and other MMA participants fear FiteNite, the country’s main fight organizer, is going bankrupt. The company has been struggling to attract sponsors and media attention.
Laura Alvarado, logistics manager for FiteNite, says the organization is in no danger of going under. However, FiteNite is working on changing its approach to bringing in fans and sponsors and winning over a soccer-obsessed media.
In a sports scene dominated by soccer, MMA has yet to find its niche beyond a recreational level.
Esteban Arias, owner of the year-old Athletic Advance, says the number of amateur combatants has risen from 35 to 200 since he opened. But few are as serious as Barrantes.
Arias estimates about 10 fighters in Costa Rica have the skills to be well-paid professionals.
The most highly regarded include Barrantes and his training partner, Ariel Sexton, Fernando Moya and Alejandro “Mandarina” Solano.
Even if professional financial opportunities disappear, the recreational side keeps reaching new audiences, including women. They can be as tough as the men. Yoseline Solano dons pink shoelaces and a smile after a recent practice fight. She nervously twists her blonde hair in her hand, 10 minutes after fighting two consecutive practice fights against men. She pummeled both opponents.
In her post-match interview, Solano giggles about the beat-down.
“It was a guy sport,” Solano says, before laughing. “Not anymore. I don’t think so.”
Wendy Aranda, a professional female fighter and daughter of Costa Rican boxing champ Humberto Aranda, has proven women in Costa Rica can earn money through MMA. However, the movement remains small.
“It’s hard to get the women’s scene to grow if the guys’ scene isn’t,” says Sexton, who receives his boxing training from Humberto Aranda.
Some owners suppose the way to maintain top-flight MMA in Costa Rica begins with the amateur classes: Keep increasing the demand in these classes, and the MMA market will grow. Advertisers might reconsider investing in the sport.
Evening classes at some of the academies already appear to be at full capacity. At MMA Costa Rica, four rows of students now thrust upper cuts, elbows and jabs toward a mirror. Marín watches.
“A little faster. Loosen your arms.”
In spite of the frantic movements, Marín says, discipline reigns in the martial arts. A method lies behind the madness. (Notes Barrantes, “The hardest part is fighting against your own mind.”) The effect is a well-rounded workout: intense cardio designed to test the stamina of both mind and body.
Can this style of training eventually increase Costa Rica’s MMA profile at the pro level? That’s not so clear. The more obvious result can be observed in Costa Rica’s premier dojos. Business is booming. And students keep going back for more.
“Stop. Go take a break,” Marín orders. “Then, we do it again.”
Athletic Advance: San Pedro, 2234-8408
Empire FitnessCenter: Tibás, 2241-1520
Gimnasio RingSide: Curridabat, 2253 1656
Mandarina MMA: Santo Tomás, Santo Domingo de Heredia, 8355-0276
MMA Costa Rica: San Pedro, 2234-5490
Muay ThaiBoxingCenter: San Pedro, 2225-2558
World Gym: (Brazilian jujitsu classes), Escazú, 2288-4786
The next FiteNite is set for May 22 at the Hotel Barceló San José Palacio in the northwestern La Uruca district. Main MMA event: Sivianny Chacón vs. Jeffery López for the national belt, 170 pounds. Main boxing event: Jose Arias (U.S.) vs. Edgar Valverde (C.R.). For information on FiteNite, see www.fitenite.tv.