Standing alone, together
Photos: Bruce Murray
Mixed martial arts builds strength, clears the mind, and creates community — meet the people embracing the city’s fastest-growing sport
The entrance to Titans Martial Arts and Fitness on Horseshoe Lake Drive offers little clue what’s going on inside.
It’s at the side of a building that looks like a warehouse, and houses the Nothin’ Fancy outlet in front. Inside is a long strip of gym, carpeted with bare walls, industrial LED lights, and white pipes overhead. To the left are weights, and a boxing-style ring next to another fighting area without ropes.
To the right is a hallway, change areas, several heavy bags and men paired off, sparring. There is one young woman roundhousing a heavy bag and a middle-aged woman lifting weights while chatting with a toddler.
Overseeing the action is Peter Martell, co-owner and, according to one of his proteges, “the best coach in Canada.” He has worked with Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) luminaries like superstar Gavin “Guv’nor” Tucker and the late Ryan “the Big Deal” Jimmo.
The brutally physical sport of mixed martial arts is equally a mental game, Martell explains, offering Tucker as an example.
“Gavin is a special athlete,” he says. “Gifted, able to put things in perspective. When he loses, he’s able to say no excuses, identify what went wrong and fix it.”
Martell is readying these men for a big card at month’s end. For many, this will be their first real fight, after two years sidelined by the pandemic. He lists several exciting up-and-comers, including Jake Kelly, a 4-1 bantamweight from Corner Brook, N.L. trained in Japanese Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling.
Martell usually focuses more on the whole group, but with the big event just around the corner, he needs to ready the combatants, leaving others to spar on their own. They feel each other out, strike, and check in on one another, “You good?”
Always the grunted answer is, “Let’s go!” One fighter receives advice on how to work through his bloody nose if it happens in a match.
Mixed martial arts has become one of North America’s fastest growing competitive sports.
“At one point it was the second fastest growing sport in the world behind soccer,” Martell says, describing it as “pretty accessible” in Canada because little equipment is necessary. “Nova Scotia produces a lot of high-level MMA fighters per capita, from different walks of life. They come from east, west, Newfoundland and Labrador to Dartmouth.”
The sport is global, inexpensive to learn, and accessible for men and women. All you need to compete is toughness, fearlessness, an obsessive level of commitment, and a willingness to fight anyone in your class.
“I first became interested back in 1993,” Martell says, “when I first saw in UFC a 175-pound fighter beating much bigger guys.”
He realized that not only could small beat big, but that his ideas of one fighting style being unbeatable were off base. First, karate and kickboxing were dominant, then grappling. But all bets were off when grapplers learned to strike — in other words, when fighters trained in different styles they reaped the benefits of diverse skills.
No one could win with mastery of just one style. At that point, fighting became a chess match. “We saw that evolution locally,” Martell says. “You fight in the area where you’re better than your opponent. I don’t think people realize how big the mental game is.”
The combination of the mental and physical is a big reason so many get hooked. They may start simply to get in shape, but the sport requires they consistently push themselves beyond what they thought was possible.
“You kind of get more mentally prepared every day just training and doing the grind,” says Simon Plummer, a 26-year-old carpenter with kickboxing matches under his belt, who is training with Martell. “Then there’s sessions like they are doing over there right now.”
Plummer motions toward an Airdyne stationary bike by the ring, where someone is engaged in a full sprint and screaming in either agony or mania. “That shows you what you’re made of — pushing that threshold time and time again. I think my work ethic is better from this. I try harder at everything in life, relationships and work.”
Every Titans fighter I speak with emphasizes how this intensive training has built their confidence and made them better at every part of their lives. Plummer says the work ethic involved has made him a better carpenter, something he’s been working at just as long.
“If I can perform here, I can perform in the real world too,” adds Ryan Martin, an employee of Halifax Water and a volunteer firefighter. “I don’t shy away from challenges now.”
Sam Reyno, who Martell calls “incredibly skilled,” has been training since he was 14, almost six years. “My mom made me do it,” he says. “I was sitting at home playing video games and I never did a sport.”
His family expected him to quit within a week, but he was instantly hooked. “I started off boxing for about a year and I’ve been doing MMA for about five,” he recalls. “I came in here, and ever since I haven’t been able to stop.”
He has yet to have an MMA fight, in part because COVID makes it that much harder to find the right matchup in terms of size and experience. But he trains daily, at home or at Titans, learning strategies and techniques and building strength. He is determined to get in the cage, but not for any hope of making a career of it.
He wants to test himself.
“I’ve been training for so long,” he says. “I’m not going to be able to train forever in MMA, but it’s something I want to do while I can.”
He’s one of the smallest in the gym, some of them look straight from the set of an action blockbuster, but he says he holds his own against men who have won their bouts. “Peter’s a great coach. If he tells me I’m ready, I know I’m ready.”
Confidence is not a problem here. It was for Reyno, at first. “I was shy.” Now he’s not afraid to speak up. He lost the couch potato shape and has gotten much stronger, discovering athletic ability he didn’t dream possible.
“At first I was jumping rope and I almost passed out in under a minute,” he says. “In time you realize you can be athletic; you are in good shape. It makes you start to believe in yourself, helps you find out who you are.”
He has more clarity of thought, too, and better performance in school. “And it’s given me more drive.”
He doesn’t think about the risk because the bigger guys are aware of their advantage. They look out for him. “It’s a violent sport but nobody wants to hurt each other. We’re like family,” he says. “It’s a solo sport, yet it’s a team.”
For Christine Fader, an instructor at Halifax Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on Kempt Road and an International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation gold medallist, that sense of team and community is what the sport is about. She started nine years ago, after a breakup at the age of 32.
Trained in several styles, including boxing, Muay Thai (kickboxing), and wrestling, Fader says the sport has changed her life. “I’ve travelled all over North America, competed, and met people who are close friends now.”
Fader knew she was in love with the sport the first time she fought, having trained in Muay Thai almost exclusively with men in their early 20s. Abhaya Mixed Martial Arts hosted the fight card in the Annapolis Valley. It was the first time she’d seen so many women fighting, and they were using jujitsu.
“The jujitsu people had really close friendships, and seemed to have more fun.” With more grappling technique, she feels more trust is built in sparring, so that when a fighter taps it’s over, and they don’t get hurt.
What she loves most about jujitsu is that it’s so technical. When you first start out, “your natural instincts are all wrong.”
The novice will be physically dominated and for most it will be a first. Fader says it’s an incredibly emotional experience. “It’s scary. You realize, ‘I don’t really know anything.’ ” Every mistake becomes a crucial lesson.
Like the fighters at Titans, she loves the mental game at least as much as the physical. “It looks like brute strength, but there’s so much strategy,” she explains. “You need to be three or four steps ahead.”
She always comes back to the community aspect; on the mat it seems solitary, but no one gets there alone. “The No. 1 thing you have to be is a good partner,” she says. “Learn to communicate. You have to be able to give and take feedback. Life skills.
“I love getting to teach, impacting young people’s lives, showing them they can do things they didn’t know were possible — that when you do something physically hard, it translates in other areas.”
Although men still dominate combat sports, she is amazed at the progress of women. “When I started, the few women fighting were considered off-hand matches, always exhibition, never taken seriously,” she says. “Now there’s tournaments every month, opportunities to compete. Now women headline fights.”
Much of that change comes from determined women like Fader. She also credits male allies. “Men had to make space for women who wanted to try it,” she says. “I had some of the best male training partners when I was the only female.”
While machismo still exists in the sport, there are “a good 10 gyms” in town, three on Kempt Road alone — which Fader calls “jujitsu-MMA row” — that prospective fighters can explore options and find a comfortable environment.
Fader is excited about what’s coming next, noting a couple local talents with promising futures: “Jericho MacPhee with our gym, who also put in time at Tristar Gym in Montreal and at Breakthrough in Amherst, is a great prospect. Luc de Ste Croix is 3-0, from Dartmouth — a very exciting fighter.”
Most important are the ones no one has heard of yet. The people of all backgrounds, ages, and genders coming out to try something new.
“You don’t have to be in shape, you’ll get in shape doing it,” Fader says. “You can be a 65-year-old grandmother looking for exercise or someone hoping to be world champion. The hardest thing you’ll ever do is walk through the gym door. You’ll feel awkward, weird, and sore; it’s very hard, but very rewarding.”