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Breaking into the cage

  • Jeremy Reipold of Greenfield is the Ravenous MMA fight team's founder and lead instructor of Jiu-Jitsu classes at the gym. Recorder/Trish Crapo

    Jeremy Reipold of Greenfield is the Ravenous MMA fight team's founder and lead instructor of Jiu-Jitsu classes at the gym. Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Joe Leonard of Deerfield, Ravenous MMA gym manager, is 2013 NAGA Men's No-Gi Featherweight Champion and a Ravenous MMA Member fighter. Recorder/Trish Crapo

    Joe Leonard of Deerfield, Ravenous MMA gym manager, is 2013 NAGA Men's No-Gi Featherweight Champion and a Ravenous MMA Member fighter. Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Joe Leonard of Deerfield and Blaze Robinson of Sunderland spar during a recent Jiu-Jitsu session at Ravenous MMA gym in Greenfield while Jeff Serrell looks on. Recorder/Trish Crapo

    Joe Leonard of Deerfield and Blaze Robinson of Sunderland spar during a recent Jiu-Jitsu session at Ravenous MMA gym in Greenfield while Jeff Serrell looks on. Recorder/Trish Crapo

  • Jeremy Reipold of Greenfield is the Ravenous MMA fight team's founder and lead instructor of Jiu-Jitsu classes at the gym. Recorder/Trish Crapo
  • Joe Leonard of Deerfield, Ravenous MMA gym manager, is 2013 NAGA Men's No-Gi Featherweight Champion and a Ravenous MMA Member fighter. Recorder/Trish Crapo
  • Joe Leonard of Deerfield and Blaze Robinson of Sunderland spar during a recent Jiu-Jitsu session at Ravenous MMA gym in Greenfield while Jeff Serrell looks on. Recorder/Trish Crapo

The second of three rounds ends with both fighters on the mat, one straddling the other’s torso, pinning the prone man’s head to the mat with one hand on his face while he pounds the man’s skull like a coconut with the other.

The fight, a victory for George Abele over Ray Johns in the 185-pound amateur class, was one in a string of mixed martial arts bouts fought a couple of winters ago at the Mullins Center arena on the University of Massachusetts-Amherst campus.

Premier Fighting Championship, a western Massachusetts-based fight league, had brought to the Mullins Center a fight card of 17 amateur and professional bouts. The lineup included Sarah Payant, who lived in Greenfield at the time and represented the Franklin County-based Team Ravenous and another gym.

Mixed martial arts, more commonly known by the acronym MMA, is an all-encompassing fighting sport that has seen an explosion in popularity over the past decade or so. For some, it’s enough that the sport’s grueling workouts are a great way to get in shape. Others also aspire to test their strength and skills against another fighter, in the ring before a roaring crowd.

Inside the octagonal chain-link cage, fighters squared off to pummel, choke and twist each other’s limbs until one signaled submission with a tap of the hand, one lost consciousness, or, as is often the case, the referee stopped the fight to protect an overwhelmed combatant.

Fights were punctuated with club-like light displays, deafening music and scantily-clad “ring girls” circling the inside of the cage. The fights themselves are hyper-kinetic displays of skill, athleticism and violence followed by lackluster impasses between evenly matched combatants.

Most fights opened with a flurry of punches and high-kicks, but quickly slowed down as the fighters locked up against the chain link or on the mat. Some fights begin and end almost simultaneously.

The 12th fight of the evening was on the professional card, in the 125-pound weight class. With the referee’s instruction to fight, Michael Flores immediately leapt upon his significantly taller opponent like a frenzied jack-in-the-box, knocked him to the ground, pinning him there and beating him in the face and head until the referee stepped in to stop the bout just 12 seconds into the first round.

The quick, overwhelming display drew roars of approval from the audience, which apparently was not disappointed to be robbed of what would otherwise have been another 14 minutes and 48 seconds of spectacle.

Few of the fights “go the distance”: three five-minute rounds at the professional level or three three-minute rounds at the amateur level.

On this evening, Payant’s fight ended in a first-round loss. Other members of Team Ravenous — based in Greenfield — were also present, watching or working video cameras during the competition, which was a “first-step” event for those who dream of advancing through the ranks to fight on the national stage.

Team Ravenous

At the time, Team Ravenous members did their training in a drafty Greenfield factory attic on Hope Street, where they’d recently moved from South Deerfield.

The walls and the columns supporting the roof were not yet fully padded and the gym was caught somewhere between a business, a private club and a collective with the more advanced members providing the coaching and dues going toward rent and upkeep.

Team Ravenous traces its origin to Greenfield resident Jeremy Reipold and Yankee Candle coworker Jose Lopez. After seeing the sport on TV, Reipold signed up at an Amherst martial arts gym but he and Lopez soon struck out on their own, founding Team Ravenous in Deerfield in 2007.

Moving to Greenfield in 2011, in part to be nearer Reipold’s growing family, the team initially set up shop above what was then the Winterland Country Club bar.

Two years later, the gym moved again to its current location, joining the collection of exercise and health practices above World Eye Bookshop on Main Street, where team members train and the senior members teach private and group classes.

Spending the evening choking people might constitute a felony under most circumstances, but in the Team Ravenous gym, it’s all part of the routine.

There is a rotating schedule of instructions in fighting styles and, on this night, Reipold had attracted 13 team members interested in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a variation of a Japanese martial art combining Judo-style grappling with kicks and punches. It also emphasizes chokes and painful joint locks designed to get your opponent to submit.

Reipold led the training session like a high school wrestling practice. After a sequence of stretches, some running and a few basic drills, he demonstrated a number of choke holds and joint locks, shutting off his students’ oxygen and blood supplies and bending limbs in uncomfortable directions.

While demonstrating a move in which a fighter uses the leverage of his or her entire body to bend an opponent’s arm in such a way that the elbow can be dislocated with a little extra force, Reipold warns them not to take it too far.

“We’re all friends, teammates, we all have jobs,” he reminds the group.

“In the gym, we all respect each other, we all recognize that we have to go to work tomorrow,” explained Leonard, who is the team manager in addition to being the gym’s co-owner.

Reipold’s wife, Faith, had brought then 7-week-old Kaleb to watch his first practice and Reipold sprinted off the mat at odd intervals to grin ecstatically at his infant son.

Seated well away from the mat in his carrier on the couch next to his mother, Kaleb was apparently undisturbed by the beep of the timer and the thump of bodies hitting the mats, occasionally waving his arms in what his father was quick to identify as a punching motion.

Asked if she worries about her husband practicing such a risky sport, Faith Reipold said she does, a little. “But I love watching him because it makes him so happy,” she added.

Why fight?

Asked why they want to fight, some Team Ravenous members mentioned the carnival atmosphere, some the challenge, some the chance to blow off steam.

Reipold fights because he enjoys the competition and the accomplishment. He’s been fighting in amateur and professional bouts for about seven years now.

Neither he nor Leonard wrestled in high school, took karate, or participated in any of the usual fighting sports. Both started fighting later in life, Leonard in his 20s, Reipold in his early 30s, and they aren’t prone to over analyzing why.

“It’s a little self-defence for you, a confidence builder and it’s also going to keep you in shape because we work hard,” Reipold said.

Leonard has Crohn’s disease, a chronic autoimmune disease affecting the digestive tract, and while he must accommodate his training schedule to his symptoms, the sport helps keep him healthy.

Without the mixed martial arts to occupy him, he would probably be stuck at home gaining weight, he said.

Leonard conceded that being kicked in the face is arguably a more personal than team experience, but says the team structure provides necessary support outside the ring. “In the ring, you’re on your own, but to train and to be effective, you have to have a team behind you,” he said.

The team provides training partners, practice for the experienced fighters and education for the new recruits, in addition to helping motivate its members.

“It’s very easy to sit on a couch and say ‘Ah, I don’t want to train today,’” Leonard said, “But it’s not so easy with a commitment to a regularly scheduled practice and teammates calling to check on you.”

A father of two, Leonard, 32, of South Deerfield, also manages the gym and runs a website dedicated to the sport of mixed martial arts in western Massachusetts. Some indication of the sport’s popularity is that westernmassmma.com has logged over 500,000 visits in about two years.

Training with the team in 2011, Nolan Cadigan, then 27, of Greenfield, said he was working to get in the cage some day.

“It’s the glamor, the cage girls, the crazy screaming people,” he said.

Another Ravenous regular at the time, Charles Garbiel, then 34, of Turners Falls, trained five to six days a week at the center and helped instruct the Muay Thai class.

Garbiel said the sport is the best cardio workout he’s ever had, and, as a Muay Thai instructor elsewhere, said he routinely heard from students that the rigor and discipline helped them with depression and similar troubles.

“For some people it’s an outlet, for aggression, whatever, it makes them feel better,” he said.

Personally, Garbiel said the training keeps him in shape and keeps him thinking.

“I’m sure it would come in handy if I ever needed it,” he added as an afterthought.

As for Payant, she more or less fell into mixed martial arts about five years ago after a broken foot put a disappointing end to her planned four-year stint in the Army. “I loved it from the beginning I think,” she said. “I’m kind of the wild child of the family, so I had to find something else that was interesting to do.”

Originally motivated by the workout — she is a certified physical trainer and former high school athlete — Payant hopes to some day go pro.

In the beginning, Payant trained six days a week for at least three hours all while taking college courses online and working full time.

By the spring of 2012, Payant had found only two opportunities to fight and lost both bouts by submission in the first round.

In the December 2011 fight at the Mullins Center, Payant tapped out after her opponent caught her in a “rear-naked choke,” a grappling hold in which one fighter locks an arm around the other’s neck from behind.

“I don’t really get discouraged, I haven’t gotten hurt in a fight, so there’s nothing I can really be upset about,” she said.

Not getting hurt, in Payant’s case, includes twisted ankles, three slipped disks in her neck and teeth stuck in her scalp in practices and grappling competitions.

“You have to know your limits, what is going to hurt you and what’s not, how long you can fight something off for,” Payant said, citing her decision to tap out once she found she couldn’t break the neck hold in the 2011 fight. “I’m not going to sit there and flop on the cage floor just to prove a point, that I’m tough or whatever.”

Payant, who now trains mostly at a gym in Springfield, went on to win her next three consecutive fights, not breaking that streak until August of this year, with a title fight loss.

Fights scheduled for Nov. 16

In its new space on Main Street, Team Ravenous continues to work out its identity. The gym is still used primarily for the team, but its members come and go.

Since taking over the Shady Glen diner on Avenue A in Turners Falls, where he can now be found at all hours, Garbiel hasn’t had time to train.

Reipold has fought once so far this year, but lost. Things were going well, he said, until his opponent caught him in an arm lock and tore his elbow.

As for Leonard, he got himself down to a fighting weight of 145 with exercise and a juice diet that has also helped him take control of his Crohn’s symptoms.

Leonard has fought three times now, in front of hundreds of spectators at the Hu Ke Lau restaurant in Chicopee and before thousands at Mohegan Sun. He won his latest fight by a knockout.

It was his opponent’s first fight and Leonard said he had the advantage of experience, which let him relax and react with moves he’d practiced for years now.

“I didn’t even feel like I had worked, it happened in the first round, about 2 minutes in,” he said. “My opponent was very aggressive, I just was able to utilize the skills we’ve been working on. After I took the wind out of this kid with a few good knees, I went to work with my hands and found my point on his chin and he went down.”

If all goes according to plan, the team should be represented by two members in a tournament Nov. 15 at the Hu Ke Lau. Leonard is looking forward to his fourth fight and Shawn O’Dou of Lake Pleasant is anticipating his first round in the cage.

Called Warrior Nation VlI, and presented by Warrior Nation X.F.A., the first fight starts at 7:30 p.m., the doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $40, $50 and $60. The Hu Ke Lau is located at 705 Memorial Drive, Chicopee. 413-593-5222, www.hukelau.com.

Thinking about joining?

People seeking to join the team are welcome, but Reipold warns those expecting to jump immediately into the ring will likely be disappointed. No one sets foot in the ring until trainers are comfortable they can handle themselves and immediate cage fights are out of the question. Membership is also not guaranteed. The application process is informal and the best way to get started is to show up.

Leonard’s website,
westernmassmma.com, offers information on local fights and fighters, fight and exercise tips, fight news, reviews and videos.

Area gyms

■ Ravenous MMA Training Center: Greenfield, 158 Main St., second floor, suite 9. Open 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday for strength and cardio training, 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday for mixed martial arts. Visit westernmassmma.com, find Ravenous MMA on Facebook or call Leonard at 413-695-9644 for more information.

■ New England Submission Fighting in Amherst: www.amherstmma.com

■ The Gabriel Gladiator Training Center in West Springfield: http://gabrielgladiator.com

■ Fighting Arts Academy in Springfield: www.fightingartsacademy.com

■ Center For Martial Arts And Fitness, 70 Mohawk Trail in Greenfield, offers child care and taekwondo and MMA classes for all ages: http://cfmaf.net or 413-475-3715.

Staff reporter Chris Curtis started at The Recorder in 2011. He covers Montague, Gill, Erving and Wendell. He can be reached at ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at pfranz@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 Ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.

Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She can be reached at tcrapo@me.com.

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