SACRAMENTO, CA - Most parents would cringe at the site of their child getting punched, but at Ultimate Fitness in midtown Sacramento the act is quite normal.
On any given night, you'll find up to two dozen kids between 5 and 12 years old learning the sport of Mixed Martial Arts in the same gym where several UFC fighters, including top contenders Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes and Joseph Benavidez, call home.
"MMA is the new national pastime. It is cool to see the next generation," Faber said.
But in the state of California, the next generation is on hold. In July, the California State Athletic Commission sent out a "Cease and Desist" letter to all Youth Pankration events. Youth "Pankration" is a form of mixed martial arts that does not allow punches or strikes to the head.
But even so, unintentional strikes can happen. One accident, where a young boy punched a young girl in the head, caught the attention of CSAC Executive Officer Andy Foster.
"When I saw this boy hit this little girl, and I don't know how old they were, six or seven or eight, and the girl almost got dropped from a head strike, it was an accidental head strike (but) it just didn't sit well with me," Foster said.
Foster is not only the head of the CSAC, but also a former fighter who holds several black belts.
"This is a combat sport where the goal is not to put a ball down the field, or a ball in a hoop, it is to basically hurt your opponent," Foster said. "And when you are scoring damage or effective striking or effective grappling, for all intensive purposes effective means damage. Accidents can happen, and we need to be careful."
Parents who enrolled their kids into classes at Ultimate Fitness believe the sport is not only safe, but positive for their children.
Hanh and Mike Bagler are more than comfortable watching their 12-year-old daughter Mykhala train and eventually compete.
"We first went into this as a way to defend herself," Mike Bagler explained. "She is very confident. She did have a point where she was getting bullied in school. She is not getting bullied now, but she is not looking for a fight either."
Brian Schafer agrees. He enrolled his 6-year-old son Tyler in the class in February.
"At first, we weren't really sure how it was going to be, but he had no problems." Schafer said. "They really watch them and make sure there are no head strikes. He loves it."
Foster said the passion for MMA will only grow the sport.
"I don't think we can get rid of it even if I wanted to," Foster said. "But, I do want to get rid of it for 5 year olds. I certainly do."
In October, state lawmakers passed AB 1186 giving the CSAC the authority to regulate all combat sports involving participants 18 years old or younger. The bill was openly supported by the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The UFC was proactive with several state commissions to get its own league regulated to help legitimize MMA several years ago.
In January 2014, the CSAC will form a committee to study the safety of Youth Pankration and begin forming a set of uniformed rules for the entire state. Those rules will most likely include a highly modified version of the current rules similar to the "B" Class Ruleswritten by the United States Fighting League, who still runs tournaments outside of California.
The league released the following statement about kids in MMA:
"Most likely you will show youth Pankration competition. We must stress that there is a huge difference between Pankration and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and it goes far beyond the non allowance of head strikes.
"While many of the techniques are the same, the intent is completely different. Unlike MMA where the main objective is to damage your opponent, Pankration's unique scoring system removes the option of winning by punishment. Competitors win by properly applying a submission hold, often before their opponent taps, or by earning points for executing specific Wrestling and Martial Arts techniques. A high level of technical knowledge is required since there is no reliance on strength or aggression to punish their opponent.
"Kids are trained to understand they cannot win by hurting their opponent and any technique that has a reasonable chance of inflicting injury is prohibited. All this has a positive social side effect by giving these kids a unique understanding of how to compete in a combative sport while ensuring they don't hurt their opponent. No other sport creates this type of empathy.
"This is still a contact sport which sometimes 'hurts' but rarely results in injury. Unlike most sports, a trained adult referee is within arms reach during all phases of the competition. If at any point a competitor is hurt, the referees halt the match allowing recovery time which includes medical consultation to ensure no injury has occurred."
Some of the most noticeable changes will forbid mixed gender fights, meaning boys will only fight boys, and girls will only fight girls. Foster would also like to see a minimum age requirement.
"I'm not recommending this activity in any shape, form or fashion for a five year old, but there is an appropriate age where this activity can be done," Foster said. "For my comfort level, I would say 12 or 13 years old."
The CSAC will also require that a doctor is present at all events and each organizer will carry insurance to pay for potential injuries. Foster said, in a perfect world, he hopes to bring back the sport by March or April of 2014.
"I don't think that it is too much time to wait," Foster said. "If we are going to do this activity we are going to do it right."