The Belle of the ball at Maple Ridge's Fight Pit
An 11-year-old girl from Maple Ridge is emerging as a phenom in the sport of mixed martial arts.
Belle Gagnon won the Tiger Balm Invitational at Capilano college last month, when she was still just 10 years old, winning fights with boys along the way.
Her father, Clayton Gagnon, who runs a local roofing business, said he put his daughter into the program at The Fight Pit for the impressive workouts. Belle is an athlete who stands out in all sports, and he thought the cross-training would be good for her. Her eight-year-old brother Ben is also in the gym.
Belle surprised everyone by dispatching opponents with the calm regularity of a Georges St-Pierre.
“She just took off – she’s just good at it,” said Clayton.
Her coach, Chris Simpson, said Belle is a natural.
“She kills everybody. She’s fast, limber, flexible, aggressive, not scared to get hurt ... ” he goes on.
She ends up against bigger kids her own age, and they don’t present any particular problem.
“If she can get them on the ground, they’re done,” said Simpson.
Clayton doesn’t worry about his daughter fighting boys, noting that pre-teen girls can more than hold their own in the octagon.
In fact, the two top B.C. fighters in her age class are both girls – Belle being one of them.
If MMA has become mainstream sports entertainment, MMA for children still raises eyebrows, if not controversy.
Last year a New Brunswick cage fight involving children was highlighted by the CBC.
Before that, a B.C.-based MMA trainer raised the alarm that some fights were allowing children to use the ground and pound technique, where fighters who are on the canvass can be punched in the head.
Just last month the South Dakota State Legislature debated a ban on all MMA, when representative Steve Hickey raised the issue, asking: “Who would Jesus elbow in the face?” The legislature defeated his motion, but approved a state commission to regulate combat sports.
Gagnon acknowledges that kids cry at MMA tournaments, but notes children also cry when they get hit by baseballs, or blindsided by a bodycheck in a hockey game. For him, the professionalism of the coaches and organizers reassures him that his daughter is safe.
The kids wear well padded gloves, head gear, and shin guards.
“And, the rule is because they’re kids, they can’t strike to the face.”
The parents who drop off their kids at The Fight Pit all believe in MMA as a good sport for kids – as karate, kung fu, wrestling and other sports have been.
Penny Koop has three boys – 18, 14 and nine – who go to the gym.
“I just love this place,” she said.
Her middle son, 14-year-old Colton, is “really active,” and would not do well in a martial art that demanded a lot of repetitive exercises. The Fight Pit offers a variety.
“They seem to enjoy it, it gives them lots of confidence, and they get lots of exercise.”
Tanya Wagner’s nine-year old son Sebastien loves watching fights, as well as wrestling and physical play, so she sought out the Fight Pit.
“It was the first time I really saw him sweat, but he enjoys it,” she said.
She likes the club’s policy that if someone uses their MMA techniques in the schoolyard, they will be kicked out of the club.
Tammy Gagnon admits she was hesitant about Belle being involved in UFC-style fighting, but any anxiety was put away after she watched her daughter take the classes.
She said Belle takes all of her sports seriously, and she wasn’t surprised to see her excel.
Tammy also likes that her daughter has learned self defence.
“If she was grabbed from behind by someone, she could absolutely defend herself,” she said.
“I can’t get out of her chokeholds.”
Curtis Butterworth joined the Fight Pit when he was a 10-year-old MMA fan.
“It was a bit of a struggle to get my dad to let me join,” he recalls, and he had to save up several months worth of dues before his father finally relented.
Now 16, he can look back on what the classes have done for him, and for the other kids at the Fight Pit.
“It’s great for kids. For myself, it’s given me discipline, self respect, and taught me to respect others.”
He remembers his first fight: “I got beat up pretty bad.” Since then, he has brought home medals from a lot of tournaments.
Like any teen who excels at a sport, his goal is to take MMA as far as he can.
“I for sure want to become professional, and have a few pro fights before I even think of leaving martial arts,” he said.
The kids almost all arrive 15 minutes early, to start with soccer.
Simpson said the classes involve an indoor soccer warmup, an intense workout that includes burpees, chase games, pushups and other calisthenic-type exercises. The last half hour is technique training or sparring.
He enters kids in tournaments only three or four times per year, and he makes sure they watch a tournament before they enter. Tournaments are rough, and will put far more demands on the kids than even his classes, which have a toughen ’em up element.
He will take kids for his classes as soon as they can tell their right from their left – about six years of age.
They don’t start fighting right away.
“The first year is having fun and starting to enjoy this place,” Simpson said. “The next year is about more tutelage.”
His youngest competitor, Cam Spooner, is just seven years old. He has a bronze medal to his credit.
Generally, the Fight Pit kids do well in competition.
Not all the kids are naturals. Some take their lumps. Simpson maintains that’s important too.
“It’s good for kids to lose, I think. It teaches them a whole new thing.”