Children in the ring: kids' cage fighting gains popularity

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PHOENIX -- A new sport gaining popularity with kids around the Valley has some questioning its dangers.

Valley boys and girls alike are taking to the ring, training to be fighters. It's called "Pankration," a combat sport that's said to combine wrestling and boxing. Kids as young as seven are kicking, striking, and looking to choke their way to victory.

Some critics call the sport "barbaric." And, because it's not regulated in Arizona, kids' "Pankration" tournaments can only take place on reservations. But it's also how millions of kids across the country are spending their free time.

"I just like the adrenaline pumping through you and everything," says Clayton Carpenter of KIDS MMA.

"If you can take a punch you can take anything," says William Reid, also with KIDS MMA.

The world of kid cage fighting isn't just child's play, and it's not just for boys. "I think girls and boys should be treated the same," says Kylee Roque of KIDS MMA.

"It's just so much fun. Honestly, it's the best," says Mikael Carpenter of KIDS MMA.

Some of the country's top-notch athletes are training right here in Gilbert, Arizona at Power MMA.

"I train five days a week for four to five hours," Roque tells us.

"I do it a lot. It is the only thing I do so I'm pretty good at it," says Carpenter.

Clayton Carpenter is a world champion who travels the world fighting. He and his siblings are so dedicated to the craft that they're now home-schooled.

Kids' Pankration requires these athletes to be well-versed in muay thai, wrestling, boxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

"These kids come here work two to three hours every day," says Andre Maracaba of Power MMA. "They work hard for that five or ten minutes they are in the cage, three to four times year."

But these kids are the exception, not the rule.

"I can't imagine someone hitting my kid," says Jeff Funicello of American Pankration. "I do this for a living and I can't imagine it."

Funicello owns American Pankration Fighting and is a father of two.

When it comes to Adult MMA, he says: "The intent is you are here to hurt somebody, to shut them down."

Despite all his expertise training world class fighters, he's hesitant about teaching his kids to cage fight. "So sticking a kid in there that doesn't know what he's getting into can be cruel," he says.

This sport is not only growing from a competitive cage fighting aspect. More and more classes like this one at Impact MMA in Scottsdale are popping up all over the Valley.

"We try to teach kids as young as three how to defend themselves," says Jaime Varner of Impact MMA.

Varner designed the Kid Fit program. And while he hopes this new class offered at his gym will boost kids' confidence, it also exposes them to the world of MMA.

"If she wants to do it, I totally encourage her," says mom Angie Coin.

"There are a lot of rules and regulations at youth level try to make sport safer for kids than what we see on TV that's sensationalized," says Dr. Kristina Wilson.

Dr. Wilson practices sports medicine at Phoenix Children's Hospital.

She explains that with Kids' Pankration, you're not allowed to hit above the collar bone and you get points for technique for not hurting your opponent.

While many clubs enforce strict rules, not all do. Video taken at tournaments nationwide paints a different picture: kids taking blow after blow to the head.

"I know the cop-out is that, 'Well, the ref is there to protect the kids', but no, I'm sorry, the parents' job is to protect their kids," says Funicello.

Dr. Wilson says no sport is injury-free, which is why it's important for parents to understand what rules are in place.

"As long as there is good structure of rules that protect these kids, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing," says Dr. Wilson.

That might explain why Wilson sees far fewer injuries and concussions associated with Pankration than football. Still, she cautions: "I don't know if we're at that point where we can say it's safer; we kind of need long term data."

And it's data we won't have until the sport becomes sanctioned. Until then, it seems everyone has an opinion. "I guarantee less kids get hurt doing martial arts than playing football," says Maracaba.

"It's not a game," says Funicello. "It might be a sport now but it's not a game to be taken lightly."

The state of California is currently considering regulating Kids' Pankration. Meantime, the Arizona Boxing and MMA Commission tells us no such proposal has been made here. So they have yet to form an opinion on the sport.