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Aidan Thome is 8 years old and preparing for what is likely the biggest moment of his life so far. Later this month, on February 23, the third-grader will enter a 28-foot cage in Yucaipa, California, with the hope of kicking and punching his way into becoming the number one mixed martial artist for his age and weight group in the country. And he may have a shot. Aidan is currently ranked number one for his bracket in California.
Make no mistake, youth MMA, or Pankration as it is often called, can be violent. And even though the rules set by the United States Fight League prohibit children under 16 from striking each other in the head, kids score points by executing martial arts techniques properly and well, sometimes causing each other pain. “Once my opponent cried because I hit him so hard,” Aidan told me over the phone with his dad, Carlos, by his side. “It’s all part of the game,” he said.
Training for youth MMA, however, is not a game at all. Aidan spends nearly every day after school training in a gym about 15 minutes from his house. Aidan’s mother Bernadette said while the sport takes up the bulk of Aidan’s time, it doesn’t replace his love for football. “MMA is an activity he really enjoys,” Thome said. “Aidan’s been doing it since he was 6 years old. He does shows and tournaments now, and he wins a lot. His dad and I support it.”
The United States Fight League, the largest organization focused on youth MMA in the country, said interest in the sport is exploding. Eleven years ago when the USFL began, it attracted just a handful of children. Today, fueled in part by the massive popularity of UFC, the United States Fight League runs more than a dozen tournaments, exhibitions, and All-Star matches across the country annually, the bulk of them in California.
The growing interest in the sport is now raising safety concerns. So far in 2013, the National Conference of State Legislatures said Connecticut, New York, Maryland and South Dakota have introduced legislation to address the dangers associated with mixed marital arts. Dr. Frederick Mueller, director of the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, said the sport could lead to serious trauma, including damage to the neck and spine and possible paralysis. “It should be banned at all levels, especially the youth level,” he said.
Jon Frank, president of the USFL, claims he more than anyone understands the risks. To keep tabs on injuries, Frank said his organization keeps medical records of every tournament. “The most common injuries are twisted ankles and hyper-extended elbows,” Frank said. Only two or three times have kids gone to the hospital and those cases were precautionary to rule out neck injuries. The worst-case scenario would be that a kid lands on his head and gets a concussion.”
The concern is all too valid, warned Dr. Rebecca Carl, a specialist in pediatric sports medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. Dr. Carl said head injuries don’t always happen the way parents expect. “Kids don’t need to be hit in the head to get a concussion. The force of being thrown to the ground is enough to injure the brain. We see this a lot in hockey. If a kid gets checked too hard, his head can shoot back really fast and that whiplash motion can cause significant damage. Youth MMA is very worrisome.”
But outside the self-reporting done by USFL, specific data on the number of accidents is not yet readily available. The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, while tracking emergency room visits stemming from injuries associated with the martial arts and other sports, does not investigate MMA specifically.
Frank, while conceding there are risks with youth MMA, said children benefit immeasurably from the sport. “MMA teaches kids self-control. Our athletes know they can cause real harm to their opponents, and we teach them to hold back. We provide great lessons in empathy.” Frank said youth MMA also builds self-esteem and provides a physical outlet for children who may not find enjoyment in such traditional sports such as soccer, gymnastics or lacrosse.
But none of that convinces Dr. Mueller that MMA is worthwhile. He warns all parents, including those just like Aidan’s, to stop their kids from participating before an accident becomes an irreversible, life-altering mistake. “I cannot understand how people call this a sport. It’s like the Greeks and Romans with gladiators fighting the lions.”
Hear from Aidan and his mom Bernadette Monday, Feb. 4, on Raising America at 12 p.m. ET on HLN.
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