Take two children, strap four-ounce gloves on their hands and put them behind the chain link of a cage. What do you get? Controversy.

The issue came to the forefront recently when it happened in an Armenian mixed martial arts promotion, with a video surfacing of a six-year-old competing against a seven-year-old in what appeared to be a full-contact MMA bout. But, a little closer to home, the California-based United States Fight League has had a taste of similar attitudes.

“We were probably the first ones to do kid’s MMA under Pankration, and the message boards would say, ‘Hey, these parents are [committing] child abuse; the promoters should be in jail’ and all this other stuff. It was really crazy,” said the USFL’s President, Jon Frank, in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “People would watch videos, and they didn’t realize the rules. They’d see these kids don’t have headgear; they have small gloves. They didn’t really look at it and see what was going on.”

Action from the 2012 California Youth State Championships (United States Fight League)

“If we were to do those same tournaments in a karate gi, nobody would say anything. But the fact that they’re wearing the fight shorts with the MMA gloves, it makes it look a lot worse. In fact, we even had one in a cage in Arizona, and that got crazy all over the internet. But really, the rules were the same. If they were to do it on a mat in a karate uniform, nobody would have said anything. A lot of it is just ignorance—just looking at something and making a snap judgment.”

The league, which usually hosts events that take place on gym mats rather than inside the typical caged MMA venue, was formed approximately a decade ago. At the time, there was a swell in the movement to have the fighting art of Pankration reinstated in the Olympic games. While the movement faded, the USFL has continued to champion the cause. The league works with firefighters and military personnel, but its primary focus is to provide a competitive venue for fighters as young as five years of age.

“At the time, I had kids that were maybe nine and eleven or ten and twelve, or something, and I was training them,” said Frank, who has an extensive background in karate, Muay Thai and boxing, and was a member of the “All-Marine” taekwondo team. He even competed in MMA in its earliest incarnation, fighting a couple of times between 1992 and 1993. “They were interested in doing [MMA]. There was no opportunity to compete, so I just said, ‘well, let me just hold a little kid’s tournament at one of my friend’s taekwondo schools in San Diego.’ We had like nine kids show up. A lot more watched and were curious about what we did, but back then it was very, very few kids even training jiu-jitsu.”

However, after that first show, the numbers started to increase.

“Guys would have their kids in jiu-jitsu schools, and their instructors said they didn’t like the Pankration. Guys would start their own schools based on our kids being in the sport. And a bunch of them are really successful right now, that started off in that.”

From nine kids, the USFL has grown tremendously. The turnout reported by Frank for the most recent event, the state championships for California included 115 kids, 17 of which were between the ages of five and seven. The other age categories, ranging from eight on up to 15, saw somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 25 kids each.

Whereas the Armenian show featured what looked to be the standard professional MMA rule set, the USFL opts for safety first. The league does not allow blows to the head in its youth division. Body blows, thrown with power, are allowed, but there are no knockouts—if a child has the wind knocked out of him/her, there is an injury timeout period before the match continues. The shots must also be focused—wild swings are forbidden. And that’s not where the safety precautions end.

Action from the 2012 California Youth State Championships (United States Fight League)

“We have two referees on the mat, so we get opposing angles at all times,” Frank explained. “We have some rules in place that limit certain dangerous techniques—slams and submissions that crank after they apply pressure. There’s basically a rule that any technique that’s likely to injure your opponent before there’s a reasonable time to tap or submit is illegal.”

The competitors and coaches hold a mandatory rules brief before each event to review these guidelines. Thus far, the USFL has not seen any serious injuries, and none whatsoever from strikes.

“We’ve never had a kid injured with a strike,” Frank admitted. “Most of the injuries are wrestling related—falling or stuff like that, or even submissions to a lesser degree.”

Some might look at the rule set and suggest that what the kids are really participating in is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu masquerading as MMA. Yet, jiu-jitsu instructors would be the first to disagree. Frank acknowledges that some of these instructors have issue with kid’s MMA because it isn’t advantageous to their own students, due to the different focuses of the two sports. Traditional jiu-jitsu stresses position and sometimes pulling guard as part of its strategy, whereas it doesn’t offer the same blend of takedowns, strikes and grappling as MMA.

“In jiu-jitsu, you don’t necessarily need takedowns, you definitely don’t need strikes. But with Pankration, you have to have two of the three. You either have to have striking and jiu-jitsu, or striking and wrestling, or wrestling and jiu-jitsu, but you can’t just have one,” said Frank.

The safety risks of MMA are a commonly-used argument against allowing children to participate. Even some of those within the MMA community voice their disapproval at the idea of letting preteens compete. It could be seen as a somewhat hypocritical attitude—as Frank points out—considering that these people share very few of the same objections when it comes to children of the same age taking part in full-tackle football.

While the primary object of football is to score touchdowns, the defense has a goal of stopping the other team from reaching the end zone. In order to prevent scores, the defense tackles the player carrying the ball, sometimes resulting in concussions or other serious injuries for the players involved.

Meanwhile, the goal of MMA, at least in its professional variant, is to render your opponent unconscious. However, under the “B” Class rules of Pankration utilized the the USFL, the focus is shifted from rendering one’s opponent unconscious to defeating them via submission or by points. With these guidelines in place, football suddenly looks like the much riskier undertaking.

“Well, we also do this for the military. We’re the contracted MMA consultants for Camp Pendleton, and they did a study on it when it first got introduced, their sport medicine people,” explained Frank. “They did a pretty detailed study, and they said it’s safer than—same rules as we use for the kids—they said it’s considerably safer than football and rugby.”

Action from the 2012 California Youth State Championships (United States Fight League)

With knockouts out of the question, it would be a reasonable assumption that many of the matches hosted by the USFL would quickly hit the mat, where the chance of a finish—via submission—would exist. However, that’s not necessarily the case.

“There’s a lot of striking,” Frank said. “At least fifty percent.”

Frank, who started competing in various martial arts at a young age, knows well the dangers of performing without the proper safety guidelines in place. To put kids in the cage under the same rules as their adult counterparts would be extremely dangerous, in his opinion.

Yet, with the proper precautions in place, MMA under the USFL’s regulations appears to provide a safe and proper platform for the younger generation to get involved.

After all, not every child idolizes the Tim Tebow’s and Calvin Johnson’s of the world over the Anderson Silva’s and Jose Aldo’s. For them, a chance to step onto the mat and force a tapout or outpoint an opponent is just as sweet—and actually less risky—as crossing the goal line for a touchdown.

For these kids, the big game is coming up, as on Aug. 4 in Anaheim, Calif., the USFL will host it’s next event, the Youth Pankration All Star Show & Orange County Battle of the Shields. There, in front of a cheering audience, these kids can get a small taste of what it’s like to be in the MMA spotlight.

Perhaps their desire to compete should be admired, not frowned upon.

For more information on the United States Fight League, visit the organization’s website at fightleague.org.

Top Photo: Action for the 2012 California Youth State Championships (United States Fight League)

About The Author

The MMA Corner Staff

Your home for all things MMA. News, Interviews, Event Coverage, Editorials. If it is MMA related, you will find it on The MMA Corner.

  • Clay Carpenter

    Nice article. My 3 kids got involved in this leage in 2007 and we have had a great experience competing in FILA style Pankration. Thanks for writing an intelligent article on a hot topic. Most articles on this topic go for sensationalism and are filled with misinformation.

  • Tom Hicks

    I agree! Very well written article. I would like to point out that for the most part, I believe people that disapprove of this type of sport for children, do so with all the best intentions! They have very relevant points and concerns, so I don’t believe retaliatory ridicule is warranted. For those of us who have been involved with youth mma, and have learned the truth as it pertains to safety and injury rates as compared with other sports, not to mention the countless other benefits, i believe an understanding approach such as “You have very legitimate concerns, but did you know” is really the only way to have any chance to sway a truly concerned parent or other adult. As for the others that just want something to complain about, just let them fall where they will. Nothing will sway them, so why bother trying. Educating the public whenever possible is the only way to keep this thing alive. My 3 children from 6yrs old to 13yrs are proof enough for me that this mma thing is nothing but beneficial if practiced with good people, and i have encountered more good people in this sport than any other that I have been involved in!