By Chris Erskine, Los Angeles Times

As with church, gyms are where salvation starts.

“Slow on the uptake, with a troubling inability to focus.” That’s what my teachers used to always say. Bosses too. But I have learned one thing along the way: A sweaty workout — five or six days a week — makes you more robust, more confident, and less of a sniveling little lout.

So there. That’s my take on gyms. Generally, I’m for them.

My new favorite church is in a quiet corner of Pasadena, behind a Honda lot the size of Fresno. On this day, some 200 mixed martial arts fighters are gathering for the tryout of a lifetime.

Admittedly, for many Americans, MMA remains a confounding new sport full of acronyms and semi-felonies. It doesn’t seem a sport. It seems like road rage. Or a troubling and untreatable psychosis, based on bloodlust.

So it has that going for it.

Born yesterday, as a human form of video games, MMA is probably younger than the barista who just made your soy latte. While traditionalists like you and me mocked it, these dark arts exploded into the Next Big Thing. A league called the Ultimate Fighting Championship, martial arts’ version of the NFL, recently sold for $4 billion. 

Slow on the uptake? Ignore MMA at your peril, because it might be a top-four sport in our lifetimes. More thrilling than boxing — faster and more athletic — it promotes insane fitness levels and rids the world of major demons (self-doubt, indecision, laziness and a tendency to hold back).

Meet Rocky I: Rafael Garcia Jr., of Mexicali, Mexico, whose days start at 5 a.m. with a three-mile training run, followed by seed deliveries to area farmers. Then he drives 90 minutes to training sessions across the border in Yuma, Ariz.

Meet Rocky II: Adelita McGrath, of Long Beach, formerly of Sao Paulo, Brazil. “I work full time [in freight sales]. If you want this [boxing] ring moved from Point A to Point B, I take care of it. . . . I spend $400 a month for gym memberships. I do wrestling in one place, jiujitsu in another.”

Meet Rocky III: Crystal Navarro, of L.A. and a mother of three, who says: “I’ve always been into street fighting.” When told the judges were impressed, she says, “Really? I’ve only done this for four months.”

Let me just note that if there’s a maternal skill set suited to raising three rambunctious kids, it’s a knack for street fighting.

Look, I don’t know that you’ll ever hear of any of these promising fighters again. That’s probably up to Combate Americas, one of MMA’s many microcosms, a smaller version of UFC that is holding this open tryout.

From 200 hopefuls, Combate Americas will try to pluck potential stars — kids with technique, and heart, and the charisma to promote themselves, a la the lippy Conor McGregor.

“I have never been excited by anything as much as I am by this,” says Campbell McLaren, one of the co-founders of UFC and now the brains and financial brawn behind Combate Americas.

“My guys are punchers who are learning to grapple,” McLaren says of his heavily Latino roster. “UFC fighters are grapplers who are learning to punch.”

On a nearby wall, the famous magazine photo of Muhammad Ali training underwater. According to lore, Ali never really trained underwater — he just said he did. Next thing you know, he’s standing at the bottom of a hotel pool with his gloves on, and Life photographer Flip Schulke is snapping away.

As an image, it also represents the pageantry, the mythology, the zany say-anything spirit of MMA, a sport that has quickly outgrown its pool.

The result? Thousands of nobodies working their tails off in pungent little gyms like this across America, looking for a break.

From this tryout, Combate Americas says it’ll probably take on six of them, four men and two women, a major step toward the American Dream.

“We’re looking for the magic,” one judge says.

In general, I can’t tell the Rock from Vin Diesel, but I can detect a decent break when I see it. That’s all these hopefuls are after with their 5 a.m. wake-up calls and 40 hours of heavy workouts per week, sometimes three sessions a day.  

In any case, give me the underdog any time. Even a gritty underdog sport like this, which nobody really saw coming till it kicked them in the kisser.

Tell me, does MMA have your attention now?  

chris.erskine@latimes.com

Twitter: @erskinetimes

 

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