Sunday, July 6, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Master Nope speaks barely a lick of English, so he uses his arms to summon Matt Horelick to the middle of a 20-person circle on the mats at Syndicate Mixed Martial Arts.
Horelick, sweat soaking through his black T-shirt, gets into position and allows the muay thai kickboxing expert from Thailand to use him as a dummy. Nope demonstrates a striking combination, a right-hand punch across the jaw followed by a leg kick, at walkthrough speed for the class.
• SELF-DEFENSE. It’s not one of the primary reasons Rushelle Kiesel trains in combat sports, but she says it’s nice to know that “it applies practically on a level of safety, which should be important to all women.”
• CALORIE BURN. UFC Gym owner Chris Fuchs says a one-hour mixed martial arts class can burn about 1,200 calories — more than almost any other exercise option.
• LEARNING SOMETHING NEW. MMA workouts can be a challenge, and mastering them can feel good. “It’s so easy to feel yourself progress when you’re first starting,” said Corey Hendricks, who helped open Syndicate.
A couple of steps away, one of the first students to try the technique is Eva Miller. Her husband and gym partner, Jerry Roberts, winces and braces his leg for impact.
“I’m way more into it than he is,” Miller laughs. “He’s still new to muay thai.”
Miller and Roberts, a middle-aged couple, are unlikely fighters at first glance. But they’re two of a growing number of “regular” people training in combat sports. With the proliferation of mixed martial arts due to the popularity of the UFC, fighting as a fitness regimen is on the rise.
A decade ago, there wasn’t a single gym in Las Vegas devoted to MMA, only spots to train in single disciplines such as boxing or Brazilian jiujitsu. Now, there are too many to keep track of. A quick Internet search reveals 15 MMA gyms in Las Vegas.
Even Syndicate, where most of the local professional fighters train, relies on a main customer base of everyday people from different walks of life.
“I don’t know what the numbers are, but since I’ve been at this gym, it has grown a lot,” said Cory Hendricks, a 26-year-old from Lynden, Wash., who helped open Syndicate in December 2012. “It has at least doubled in size. New people come in all the time. And the more we get in, the wider the group of people we have.”
Miller brags that she’s the oldest person in the gym and one of its least likely members. The 45-year-old former power lifter and bodybuilder works out twice a day at Syndicate, during her lunch break and after her shift as a technical writer at Bally Technologies ends.
Horelick, 42, regularly heads to the gym for a 6:30 p.m. muay thai class after finishing work in business development. Horelick boxed in college at UNR, but knowing the intensity of sparring sessions at most gyms, he never wanted to join a boxing club and risk showing up to his corporate workplace with bruises and black eyes.
When he noticed the spread of more casual MMA centers five years ago, Horelick reacquainted himself with the sport. He has been hooked ever since.
“I was doing the typical workouts with treadmills and spin classes,” Horelick said. “Here, you get the same type of workout, if not a little better. It’s new, fun and exciting.”
One of Horelick’s favorite things about training is hitting the mitts and punching bags. He shares that in common with Rushelle Kiesel, a 33-year-old who splits her time between raising three children ages 5 to 9 and training relentlessly.
Kiesel has nurtured a love of boxing since she was in high school at Green Valley. She expanded her repertoire to include kickboxing and jiujitsu when the L.A. Boxing Gym where she was a member transformed into a UFC Gym a couple of years ago.
She trains there every morning and tries to make it to as many night sessions as possible. She’d go more often if she could.
• INJURIES. Although there’s only a small risk of injury during beginning training, injuries can become more common for more advanced fighters. Miller recently tore a tendon in her arm at a jiujitsu competition, but nicks and bruises are more likely for those who stick to the gym.
• EXPENSES. Most MMA gyms don’t disclose their membership fees for a reason: They’re pricey. Syndicate is known as one of the best deals in town, and it charges an average $125 per month for MMA training. Check for promotions, though, as the UFC Gym is running a free-pass trial.
• STAPH INFECTION. MMA gyms forbid shoes on the mats, and operators clean workout areas obsessively, because staph infections are a nightmare. The skin ailment is an unfortunate reality in mixed martial arts.
“Not because that’s all I want to do, but because it’s all I have time to do right now,” Kiesel said.
Kiesel honed her skills to where she felt comfortable sparring with the gym’s fight team, a group of advanced male fighters. She usually brings her children, who enjoy watching their mother punch and kick men.
“At the UFC Gym, it’s an amazing family and camaraderie like I’ve never seen before,” Kiesel said. “I wish I could sing from the rooftops about it, and I do in places where I can, like social media. I bring friends in all the time, and I have not had one person who hasn’t said it was one of the most fun and hardest workouts they’ve ever had.”
It’s a very different landscape from Kiesel’s college years, when the only way she could practice boxing was by buying her own heavy bag.
UFC President Dana White also remembers those days. White moved back to Las Vegas from Boston in 1996 and had to persuade a gym to let him teach boxing there.
“No one was doing it," White said. "The thing you had was all these professional boxing gyms around town that were loaded with the top guys training there. Now they’re all gone, and all the gyms in town are MMA.”
The UFC not only inspired the development of many MMA gyms, but the brand also opened several of its own. There are four in Southern Nevada alone.
Only seven UFC Gyms existed nationwide five years ago. But bolstered by the purchase of the L.A. Boxing franchise, there now are more than 120. The world’s largest MMA promotion also launched UFC Fit, an in-home training and nutrition program that includes exercise DVDs and meal plans.
“The fitness industry really hasn’t evolved much in the last 20 or 30 years,” UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta said. “When I was growing up and going to (Bishop) Gorman, I got a Gold’s Gym membership and went down there to run on the treadmill, lift some weights, take a shower and go home. That’s exactly what you do today, so if you want to take it to the next level, you gather all the martial arts and put them under one roof.”
As students begin mastering combat training, many start to consider fighting in a real match. Neither Kiesel nor Miller ever expected to take an actual fight when they started their exercise routine, but both have strongly considered the possibility of an amateur bout. Three fights have fallen through for Miller, but it’s one of her goals eventually to step into a muay thai ring with an opponent.
A few trainers have suggested the idea of a boxing match to Kiesel, who can’t deny her curiosity.
“But every time I’ve gotten to that point, it seems like I’ve gotten pregnant,” Kiesel said. “I fear my time has passed. I would love to do it someday, but for right now, I’m just into it for the fitness.”
Horelick has a similar mindset. He originally delved back into martial arts with an interest in coaching but now can’t imagine working out any other way.
Punching and kicking beats running and lifting, he said.
“People associate MMA with violence and getting hurt, but I think people don’t realize these are just fun classes,” Horelick said. “It’s a different, better way to work out.”