The first thing you notice walking into West Ashley’s AKS Karate during a training session is the smell. It’s that distinctive blend of sweat and exercise mats familiar to anyone who’s ever been within 50 feet of a gym. At AKS, it’s the smell of hard working, dedicated athletes testing the limits of their endurance and their bodies’ threshold for pain.

To the uninitiated, mixed martial arts, or ultimate fighting, can look brutally, at times gratuitously, violent. But the fighters and fans say these contests are pitched battles of strength, strategy, technique, and will.

At AKS, owner and trainer Matt Robertson says he wants to “make everybody that walks into my gym the most complete fighter they can possibly be.” Blending everything that works in rules-oriented combat, fighters use potent combinations of punching, kicking, chopping, and grappling to subdue their opponents, Robertson says.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is the largest mixed martial arts organization in the world. It’s popular for bloody, cable-televised bouts within a caged arena. Given the sometimes savage nature of the sport, it’s no surprise that mixed martial arts in general, and UFC in particular, have their share of opponents. In 2000 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain even referred to mixed martial arts as “human cock fighting.”

Due largely to reactions like McCain’s, which Robertson calls, “grossly mistaken,” South Carolina outlawed competitive mixed martial arts in 2003. In that bill, the competitions were broadly defined as those which employ “a combination of combative sports, or fighting styles, or weapons.”

Now a handful of state senators, including Sen. Paul Campbell (R-Berkeley), are supporting legislation to legalize competitions while establishing guidelines on oversight and training. The bill has not yet been debated in committee, but Campbell is ready to argue for sanctioned fights to replace back-alley fights.

“As long as we’re making sure the sport is not just a barroom brawl, I don’t think there will be any serious opposition,” he says.

It’s also important that the law is consistent among the various forms of competitive combat, Campbell says.

“Otherwise we’d need to outlaw boxing and professional wrestling too,” he says.

Such a legal reversal could potentially pave the way for future ultimate fighting showdowns at major venues like the North Charleston Coliseum.

But the Statehouse battle is about more than just fighters pocketing cash and pay-per-view TV. As UFC gains in popularity, increasing numbers of people want to learn the unique combination of fighting styles which comprise mixed martial arts. Even though formal competitions are against the law, it’s legal to cross-train in a variety of styles.

To meet a growing student demand, mixed martial arts gyms are appearing all across the state, and they train fighters who dream of competing, as well as those who just want to get in shape or learn self-defense. Unfortunately, in order to actually fight each other, these groups must travel to nearby states like North Carolina and Tennessee where mixed martial arts matches have been legalized.

Given the lack of statewide generalized oversight, it’s no surprise that there are differing perspectives among trainers about what defines mixed martial arts. Some gyms, like American KemTaeDo Center outside of Colombia, advocate it as a method of training in traditional disciplines like karate and kung fu, and then fighting across styles in competition.

“Our main goal is to make you a well-rounded street fighter by focusing on self-defense,” says American KemTaeDo owner, Terry Taylor.

Taylor points out that he doesn’t spend time teaching the wrestling or submission holds which are critical components of UFC battles. “Our classes and our competitions would be of no benefit to a grappler,” he says. “Because that’s just not what we focus on.”

What frustrates Taylor is that his students are lumped together with the UFC style which he feels is unfair. “Our guys hit at low to medium power and we use a contact points system,” he says. “There’s none of that breaking knees or gouging eyes stuff.”

Then there are gyms like AKS where Robertson has taught mixed martial arts for the last year. Those who avoid the grappling styles “are not really teaching mixed martial arts,” he says. In contrast to Taylor’s attempts to distance himself from ultimate fighting, Robertson’s students closely study how UFC fighters train. They learn kick-boxing as well as grappling techniques, with a special focus on wrestling-based submission holds they call the “ground and pound.”

“A lot of my guys want to fight and compete professionally in circuits like UFC or ECW or the others,” said Robertson. “We’ll watch UFC bouts together and discuss techniques; we’re like a big family.”

Robertson has occasionally even asked his friend and professional UFC fighter Hermes Franco to come to Charleston and give his students private lessons.

But, technique aside, just like the students from KemTaeDo, AKS fighters still must travel out of state to compete against others with similar training. “If the current law were overturned,” Robertson says, “there would be more revenue coming into the state from competitions, instead of leaving for other states like it does now, and more opportunities for local businesses to sponsor bouts the way they do with boxing.

“I have a ton of personal connections with [professional fighting] leagues,” Robertson adds. “We could get even more fighters to come through here and give more of my guys and others a real shot at going professional.”

Ironically, the illegal status of mixed martial arts could actually make the sport more dangerous for combatants. The new legislation would require the formation of a mixed martial arts governing body that could address the need for clear definitions regarding the sport, who is qualified to teach it, and who is physically capable of participating. Robertson worries that without proper oversight, his students might face opponents who have not undergone the necessary training or medical screening.

“I might be sending guys to fight against people without proper blood tests,” he says. “(And) it’s really important that there be medical staff at every bout.”

When it comes to training, certain gyms are run by former cage fighters like Robertson, whose credentials are clear, but there are no regulations as to how trainers can claim sufficient knowledge to teach mixed martial arts to would-be competitors.

Robertson also says that mixed martial arts is safer than other, legalized combat like boxing.

“You see these guys at the Plex with awful technique who shouldn’t even be in the ring,” he says. “A lot of boxers have severe head trauma, but even though we use lighter gloves, the right focus is multi-dimensional; you don’t end up taking endless punishment to the head for years and years.”

Most of all, Robertson worries that as long as mixed martial arts remains illegal and largely misunderstood by the general public, his students will continue to be unfairly demonized. “My guys are labeled as barbarians and animals by people like John McCain who have no idea what they’re talking about,” he says. “In reality they’re true sportsmen in every sense of the word.”

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