WINCHESTER, TN - Mixed martial arts or MMA has surged in popularity in recent years, with some even calling it the fastest growing sport in the world. In September, Hollywood put its take on the sport in the feature film "Warrior."
Kids as young as four years old are taking part in this highly physical sport. .
It starts out like a typical children's martial arts class, with seasoned instructors leading warm-ups and drills.
"Discipline comes first in whatever we do, and that's what I do here," said gym owner Bunny Hawkersmith.
Hawkersmith's class is gaining worldwide attention, visits from national news programs, even documentary filmmakers from Europe. It's all because of what happens when the lights go off, the cage goes up and boys and girls as young as four years old go in.
"All the public sees is children in a cage fighting, and when they see children in a cage, and they're rolling around grappling on the ground, they think, 'Ahhhh! Child abuse!'" Hawkersmith said.
But as Hawkersmith will tell you, he's turning this controversy into an opportunity to educate the public about children's mixed martial arts or MMA. He started his class three years ago, after seeing how popular the sport was getting.
He has adapted the rules to be safer for children, meaning there are no punches to the face or hits to the body.
"When there's rules in place, and there's licensed people and organized and structured program, it's a safe sport," Hawkersmith said.
To help the public understand the sport, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon weighed in to describe what long-term effects a sport like MMA could have on a child's developing body.
Dr. Michael Lawley's answer was surprising. He says this MMA class appears to be no more risky than any other martial arts class. But he says as with any sport, there's the danger of over-training kids.
"Parts of the body like joints, and the growth plate specifically, are subjected to prolonged stresses. The body is never given a chance from which to recover, and so they come in with these overuse injuries," he said.
Lawley said he would be more concerned about the psychological effects on young children from watching highly violent, adult MMA bouts.
"Is that healthy for the developing psyche of a child? That's a question we should ask," Lawley said.
Self-proclaimed worrier mom Briana Hendrix says a year ago, her son Jersey was extremely shy when she first enrolled him in Hawkersmith's children's MMA class. Now at six years old, he competes in tournaments and leads his class in warm-ups.
"This teaches the kids to respect each other, they have fun and they get to do martial arts and learn something they can use their whole lifetime," Hendrix said.
Hawkersmith said every new sport introduced to kids goes through growing pains, but he feels in time, children's MMA will take off and become mainstream.
"One day, you're going to see our children, MMA programs, like you see the pee-wee basketball and pee-wee football programs and so on," he said.
Hawkersmith said in his three years teaching children's MMA classes, he's never had a single child hurt.