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Inland Empire a breeding ground for next generation of MMA fighters (Video)

ESPN The Magazine talks with 7-year-old Regina
ESPN The Magazine talks with 7-year-old Regina "The Black Widow" Awana and her father Ricky Awana about her dream of becoming a professional MMA fighter.

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In California's Inland Empire, specificially San Bernardino and Riverside counties, there's a growing subculture of future mixed martial arts, or MMA, fighters. 

In case you're unfamiliar with MMA, it's a full-contact combat sport that incorporates moves from multiple martial arts practices like Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, kickboxing, Karate, among others. Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, is the professional arm of MMA and it has become very popular since the early 2000s.

Now kids, some very young, are going at it in cages here in Southern California. The study of martial arts is undoubtedly something positive for kids to practice, and it's been known to build confidence, self-esteem and teach kids how to defend themselves. But the aggressive nature of MMA and the reputation of UFC is raising some alarms.

ESPN senior writer Tim Keown, who recently wrote an article about this new breeding ground for future MMA stars, joins the show to tell us what he found. 

Interview Highlights:

Why do you think this has taken hold in the Inland Empire?
"I think there's maybe a more accelerated version of it there, they're allowing it to be a little bit more contact. They're bringing the mixed martial arts together, rather than having a kid who's taking Jiu-Jitsu classes and maybe competing at that one discipline. There are a lot of gyms there that are bringing all these disciplines together … But it seems to be in that area whether its because of a socioeconomic reason, there's a lot of kids that their parents believe that they need to learn to defend themselves and they get into this and they put the time in then it seems natural for them to compete."

Is this younger division full-contact like the professional level?
"At the highest levels, at the UFC levels, that's what it is. There are certain rules, it's become refined over the years, which has been why it's gotten to be socially acceptable and more lucrative. At this level that I witnessed, which was between 5 and 15 years old, it's not no holds barred. It's as close to full contact as is allowed, but there are no strikes above the collar bone, there's no head strikes, there's no kicking above the collar bone, there's no punches above the collar bone, there's no body slams — they can't pick a kid up and drive him into the ground — but it's strikingly lifelike.

What was it like to see it for the first time?
"It's a little bit jarring when you first see it, because the kids are so small and what they're doing is pretty violent. I walked into the gym at Laguna Hills High School for a national Pankration meet in September, and one of the first matches I watched was an 8-year-old boy against an 8-year-old girl. It ended with the 8-year-old boy on top of the girl just pounding on her chest, repeatedly. She had sort of long since given up the fight and they did stop it pretty quickly, but its a little bit eye opening. But there's a level of respect and honor between the competitors and the coaches and a martial arts ethic, but the actual what they're doing, it gets to you, you're a little bit surprised at first."

What is Pankration?
"Pankration is an ancient Greek combination of boxing and wrestling that was sort of started for the original Olympics and now it's sort of morphed into this sport that allows kids this age to compete without full contact, and with a few safeguards that allow them to not be as violent as full UFC MMA fighting. If someone's in an arm bar, they stop it quickly, they don't wait until some kid snaps someones arm, they keep a close eye on it. They biggest complaint I heard at these meets was that the fights were being called too soon."

Why do boys and girls compete against each other in these younger divisions?
"Up until 12 the girls compete against the boys for a couple of reasons. One reason is that there aren't enough girls competing at those ages to merit a separate division, and the other reason is that they found that the competitive difference is negligible, there's not really a strength factor at that age pre-puberty, and in fact a lot of the girls that I watched were far better than the boys, they won a lot of the very young matches. A lot of the coaches tell me is that at that age, as any second grade teacher could tell you, that the girls actually retain the knowledge better, they sit and listen and they can put it into practice better than the boys, at least thats the theory in the young MMA world."

What are the parents of these young MMA figthers like?
"Its one thing to say that your 8-year-old son can hit a fast ball, and other thing to say that he can beat somebody up. So there's definitely an ego factor with the parents. There's a certain aggression there, but a lot of it was pretty well behaved, there weren't any huge outbursts that I witnessed. But the parents were intense and I think that part of the reason is that UFC and MMA have just recently become this lucrative sort of mainstream sport and I think that the fact that there are fewer competitors at this age leaves these parents to believe that there's a more direct path for their kids to become professionals."