Prime Gym Time: Parker’s MMA and Event Center

| October 12, 2014 | 2 Comments

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As my GPS directed me to drive an additional ninety minutes east of Bangor, I was wondering exactly what I’d gotten myself into. Being from outside the state, I’d have assumed ninety minutes east would land me squarely in the ocean; Bangor the end of the state as far as most were concerned.  Yet the seacoast remained out of sight; misty rivers and peak foliage dominating my sight line. Derelict farm houses and abandoned storefronts were oddly contrasted with businesses inside homes, a testament to the Do-It-Yourself mentality that permeates old Maine culture, and runs thick within their MMA scene as well.

The deep Northeast is an area known for working-class folks doing traditional Maine jobs. Lobster is king, lumber a life-saver, and cooking and crafts a seasonal endeavor. With seasonal work based off the shaky tourist and fishing seasons, the area functions through regional recessions, leaving a pall over the ambitions and securities of life others take for granted. This lifestyle of stress, hard labor, and empty pantries breaks down many people, yet literal hunger breeds hardy folks as well, hungry for new experiences and possibilities outside the area.

I traveled deep into the region, through winding roads broken by last winter’s frost and remaining as such, staring down their old foe only a few months away. The woods eventually gave way to the town of Harrington, and my destination appeared in the distance, nestled inside a strip mall long since passed its prime: A new MMA school as far into the sticks as anyone would dare to open such a business, yet some words from the owner rang truer to me, having made the trip.

“I am just trying to teach our community about the sport, gain some interest, and let some of these kids know there is more to life than just lobster fishing and wood cutting.”

Hours and miles from other opportunities, John Parker was bringing Parker MMA to a community closer to the Canadian border than to the nearest gym of its kind. Inside, Parkers MMA consists of a slab of homemade wrestling mat and a hodgepodge of equipment yet to find its corner within the new business, my visit coming on their opening day. As sparse as the unfinished interior of the studio was, the hard truth is that it’s an improvement over what fighters from this part of Maine have had for years.

Fighters from the remote portions of the state have had a tooth-and-nail struggle from day one. I’ve been told matter-of-factly by fighters about driving three hours one way for training; doing pushups in the break room at work because they can’t manage a job and a real training schedule; having wives and friends put on boxing gloves and throw punches at them, just to have something human to deal with in fight preparations. One fighter from the area confided in me that his last training camp was just running and working a heavy bag in his garage; not embarrassed, but simply speaking to the disadvantage fighters from rural Maine deal with in their careers. It’s something Parker’s MMA is looking to change.

Adorning the silver wrestling mat was Maine MMA staple John Parker: Captain of Team Nitemare and one of the strongest supports of combat sports in the region. It’s rare to meet someone that has no enemies or detractors in this game, yet I’d heard more about John Parker and his overflowing love of the sport than anyone else; a genuine character looking to make positive changes for the people around him.

Parker had started his career through necessity in a way, managing a rough bar where fights between customers were frequent and brutal. A man that walks around near 140lbs, he needed to learn how to deal with larger foes that weren’t looking for the same kind of bar room entertainment as his loyal patrons. Studying up on Eddie Bravo and other BJJ greats, Parker learned by doing; testing skills against friends in times of relaxation and against bar room brawlers looking to ruin his taproom and reputation. Over the years, he’d work with some of the up-and-coming teams in Bangor to gain real mat experience before taking to the sport itself. It’s within the proper sporting world of MMA that he found his home at last and started Team Nitemare.

Parkers MMA is to be the home of his rag-tag band of rural warriors, with Jacob Cameron unable to make the trip, but with one of the team’s star players in attendance for opening day at the gym. Justin Witham had made the drive in to work with Parker and myself, with his second MMA fight just a short month away. I had been on hand for his debut at NEF XIV; rough in terms of technique at that time, but made of stronger stuff than most. Just watching him warming up, I could tell how different he already was, his movement having improved dramatically in the short time since his fight, and Parker told me his team’s secret, such as it is.

“People don’t realize, we do this all day, every day. We never stop.”

Having limited training partners, rural fighters need to make up for that lack of interaction with pure tenacity in whatever physical pursuit they can tackle. The dedication showed as Witham worked his shadow boxing; feet gliding over the mat in practiced grace as he snapped combinations off in the air. Footwork and hand-foot coordination are skills that fighter work less than they should, being more interested in free rolling and the more interesting exercises of the gym. With training options limited thus far, Witham had clearly put in a great deal of solo work with his movement, and as such had a great foundation to build on as more bodies would appear on the mats at Parker MMA.

I worked takedown defense with Witham for his upcoming fight, which is a skill difficult to master without skilled grapplers giving the proper look to train against. Showing him some simple techniques that fit his style, we drilled how to use them and broke down the movements, Parker taking it in to help work in my absence, while Justin’s father, Jason, recorded the session.  I fired my best single and double legs, but found myself losing purchase with every consecutive attempt, the technique being drawn into Witham’s mind like a sponge. We worked clinch control and I could feel the ropy strength of a laborer as we grappled, a Bantamweight giving me problems despite having nearly a hundred pounds on him. Witham shared Parker’s attitude to learn, develop and pass along skills, all of which aid greatly in his coming battles within the cage, and with getting the school running at capacity. Parker and Witham were  laying the ground work here, not only for themselves in their pursuit of victory in the sport, but the next generation that would hopefully follow on the heels of their success.

As we watched Witham move, having incorporated the new techniques into the shadow workout already, Parker told me about the lack of sports in the area and lack of direction for the youth. The high school has no football, no baseball and no wrestling; something that would cause outrage in the towns of Massachusetts was just a fact of life up here, and left young men little chance to get into athletics.

“Maybe we can have a wrestling team here.” Parker said, and it made sense in context of the region. Even a 30’ x 20′ mat was better than everyone in the community missing out on the life-defining activities of competitive athletics, and Parker remains determined to make sure children can have a place to learn the craft. He told me of his own son, a boy of eleven that dwarfs the two of us, and how much he’d loved breaking in the mats with his father as he build the school by hand. The plight of children becomes all the more potent on the mind when your own are in the mix, and Justin’s eleven month old son watching us from the sitting area told me there would be plenty of motivation to turn Parkers MMA into a destination in the area, for both young and old.

Capping off our session with some submission defense and clinch work, we parted ways, myself having more gyms to see on my tour of Northern Maine and a day of classes to run on the gym’s first official day. It felt great to give back to the effort, even if those fruits would only ripen years down the road. Even still, I knew the seeds had been planted, and the mats at Parkers MMA would be drinking a great deal of sweat for this and many more days, Team Nitemare thriving in its new home and drawing more to their banner.

* * * * *

Parkers MMA and Event Center is located at 1490 Main St in Harrington, Maine. Contact John Parker at 207-479-2328 or visit the Parkers MMA and Event Center Page on Facebook for class information as it becomes available.

Special thanks to Prime Athletics for providing myself with the gear I needed to undertake this Northern Maine tour, as well as sponsoring Team Nitemare.

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From left to right: Justin Witham, Mike Hammersmith, John Parker, Jason Witham.

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  1. Joe Son says:

    Nice write-up Mike. Really puts things into perspective, as many of us take for granted the resources that we have around us, not only in the fight game, but life in general. Never take anything for granted!

    Here’s to many successful and prosperous years for Parker’s MMA.

    Is he related to Josh Parker who has fought on numerous NEF cards over the years?

    The fact that you took the time to make the long trip up to Northern Maine to visit with John Parker and his school, and from what it sounds like, other schools in the area, just goes to show your level of commitment not only to this site, but the sport in general. MMA could use many more people involved in it like you! Bravo Hammersmith – Bravo! I look forward to future articles.

  2. Mike Hammersmith says:

    Thanks pal!

    I’m not sure if they’re related, although John himself fought in NEF twice.

    I really like Maine MMA. Despite how large the state is, everyone knows each other in the community and guys are all generally very nice. I met some outstanding people in the flesh that you’ll hear about this week when I put up the rest of my pieces for this trip.

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