Prime Gym Time: First Class MMA & Fitness

| October 19, 2014 | 0 Comments

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Twelve hours after leaving my house on my odyssey through Northern and Central Maine MMA, my car came to rest at its final stop in Brunswick, Maine in a pitted and active parking lot. There was a flea market dominating the bottom floor of the massive mill structure, and scanning the windows and doors gave no indication of where my destination would be. The owner had told me to call him when I arrived at the building as I’d never find where his gym was nestled on my own, and I did just that, the grizzled veteran emerging from one of the multiple side doors to bid me welcome.

First Class MMA & Fitness is the endeavor for John Raio, and while owning a gym is relatively new to him, fighting is something that’s etched into his very being. Having missed the wrestling mats where he’d gutted out a successful career in his youth, he’d discovered the world of MMA and thrown himself into the fray in his thirties, developing a reputation as a tough-as-nails battler. While he’d announced his retirement at NEF XIV, he hadn’t stepped away from the game for even a moment and looked as ready for a fight as ever as we walked through the well-worn corridors of the mill building. Opening a set of steel doors, the inside of First Class MMA shined in the drab building; orange wrestling mats wall to wall and sun streaming in to illuminate an active class.

I had arrived on an off-time for the school, but Raio had rallied his instructors and students to show what his gym was all about, and they’d taken to the impromptu session with relish. I was introduced to the extensive group of coaches that operate under the First Class banner and quickly saw, while it was a new school, they were tackling MMA like old pros. Students of all ages and sizes scrambled over the mats, the instructors and spectators keeping to the outside walls to give the students room to operate. While it wasn’t a small school, the activity level of the grapplers was impressive by itself; transitions, takedowns and sharp submission attempts creating organized chaos.

I spent some time watching two younger students working wrestling on the mats and was introduced to John Gardner, one of the championship-caliber wrestling coaches leading a sharp eye to the cause. We spoke about his own MMA journey, from unregulated bar room NHB fights to NEF, and the importance of being a fighting coach. Having undertaken the full MMA experience, he’d lived the rigors of camp, medicals, weight cut and fight night, and stood as a better coach and man because of it. John told me his son, Colby, was one of the boys on the mats and how he felt he would be a better coach and example for him as well moving forward. While it was something I felt right away, John talked about the group assembled there today.

“You’re never going to find an ego or attitude in here. We’re all here to help each other out and improve.”

While some gyms are built to be rough, breaking fighters down both physically and mentally, the entire room was supportive of combatants on the mats, dispensing advice and praise at every opportunity. This is paramount, especially when dealing with younger students who are easily discouraged, disappointed and distracted from their goals. While the old school methods could wash those young men and women out with their singular brutality, vigorous pats on the back and intelligent instruction would serve them well leading into adulthood.

A prime example of what a nurturing school could accomplish with youth, Katie Baker took to the mats and showed her skills. A phenom at the age of sixteen, she had walked onto the grappling mats with a black belt in karate, and was in short time mopping the floor with even adult women.

“You’re going to be seeing her in the cage real soon.” Her father told me as she showed off a skillful and smooth top game, and I certainly believed it. The diversity of grapping instruction showed itself in her game and gave her more outs to positions and more angles of attack than I was used to seeing at her level; each coach leaving an indelible mark on her graceful style.

Another budding fighter that I’d be seeing in action in a month’s time, Nick Shae locked up with Jason McBean and demonstrated a fleshed-out top and bottom game, giving the rock solid grappler all he could handle. The dedication to his craft shined though as he worked through positions and hunted for elusive submission, with head BJJ coach Timothy Fawber stopping the action at times to correct form or illustrate an opening his expert eyes had noted.

Of all the coaches working their magic at First Class, Fawber was perhaps the gem of them all. Having worked under the legendary Joe Moreira, Fawber brought a different kind of BJJ to the fold; born of changing mentalities within the BJJ world that resulted in some of the first cross-trained grapplers. In a time when fighters were beginning to unravel the mysteries of BJJ, Moreira had incorporated new techniques and focused on what worked, creating a mat game of brutal efficiency with just enough flair to keep fighters guessing. Fawber’s attention to detail and love of the mat showed through with his demonstration of a kneebar variation I hadn’t seen since late nineties Pancrase, and I knew he’d have a hundred more such tricks to pass along to eager students.

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The grappling never stopped as opponents cycled on and off the mat for a time, John Raio showing off his own hybrid style, Trevor Herbert showcasing swift takedowns and top control, and Matt Denning from CMBJJ dropping in for a visit, showing the welcoming nature of the school for outside fighters. I took Matt Denning for a turn on the mat and was glad to have almost a hundred pounds on him; my sole saving grace in that exchange.

While I’d seen many schools in my journey, this was the one that felt most like a home to me, the positivity and love of the environment resulting in skills and smiles all around. It was a high note to end a long day on; my travels ending in a place where many futures in the MMA and grappling worlds were beginning.

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First Class MMA & Fitness is located at 10 Maine St, Brunswick, Maine on the first floor. For class schedules and other information visit their Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/FirstClassFitnessandMMA

Special thanks to First Class MMA for having me in, and Prime Athletics for providing me with the gear needed to visit and train within these gyms around Maine.

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