The big central space at Ecole Boreale is not your typical mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting gym.
Instead of punching bags and gym equipment, there are miniature tables and chairs suitable for the much-smaller regular clientele of the building. However, for an MMA session on July 17, the tables and chairs were pushed back to accommodate the mats used for training.
Six guys were testing their skills on the mats, following instructions from Brian Clarke, the evening’s Sifu, which is a Chinese word meaning ‘master’ or ‘teacher’.
“This is a trial run,” said organizer and participant Phil Beaupre after the workout. “We want to show Hay River we’re not hurting anyone.”
For now, the training will run three times a week at Ecole Boreale, at least until the end of August when the students reclaim their building. Beaupre said the club may have a new and permanent home at the Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre, but arrangements are not yet finalized.
The club is the product of years of planning on the part of Mario Desforges, a famed judo instructor in Yellowknife. His 19-year-old daughter Gabrielle Desforges won bronze in the senior women’s category at the Canadian Judo Championships in Vancouver two weeks ago.
Another of Mario Desforges’ students, Hay River judoka Mason Bruneau, came in second in the under-21 junior category for his weight class at the same competition and will be participating in the MMA club when he returns from vacation.
“Mario has wanted to get a judo club here started for a while, but he’s never been able to because he didn’t have coaches here on the ground,” said Beaupre.
Sensei or Sifu – depending on what style of fighting he is teaching – Clarke has committed to continue coaching when he returns from holidays in August.
Beaupre will cover the fitness training aspects, as he has been doing for Bruneau for the past season.
Along with visits by Desforges and others, Hay River should be able to maintain a fully-coached and functioning MMA club.
“I really want to get the youth involved,” said Beaupre, though he added the club is open to anyone who wants to join. “I’ve had some proven results for positive effects with Mason and I think I can help some other kids, too.”
While the MMA club is only for people aged 17 and up, Beaupre said Desforges is interested in opening a judo club for youth between five and 17 years of age.
“I think it would be good for young people,” said Beaupre. “Not only would it get them off the street, we want to show them how to put their anger and energy into something positive, too.”
Steve Lafleur, 21, said that, while he has some previous experience, he was learning things and improving his technique at the club before heading off to school in Grande Prairie, Alta., in the fall.
“I’ve fought without formal training before,” he said. “I’m a standing fighter, more boxing and kickboxing style. Here I’m working on my ground game and working on my weaknesses.”
Lafleur noted there is an MMA gym across from his college in Grande Prairie, and he hopes to be able to continue training there.
For those club members who remain in Hay River, the organizers have some strict rules.
“It’s a small town,” Clarke told the group of men. “If we teach you stuff and we hear you’re out fighting and bullying people, you are out.”
In addition to this maxim, the club presented the RCMP detachment with a statement for each participant acknowledging their activity and ensuring good behaviour outside of the gym.
According to Beaupre, that’s where the majority of the training happens, anyway.
“It takes a lot of discipline,” he said. “To get good, it means no coffee, no booze, and you have to be careful with what you eat all the time. It gets you mentally strong, too. Refusing to party because you have to get up early to go to train takes discipline and commitment.”
While many of the members are now learning the basics of MMA, Beaupre said that some may be keen to start looking towards their first organized fight right away.
“Don’t even think about it for at least a year,” he told the guys. “We have to learn first, and we prevent injuries by training and getting the technique perfect before putting force behind it.”
— Sarah Ladik