MARTINSBURG — Stepping into an octagonal cage and seeing someone who wants to knock you out probably doesn’t sound like much fun. But for David Overby and Burt Latham, it’s become a way of life.
[cleeng_content id="172425009" description="Read it now!" price="0.15" t="article"]Overby, 26, and Latham, 20, are two of 15 fighters who train at Elite Martial Arts and MMA in Martinsburg.
Much fun or not, said owner Jesse Kirby, a lot of people want to do mixed martial arts — they just don’t want to get punched.
They don’t have much to worry about here, said Kirby, who started the gym in downtown Martinsburg in 2011 before moving it to Berkeley Plaza late last year. “We don’t wail on each other – it’s controlled sparring and everyone wants to be able to defend themselves.”
The journey into mixed martial arts began for Kirby when he was 4, when he started practicing karate.
“I wanted to be like Chuck Norris,” said Kirby, 30.
Kirby also practiced jiu-jitsu and kickboxing growing up, but an injury to his leg in a motocross accident when he was 17 ended his fighting career before he really got a leg up on it, he said.
Kirby has been a mixed martial arts instructor and coach since 2007. He said he enjoys seeing the results of training by his students.
“Whether teaching them fresh, taking them to fights and seeing them win, seeing kids excel and earn their next belt in karate or seeing people lose weight and become healthier — knowing I had something to do with that is great,” he said.
Both Overby and Latham became fans of mixed martial arts after watching others try it.
“I went to a fight and became a fan,” said Latham, a Spring Mills resident. “It’s the only sport I’m good at.”
Overby became a fan by watching the Ultimate Fighting Championship and having a mixed martial arts gym near his North Carolina home, where he previously lived. Now a Martinsburg resident, he went to the gym and started training in jiu-jitsu, one of the many disciplines that are part of mixed martial arts. He has fought nine times in the 125-pound flyweight division and recently decided to become a professional fighter.
Latham fights in the 145-pound featherweight division and has just two bouts under his belt.
Fighters trained by Kirby have competed on fight cards in North Carolina as well as in Fredericksburg and Winchester in Virginia. West Virginia sanctioned mixed martial arts events in 2011.
Fighters like Overby and Latham usually compete on cards that average about 1,000 fans per event, and the two have hopes of fighting for the UFC or Bellator MMA, widely considered the second-biggest mixed martial arts organization in the sport.
All three think mixed martial arts has gotten a bad rap, both from overhyped fears of getting a concussion, as well from a perceived culture of violence.
“People think MMA fighters are thugs,” Overby said, before noting that one of his favorite things about being a fighter is traveling with his teammates to events. “We’re all pretty close friends,” Latham said.
Still, training for fights is intensive, and the fighters say their biggest battles come from efforts to keep the pounds off. Weighing in over the limit for a fight can cost a fighter a portion of their earnings from an event.
“I had to shed 10 pounds for a fight and it was brutal,” Latham said. “I was just sweating a lot but I had to make sure I was still getting hydrated.”
Fighters at Elite MMA train even when they don’t have a bout coming up, according to Kirby.
“But about two months out from a fight, we’ll start to ramp up their training, working harder and more one on one,” he said.
Latham also credits Elite Martial Arts and MMA’s instructors for keeping him and his fellow fighters prepared to step into the cage. Good as that prep can be, actually going against someone in a real fight is like nothing else, he said. “We have really good instructors who really simulate the environment,” Latham said. “But when you’re going up against the cage, it’s a shock.”[/cleeng_content]