WHITTIER – At a gym in Whittier, coach Phillip Koon is employing mixed martial arts in the battle to keep at-risk youths out of trouble.
Blackmat MMA began in Koon’s garage more than six years ago while he was volunteering as an assistant coach for the wrestling team at La Serna High School.
He said he soon discovered that there were many kids who were looking for a place to both train and learn MMA, as well as to talk about issues affecting their lives.
Martial arts is actually the secondary goal of Blackmat MMA, Koon said.
"The goal is to get the kids to graduate," he said.
"When we compete, we win," he said. "But that’s icing on the cake. It’s about winning off the mat."
In April, Koon’s nonprofit organization Blackmat MMA found a permanent home at 12200 E. Washington Blvd., Suite J, in Whittier.
Special guests including MMA great Sebastiaan "Bas" Rutten attended the grand opening.
The gym not only allows young fighters to hone their skills, but also offers homework help, teaches kids to avoid alcohol and drugs and provides 24-hour counseling to both kids and parents.
A goal of the gym is for all of its members to graduate high school.
Techniques taught include boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, submission wrestling and self-defense, according to Blackmat MMA’s website. They compete in tournaments throughout Southern California.
At Blackmat MMA, "The kids are also taught love, acceptance, compassion and respect for one another," according to the website.
Fighter Christopher Puente, 18, of Whittier said Blackmat MMA has made a difference in his life and has given him a positive place to hang out.
"I was having trouble hanging out with the wrong crowd," he said. "I know this program is here just to help people."
Alonso Vasquez, 17, of Whittier said he’s been attending the gym for about a month.
"You get a good workout, and they teach you the correct forms," he said.
He said the gym also had a family like atmosphere.
"They encourage you to pass high school and make sure you don’t get into trouble," Vasquez said.
Blackmat MMA regularly teams up with Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies to bring young people, especially those considered "at-risk," to the gym.
Deputy Malcolm Harcrow of the sheriff’s Lakewood Station regularly brings about a dozen teens from the sheriff’s Youth Activities League to train at the gym weekly.
"What they learn from this is self-respect, self-control and discipline," the deputy said.
"This has been a good outlet for them," he said. "It’s a good stress-reliever."
Prior to teaching jiu jitsu moves, Blackmat instructor and credential child counselor Jonathan Rivas gave a short presentation discouraging bullying.
Blackmat students are taught not only how to fight, but also how to diffuse tense situations verbally, Rivas said.
"We don’t just train fighters," he said. "We train men. We train character."
Blackmat operates with a "core biblical value of respect for others," and each training session ends with a prayer, Rivas said.
The gym is not, however, intended only for Christians, Koon said, and all are welcome.
"We don’t push our faith on anyone," he said.
The cost of membership at Blackmat MMA is $50 per month, however Koon said the gym will work with those who cannot afford to pay.
Some students pay for their training by helping out around the gym, he said.
For more information, including a schedule of classes, visit www.blackmatmma.org
626-962-8811, ext. 3028
(SGVN/Staff Photo by Keith Durflinger)