A Kalispell Police detective and a construction worker grappled on a mat in a dark gym at 6 a.m. Thursday morning.
The slap of bare feet striking hanging heavy bags echoed through the room as coaches shouted encouragement to each pair of sparring opponents, forcing their focus onto one another rather than the work day ahead.
Five days a week for the last six months, participants of the Wimp 2 Warrior program, hosted by Straight Blast Gym in Kalispell, have dragged themselves out of bed before sunrise, accepting the possibility of starting their day with a punch to the face.
Pediatric surgeons, veterans, cooks and cops are among the participants, most of whom are between the ages of 40 and 50. Most of them entered the 22-week mixed martial-arts training program last October with little to no experience in the sport.
Each had his or her own reasons for signing up for the intensive course with a cage fight in front of a crowd of over 1,000 spectators looming at its end this week.
Travis Davison, owner and head coach of Straight Blast Gym, became the first Wimp 2 Warrior licensee in the state last year after discovering the program on a trip to Ireland.
Created by a British martial artist in Australia, the program mirrored Davison’s personal philosophy when it comes to physical fitness and personal improvement.
“Just like in nature, if there’s no environmental stress being applied to the system, there’s absolutely zero incentive for changing,” Davison said. “If you’re content with everything that’s going on in your life, there’s absolutely no reason to get better.”
The 20 competitors who tried out for the program last fall were not content, and following their try-outs and acceptance, they were asked to identify that reason, their “why.”
“I had gotten to this point in my life where everything was like go to work, come home, put on pajamas, go to bed, get up in the morning, put on work clothes, go to work and do it all again,” said Jason Wright, 46. “It was just this big grind, and it was completely unsatisfying.”
He recited the mantra he’d been repeating to himself for months: “I wanted to gain some tools to be able to build a life worth living.”
Others brought with them different motivations.
Trish Roesler, 38, a mother and radiology scheduler, came to prove to her teenage sons that no matter what anyone said or what their physical shape, they were capable of anything.
One of the youngest participants, 25-year-old Brooke Volkmann, entered the gym determined to break through her broken mental and physical state following a traumatic divorce last year.
Combat Army veteran Aaron Cross, 40, aims to inspire his fellow veterans to grapple with their own demons.
“This is kind of metaphoric for me, and I just wanted to show the rest of my brothers that, hey, I mean, you still got it, the day isn’t over,” Cross said. “It’s up to you to keep stepping forward in the right direction and keep doing the right thing.”
With each early, frigid morning workout, each injury and potential breaking point, the competitors clung to their “whys,” spurred on by their coaches and teammates.
“You want to almost die for the first month. It’s not easy,” Roesler said. “For me, my biggest competitor is myself, no matter who’s standing across from me. This is my own fight with myself.”
A time came when Volkmann considered quitting altogether after sustaining an injury to her knee.
A member of the red team, one of two teams into which Davison and his fellow coaches separated the program’s participants for competitive incentive and to pair them with opponents for the end fight, Volkmann said her teammates held onto her, refusing to let her give up.
“That kind of encouragement in an environment is something that I’ve never really had before,” she said, “and I think that really pushes toward everyone’s success with Wimp 2 Warrior.”
Facebook chat groups for both the red and blue teams keep members in constant contact, holding them accountable to one another for days when cutting class gets tempting.
“I see what it means now to put your ‘why’ ahead of how difficult the task might be,” said Wright, a member of the blue team. “There’s a lot of things that I picked up along the way, a lot of stuff that I ran into that I needed to face about myself.”
Whatever mental obstacles stood before them, competitors still had to face a very physical challenge.
Mixed martial arts, a full contact sport involving full-body combat, integrates techniques from styles of fighting, allowing striking and grappling from either a standing position or on the ground.
Rooted in Jiu-Jitsu, mixed martial arts gained popularity in America through the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and countries around the world follow international rules for both professional and amateur fights.
Though time limits and equipment regulations vary between the professional and amateur leagues, Davison said what doesn’t change is the violence.
“What’s not different is they are punching and kicking each other in the head, they’re able to submit each other,” Davison said of the Wimp 2 Warrior competitors.
Volkmann recalled the fear that came with the realization that she would take blows to the face if she stuck with the course.
“Then it actually happened during one of the sparring sessions, one where it was pretty good and it gave me my first nose bleed during practice,” she said. “It kind of shook me a little bit, but after that I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t so bad.’”
“It’s real,” Davison said, “and because they’ve opted to take such an extreme step outside of their comfort zone, I’ve had at least three people who have lost over 30 pounds in the last six months.”
This week marks the final leg of the Wimp 2 Warrior course before all 18 competitors who’ve completed the course enter the ring for their first, and for many, their last, mixed martial-arts fight.
“I’m totally excited and also totally scared to death at the same time,” Wright said.
Roesler said she finally let go of her anxiety about the fight last week and plans to enter the cage and cross her goal line.
“This far in, just throw caution to the wind, be comfortable in our capabilities, in what we’ve learned, and not worry about who your competitor is,” she said. “We’re in there to try to win, but we all win in the end.”
For more information about the next season of Wimp 2 Warrior or about Straight Blast Gym, visit http://sbgmontana.com/.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.