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Mixed martial arts bloom in Philly area

IT TAKES A lot of courage to start the study of mixed martial arts, knowing the chances are good that you will take a knee to the face at some point. It takes even more courage to keep coming back anyway.

IT TAKES A lot of courage to start the study of mixed martial arts, knowing the chances are good that you will take a knee to the face at some point. It takes even more courage to keep coming back anyway.

As MMA's popularity continues to increase worldwide, participation is growing in the Philadelphia area, boosted by the number of gyms offering classes and training sessions.

In this weekend's nationally televised EliteXC event on CBS, four of the undercard bouts feature fighters who are from Philly and train around the region.

Aspiring MMA stars - both amateurs and pros - work out in places like Balance Studios, located just a few blocks from the posh - and generally tame - Rittenhouse Square area and run by brothers Phil and Rick Migliarese.

Located in a small alley just off 24th and Sansom, if you blinked while driving past the tiny Irish pubs and the row of brownstones, you might miss it. But inside the studio, various classes in self-defense and law-enforcement training lead up to MMA 101. It's a class only for the most serious student with an in-depth knowledge of the techniques taught by these two renowned MMA fighters turned fight professors. Anything but a typical gym, there are no spinning bikes or flat-screen televisions showing ESPN mounted on the walls. Instead, the gym features a few heavy bags, a "Slam Man" and royal blue floor mats adorned with gi-clad students on one end and tattooed-up MMA buffs on the other.

The Migliarese brothers and the staff at Balance teach a variety of different martial arts, but its predominant art is Brazilian jiujitsu, a system designed if ever the need arises to implement ground grappling or submission tactics. Perfect for the "ground and pound" aspect of MMA, it's an art form that draws the interest of a wide array of personalities but most notably keeps classes buzzing.

"We have programs for everybody," said Phil Migliarese as he overlooked the 25 or so participants in Balance's advanced jiujitsu black belt program. "We teach self-defense first, we don't teach ultimate fighting first. You have to learn how to defend yourself before you move onto MMA. I mean, here we have amateur guys that fight to guys that are professional and are here like 6 hours a day."

Bret Wade is one of those fighters. Wade, of Phoenixville, entered with an extensive grappling background as both a high school and collegiate wrestler. Naturally, MMA was the next step for Wade, who through his time at Balance holds a 3-0 amateur record, winning all of his fights in the first round. And while his determination and natural ability are a big part of his still-early success, he lauds the instruction of the Migliareses as a major element in his prosperity with MMA.

"Mostly the best thing that Balance has to offer are the skills you pick up that never leave you," Wade said. "Rick and Phil's credentials are out of this world and here they drive into you that in a sport like this, you have to use your head as much as your heart."

Balance has about 400 students, including 16 serious mixed martial artists who compete under the sponsorship and support of "Team Balance," the school's fight team. With class sizes averaging anywhere from 15 to 20 participants at a time, many instructors feel the increase stems from the Ultimate Fighting Championship becoming paramount in transmitting the sport through cable-TV reality shows, classic fight replays and pay-per-view bouts that rival modern-day boxing in both sales and viewers. Intensity in the sport has led to an increase in not only people who want to try it out, but in breeding serious MMA talent right here at home.

"I can remember when I was teaching four to five guys in a class and thinking how great that was," said Marco Perazzo, 35, owner of the New Jersey Martial Arts School in Maple Shade and teacher to some of the UFC's toughest competitors. Perazzo even trains Flyers bruiser Riley Cote. "Today we are averaging class sizes of over 30 people. So much so that we had to expand just to add extra mats."

Balance and NJMA model each other almost to a science of the art form it teaches. With an intent on harnessing only the most serious students and fighters, Perazzo has found the numbers in his focus group increase not only class size, but also in age. And while seen as Neanderthal to some, in many ways MMA has revived martial arts by introducing it on a modern and highly effective scale.

"Anything reality-based is going to take over," Perazzo said. "From an industry standpoint, I mean we are now seeing the loss of class sizes in traditional karate schools and boxing gyms and getting those great high school athletes to that basic everyday guy who wants to train hard without injury. I mean, I see kids that are only 14 or 15 years old to 50-year-olds that are still active into it. You can see that even though some people think it's barbaric, there still is an obvious passion." *