How to Pick a Fight in Westchester

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is surging in popularity nationwide and acrros the county. It’s time you got in the cage.

 Michael Chirico, owner of and trainer at Westchester Fight Club, lands a kick. photo courtesy of westchester fight club

Fighting solves nothing. This is untrue—there are plenty of problems with solutions at the business end of a swift roundhouse kick. There’s the problem of obesity and poor health; there’s sexual assault and domestic violence; there’s stress, fatigue, low self-esteem, and discipline and behavioral issues. 

Okay, so obviously we’re not advocating street brawls here. But there is a kind of combat fighting that is distinctly constructive, and it’s gaining in popularity across the country: Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and its contingent combat sports of Muay Thai, a Thai kickboxing art known as the “Science of Eight Limbs” because it incorporates strikes from the arms, elbows, legs, and knees; Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), a submission-based competitive ground sport involving throws, joint-locks, and choke-holds; and a host of others. 

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The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has brought MMA fighting into the pop consciousness and acolytes into gyms around the County, with high-profile fighters, big personalities, and large-arena fights. But the vast majority of County residents training in one or more martial arts are doing so for reasons outside the spotlight. Here’s why and where you should be joining them.


Reason #1: The Best Defense…

“Something happens where [people] get scared or feel helpless, and a light bulb goes off.” Gary Gione, stocky and muscular, watches like some benevolent dictator while a handful of his students grapple on the rust-red mat at Elite Defensive Tactics in Yorktown Heights. Gione, 57, a former NYPD lieutenant (many of his adult students are in law enforcement) has been training in martial arts around the world for 40 years. He incorporates elements of Kenpo Karate, Japanese (aka “combat”) jiu-jitsu, BJJ, Muay Thai, judo, and even a Russian martial art called Systema, in the curriculum for his 150 students at Elite Defensive. Gione turned to martial arts, especially grappling and other ground techniques, early in his NYPD career, to effectively subdue suspects while still protecting himself. He teaches his students, who range from ages 3 to 68, to employ various defense methods in case of attack, whether the threat is real or in sport. He also teaches women-specific self-defense, and incorporates disarming techniques using clubs, guns, and knives in other classes. “Everyone has to have their own motivation,” Gione says, and self-defense is only one. 

But for Angel Rafter, 43, of Tarrytown, it’s a good one. Rafter joined Gracie Thornwood in Pleasantville in 2010 after she walked into the gym and was immediately impressed by the Muay Thai instructor’s form, especially when compared to the cardio classes she’d seen touted elsewhere as “kickboxing.” “It was so perfect and traditional,” says Rafter, who’d trained off and on in Muay Thai for 10 years before she joined Gracie Thornwood. “The instructors love the art so much, and it comes out.” 

As a woman, says Rafter, “you need to throw [kicks and punches] correctly and know how to take advantage of form” if you’re going up against a bigger attacker. Alexis Ignatovich, 30, a BJJ student at Thornwood, agrees. “It’s my feeling, if I’m going to be attacked, it’s very rare that I’d be attacked by a woman of my stature.” To that end, she pushes her male training partners, whom she calls her brothers, to go tough on her.

John Gianni, 40, a senior vice president of Wealth Management at Capital One, joined Thornwood MMA 18 months ago to diversify his fitness portfolio, and while the former weightlifter has dropped pounds and dramatically improved his conditioning and flexibility through BJJ, it’s the challenge and accessibility of the art that keeps him coming back four times a week. “For every move [in BJJ], there’s a counter-move,” he says, “and for every counter-move, there’s another counter-move. It’s mental chess.” 

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Like Gione, Gracie Thornwood co-owner Steve Kardian has decades of law-enforcement experience and martial-arts training behind him. He draws from that experience not only when teaching the 100 or so students who train in BJJ and Muay Thai at his studio in Pleasantville, but also as part of Defend University, a women’s self-defense and assault-prevention program that certifies trainees as Women’s Empowerment Instructors, so they can teach what they’ve learned back in their homes, offices, and communities around the world. Kardian and his instructors teach women to utilize their particular assets during an assault—“using elements of leverage and technique against an attacker’s more vulnerable parts,” rather than trying to match muscle strength. It’s fighting like a girl, in the best possible sense.


Reason #2: Body and Mind

(Full Disclosure: I belong to this next gym. It had to be one of them, right?)

“When you see everything that you’re physically capable of, it’s a natural progression. Your mental [block] will start breaking down.” Samantha Victoria, 22, is curled up on a patched black leather couch at Westchester Fight Club (WFC) in New Rochelle. Twenty feet away, several pairs of students circle each other on a blue boxing mat, their breath hissing out with each punch. As students hit physical goals, Victoria says, their confidence starts leeching into other areas of their lives. “If you came in thinking you couldn’t do one pushup, and then hit five pushups in your first month, and then 10, you think, ‘Maybe I can go for that promotion at work.’”

Classes in striking and kicking technique, in grappling, and in self-defense will give you a great cardio workout, and the accompanying conditioning drills will help you tone muscles quickly, but what students might be surprised to learn is just how much combat fighting can improve self-confidence, discipline, and focus. Victoria is a prime example; MMA helped turn her life around. She started training at the age of 16, after a troubled few years. “I had issues,” she says. “I went from partying every night to being in the gym.” At 19, she started training at Westchester Fight Club, and her focus, already improved, intensified further. “When you’re training around professional fighters and generally successful people, you see what it takes to succeed. There are no excuses.” Victoria is now head of sales at WFC, and has an undefeated record as an amateur Muay Thai fighter.

Of course, you don’t get into MMA to not look good. To that end, WFC and its eight trainers, many of whom are competitive fighters, offer classes in BJJ, Muay Thai and boxing, and conditioning and strength-training classes. For Greg Howell of Bronxville, a new WFC member who joined for the social aspect of training, the physical gauntlet of MMA conditioning was a surprise. “I thought I was in good shape,” he says, but 250 ab exercises later, the 46-year-old realized that everyone has room for  improvement.  

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For those looking for extra help getting healthier, WFC offers a nutrition program that includes chef-prepared meals and nutrition counseling. Women-only classes in conditioning and cardio-kickboxing and a children’s program round out the mix. The Fight Club will also be moving to bigger and better digs in New Rochelle this month. The new facility features a full ring, an MMA cage, and several large mat areas so students can roll, kick, punch, and elbow their way to good mental and physical health.


Reason #3: For the Kids

“Empowering people is priceless,” says Anthony Colon, grinning widely from behind his desk at Steve Sohn Ju Jitsu Concepts in Scarsdale. In fact, you can’t stop Colon, a burly, bald ball of energy full of inspirational quips—“A black belt is just a white belt who never gave up”—from waxing enthusiastic about the unassuming, two-floor studio off Brook Street, home to classes in both MMA and the Israeli self-defense system Krav Maga. Colon is especially proud of the gym’s children’s program, which he says instills discipline, respect, and self-confidence into kids all along the behavioral spectrum. 

As students from age 4 to 12 advance through a 20-step belt system from white to black, they pass through character-development as well as physical milestones: Before each class, students recite a creed; after every class, the staff, members, and trainers present a story to students based on a weekly message—like importance of goal-setting—and students then answer questions on the material; and upon registration, parents are given a packet full of extra resources like an at-home task list and coupons for good deeds that can be cashed in for rewards at the gym. 

But how do you get a kid to start martial arts in the first place? When 15-year-old Adam Mann first joined Westchester Mixed Martial Arts & Fitness, it was for one reason: to impress his friends with his newly acquired and presumably lethal ninja skills. Granted, Mann was 6 years old at the time. “As a little kid, I thought it would come naturally,” he says, “and I’d be doing backflips.” He soon realized that martial arts was more about learning discipline and perseverance, skills that soon bled into other sports like soccer and hockey, as well as his schoolwork. 

As Mann grew, so did the facility, moving in 2011 from Bedford Hills to its new 8,000-square-foot space in Mount Kisco, which houses a professional MMA cage, a 2,200-square-foot kickboxing room, a personal training area, a separate jiu-jitsu room, locker rooms, and showers for the gym’s 380 members.

Now, Mann’s graduated to adult BJJ and heavy-bag classes, and doesn’t plan on stopping until college, if then. Unlike some his age, this teen doesn’t try to hide what makes him unique or fade into the background. “This is a part of me that makes me different from other people,” he says with pride. And that’s worth fighting for. 

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