VICTOR STEPHEN KAMONT / The Bull
The man’s face turns red — he is being choked to death. Suddenly a loud slap on the ground breaks the silence. The losing opponent lets out a sigh of relief as he gasps for air. Unlike boxing, an opponent can “tap out,” submitting to the other opponent to avoid serious injury. Mixed martial arts training is in full throttle, an unlikely way to escape into a form of tranquility through no-holds-barred combat. Old traditions never die. They just evolve.
In better shape than most people a third of his age, 62-year-old Santos Flaniken has the coveted title of Kyoshi-Master as a seventh-degree Judo black belt. The Pierce College alumnus has been studying the style of martial arts called Jiu-Jitsu for 55 years. He surfs, runs on the beach and trains students in the art of combat fighting and mixed martial arts.
During the day he is a realtor in Malibu, a contractor and an entrepreneur.
“Training in combat wrestling, one has to be totally focused or the results could be deadly,” Flaniken says with authority and conviction.
“Successful participants have taken on rock star status. Gyms are popping up all over the world, no-holds-barred mixed martial arts will soon pass the boxing profession in revenue and popularity,” says Flaniken, a historian and expert in the field of mixed martial arts.
Gokor Chivichyan comes to Flaniken’s gym to helps train participants in sparring and techniques in mixed martial arts. He also helps trains some of the top military personnel in The United States, Russia, Armenia, Germany, Holland and other countries in the art of mortal combat. Chivichyan uses techniques from past hand-to-hand combat warriors and new methods honed by the modern-day fighters.
A blood sport in times of kings and emperors, many matches would be fought to the death and training was used to stay in top form.
“Now a new super sport with rigorous training, super nutrition, cardio-vascular endurance, weights and intense schedules, it has become the growing rage of all ages,” says Flaniken, a man who follows the regime himself. “Different styles are used including Karate, Judo, wrestling, Russian Sambo and boxing to create a super hybrid athlete.”
Flaniken is part of a brother and sisterhood of highly dedicated athletes who just moved their gym, where members train in full-contact mixed martial arts, from Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley.
The gym in Hollywood has been No. 1 for Judo in the United States for fourteen years in a row, according to Black Belt Magazine. Women are transitioning from the sport of Judo to mixed martial arts. Once they win fights, they can earn lucrative endorsements and receive big paydays for fights.
Ronda Rousey, 23, winner of the bronze medal for the United States in Judo at the 2008 Olympics, trains regularly in mixed martial arts at the gym. She hopes to have a career in mixed martial arts fighting and is training for the Olympics in London in 2012.
Gene LeBell, the “modern-day father of mixed martial arts,” owned the original gym in Hollywood. Chivichyan, the “Armenian Assassin,” is the undisputed world champ in no-holds-barred mixed martial arts and is undefeated in more than 400 fights. He has been LeBell’s student for 14 years and now runs the new gym, the Gokor Hayastan MMA Academy in North Hollywood.
“Gokor is the best teacher in mixed martial arts in the world,” says LeBell.
LeBell had the first mixed martial fight on television in 1963, and is an alumnus of Pierce.
“My mother wanted me to go to college. We were driving past Pierce College one day and I saw them throwing feed to the chickens and I said, ‘That’s where I want to go to college,’” LeBell says with a resounding sense of humor. A master teacher of mixed martial arts, LeBell also does stunts and has appeared in 2,000 movies and television shows.
Flaniken benefits from mixed martial arts, giving him a sense of stillness as he focuses on a sport dangerous enough to cause serious injury. He uses his surfing, workouts and mixed martial arts to escape the troubles of everyday life.
“More than an escape, martial arts have provided a base for a healthy lifestyle that I’ve found to be extremely rewarding,” Flaniken says with a smile. “What’s particularly nice is to be able to get the benefit of the workout and learn something new simultaneously.”
Flaniken demonstrates a strong commitment to his students at the gym, leaving them equally enthusiastic with a sense of joy. “It’s a never-ending process of pushing the learning curve,” says Flaniken.
“I make it a point to associate with smart and talented people who share their knowledge. Just when you think you have a technique refined, there’s more. Who knew that strength and conditioning and nutrition could come so far in developing all types of an athlete’s potential?” Flaniken says.
Stepping outside of his gym, Flaniken begins reflecting on his life. “I recognized my natural abilities as a young boy. I am lucky to have had some positive reinforcement from my parents. They inspired me to maximize my interests and press on. It’s terrific to incorporate some athletic interests with hard work. I never get bored.”
“I enjoy my work, but being able to supplement it with a good surf session is icing on the cake,” he says excitedly. “I have young students enrolling who want to become mixed martial arts fighters. They have lost interest in becoming doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs.”
Flaniken thinks the field of martial arts has progressed more in the past fifteen years than in the last 1,500.
“Once a mixed martial arts fighter receives a $1 million purse, the sport will break wide open,” he says. “The sport traditionally uses but a few holding techniques; the modern day fighters use 50 to over 100.”
“Through hard work, determination, persistence, nutrition and stamina, one can experience a focus and calmness,” Flaniken says with a deep and steady breath.
Chivichyan looked strong and sturdy with humility and an obvious presence of strength. “Students feel safer on the streets. They have confidence and hold their heads high knowing they have the resources to deal with an attacker,” he says.
“This is very good for our youth because it uses very unconventional methods that most people are unfamiliar with, especially attackers,” Flaniken says. “It brings in the best and most lethal of various martial arts techniques from other countries. A lot of techniques are derived from Sambo and are incorporated into Jiu- Jitsu and wrestling, techniques that most people are ill-equipped to deal with. It is very effective in self-defense and gives people strength and positive attitude.”