Autumn Matan tried multiple weight loss techniques, all to no avail.
At about 270 pounds, the 38-year-old Joliet resident joined a local gym, tried dieting and even had adjustable gastric banding surgery to control her food intake. Nothing seemed to work.
But about five years ago, as she looked through the window at her daughters training at a mixed martial arts gym, she thought it looked fun.
Matan started going to training sessions and classes at Surviving Under Direct Attack International Training Center in Joliet. She lost about 140 pounds within a year.
“Joining was the best thing I’ve ever done,” said Matan, who has since kept off the weight and made positive life changes.
As MMA programs like the UFC, PrideFC and Strikeforce have had a rising fan base the past 10 years, MMA gyms and dojos have started to see more people train to get fit or lose weight rather than compete in the cage.
Weight loss tool
Brian Bishop, head of the Carlson Gracie Team MMA gym in Channahon and Aurora, said the popularity of MMA skyrocketed after the finale of the first Ultimate Fighter reality show on Spike TV in 2005.
“In the early days, it was more about street self-defense. We would train the military and law enforcement. Now weight loss is huge with our members,” Bishop said.
“Those people are most of our members,” said Ron Hill, co-owner of SUDA, 117 Republic Ave. “We have families, parents and children come in to train together. We have people come in grossly obese. We have skinny people. These are normal people. That’s the big thing.”
Bishop said members come in all shapes, sizes and levels of income.
“We have lots of professional athletes and successful business people,” Bishop said. “Somebody is doing really well in their job and somebody else comes up and robs them. The punk makes him feel worthless. We build the skills and self-confidence to fight back.
“But the majority of our people are those that want to train like the fighters and lose weight.”
But physical fitness isn’t the only benefit from MMA training. Members, including kids who have been bullied and women who were battered, gain self-confidence and become part of an extended family while learning a valuable skill.
Carlson Gracie and SUDA have been training people for years and have seen fighters make it to high levels of competition. But the goal is to give anyone a shot at learning self-defense, gaining self-confidence and getting fit.
That means MMA gym members will train like fighters from coaches that train top fighters. But members don’t have to fight.
“Fighting is a small portion of what we do,” Hill said. “People say, ‘I get to train like a fighter, but I don’t have to fight.’”
Before Matan joined SUDA, she struggled with her own confidence.
“I went through a lot,” she said. “When I was younger I was molested and it messed with my mind. I was emotionally not confident, secure. I let people say what they wanted to about me.
“Now, I definitely have a voice.”
Matan recently moved to a new place, but she considers SUDA her first home. She exited her previous marriage and is a working single mother.
Her 16-year-old daughter, Ashley Matan, had to overcome hurdles of her own.
“I used to be bullied and I didn’t know what to do,” said Ashley, 16, who started training in fifth grade. “Now, I have more confidence to stand up and do something about it.”
SUDA trains kids as young as 4. And anti-bullying is a big issue they talk about with the “Lil’ Spiders.”
“It really empowers kids who are bullied, and kids not to be bullies,” SUDA co-owner James Hill said. “We teach kids to become confident in themselves.”
Ashley Matan said sometimes classmates don’t believe her when she says she trains. But it’s helped her become socially open, and her mother says it has contributed to her academic success, making honor roll every year in middle school.
“These guys [at SUDA] even have a spot for these kids to do their homework when they get back from school,” Autumn Matan said. “Sometimes if they need help on school work, the people here help the kids out. It’s a big family.”
The family aspect is what Samuel Ferguson values highly at Carlson Gracie, 24230 Northern Illinois Drive in Channahon.
Members form a tight-knit family that helps each other out when they need it, said Ferguson, a 25-year-old rising fighter who started at Carlson Gracie in 2010.
“I moved to this new area and I had no real friends,” Ferguson said. “The team became my second, extended family. I got my first job with help from a teammate.”
Ferguson, who recently moved from Plainfield to La Grange Park, wants to become a police officer and had a good recommendation from another officer who is part of the gym.
“As much as I love getting better at fighting,” Ferguson said, “I wouldn’t trade this family for being a better competitor.”