Standing at 5 foot 1 and weighing 115 pounds, Jodi Pudge doesn’t fit the build of an Ultimate Fighting Champion.
But don’t be fooled by her size. The 31-year-old professional photographer practices mixed martial arts, or MMA – a controversial sport that fought its way into the mainstream with the bloody, sweaty Ultimate Fighting Championship.
“I sometimes have to explain the bruises on my arms to my clients,” Ms. Pudge said. “But I was bored with running.”
The MMA crowd is not just made up of the tattooed, Ed Hardy-wearing bunch showcased on pay-per view UFC fights.
Young lawyers, dentists, and other professionals have wrestled their way onto the mat as they search for alternatives to the treadmill after long days at the office.
And business is booming for downtown MMA gyms that appeal to these professionals.
OpenMat, the MMA gym in Toronto where Ms. Pudge fights, hasn’t stopped growing since it opened in March, said co-owner, coach, and decorated fighter Elliott Bayev. Since opening, the number of students has swelled to 185, he said.
With monthly membership prices well over $100 – comparable to a yoga pass – it’s no surprise the gym’s students include lawyers and dentists.
There are now at least three MMA gyms in downtown Toronto. Although the sport has traditionally been caged in the suburbs, where rent is cheaper, central locations have a range of willing consumers – the professionals who live in the city’s core.
Down the road, Toronto BJJ is downtown’s largest MMA gym, with more than 600 students. Many young lawyers hit this gym as well, said general manager Josh Rapport.
“Right now, we have an influx of law students who will graduate this year and go to Bay Street,” he said. Enrolment has also increased among people in the medical field, he added.
“They think it’s a totally safe activity,” he said.
It’s not just men who long to grapple on the mats. Women, most of them with masters or doctorate degrees, flock to MMA, Mr. Rapport said.
Dozens of downtown fitness centres that aren’t dedicated to MMA offer Muay Thai classes, an area of mixed martial arts that is particularly popular with women.
As MMA becomes increasingly mainstream, OpenMat’s Mr. Bayev said it’s less intimidating and more accepted in the workplace.
“Of course there’s value in not going to work with a black eye,” he said. “But talking about MMA is a great way to stick out in a job interview.”
Contrary to the violent hype surrounding UFC, Mr. Bayev said he won’t teach “jerks or bullies” to fight at his gym.
“It’s so rare to need self-defense in Toronto,” he said. “MMA better have some other benefits.”
And it does, he said. MMA’s health benefits, complicated moves and strategies and collegial atmosphere are a big draw, he said.
Not only are participants benefiting from martial arts training, but Mr. Bayev and his co-owners are also reaping the rewards. They have hired three full-time employees and plan to expand into more downtown space before the end of the yea to meet the growing demand, Mr. Bayev said.
UFC was banned in Ontario until August, 2010, when it knocked down its opposition in the Ontario government. Its bad reputation has made the sport wildly appealing – 55,000 fans threw down big money to watch UFC 129 at the Rogers Centre on April 30. Almost a million more watched the spectacle on pay-per-view.
MMA’s popularity has not only been a boon for small gyms, but also for businesses across downtown, according to a report by Moneris Solutions, a credit and debit card processor. People spent about 20 per cent more at downtown restaurants and hotels on the day of the UFC fight than they did the previous week, while sporting goods stores saw a 33-per-cent boost in revenues.
UFC 129 brought an estimated $40- to $50-million to Toronto, said Tom Wright, director of UFC Canada. People from all the provinces and territories, 49 states, and every continent but Antarctica bought tickets to the event, he said. “We haven’t convinced the penguins to come yet.”
Ten years ago, UFC wasn’t sanctioned in Canada, Mr. Wright said. It is now regulated in seven provinces, including Ontario.
“This is the sport of the next generation,” he said. “It’s unpredictable, it’s fast-paced, it’s high energy.”
Mr. Wright said he spends a lot of time dispelling myths about UFC.
“There are more dramatic head injuries in football and in hockey than in mixed martial arts,” he said.
He also defended UFC fans, who are often portrayed as violent. In Vancouver, the Rihanna concert had more incidents than the UFC fight, he said.
“The Vancouver riot happened after a hockey game, not a UFC match,” he added.