Carefully calculated movements occur simultaneously. Jabs, ducks, holds and advances, one after another. Two men appear to be fighting. Both males have fierce, concentrated looks on their faces as they stare intently into each other’s eyes. One of these men is Matt Kemp, a 26 year old who has been training in Muay Thai boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for the past three years. The goal is for Kemp to concentrate, anticipate and defend against the incoming attacks that his training partner is using against him.
“I would have been helpless at this a few years ago,” Kemp said.
Taking a break from his current sparring session he wipes the accumulated drips of sweat off of his forehead and shoulders. Kemp then reaches for his red plastic water bottle that has been waiting for him on the sideline of MKG International.
Kemp’s daily engagement with physical activity and self-health awareness didn’t begin until a little later on in his life. Three years ago Kemp joined MKG International gym. MKG International is a 5,700 square foot gym located at 1621 W. Michigan St. He now trains there for three hours a day, six days out of the week.
In addition to obtaining the value of discipline, Kemp latched on to his newfound love of looking and feeling fit. He enjoys discussing the control mixed martial arts, or MMA, has created in his life. In addition to feeling more stable, Kemp has lost a lot of weight since he began training. The weight loss is something Kemp is less comfortable discussing.
The person who is most comfortable discussing his physical changes is Kemp’s longtime girlfriend Danielle Lindberg.
Lindberg quickly whips out pictures from the past that reveal Matt with long, straightened hair and a chunkier physique. He shakes his head and rolls his eyes as Lindberg flips through photos from his younger days.
“I can’t believe that was me. Seriously, who is that guy?” Kemp said as he looks at his 16 year old driver’s license.
In the photo, Kemp has braces, chubby cheeks and a shiny teenager’s face. Now he handsomely stands six inches past six-feet tall, with buzzed hair and a defined jawbone. He always keeps his hair short so that it doesn’t get in his way of training.
“I go watch him every Sunday at the gym,” Lindberg said. “One day out of the week is enough for me since he’s there an additional five. I’m just there for support.”
Sundays are open gym days at MKG International in West Duluth. Lindberg usually chugs along on an elliptical while playing audience to Kemp as he trains.
Support is something Lindberg offers Kemp, with a smile on her face as she’s been there through thick and thin, inside and outside of the gym walls.
Inside the gym, MKG International is a clean facility that provides the equipment, gear and expertise needed to become an avid mixed martial arts trainee and competitor. Muay Thai boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are where Kemp has chosen his martial arts focus to be.
“With a lot of training, comes a lot of injury,” Kemp said.
He lifts the pant leg of his navy blue training short. He reveals a leg that is noticeable swollen as it shows off the colors of black, blue and purple in the bruising that crawls across his knee and upper left thigh. Almost two weeks ago a fellow fighter injured Kemp during their instructor’s certification test down in the Twin Cities.
“We were going through the movements, everything was normal and he simply caught me off guard. I lost my concentration for only a second and then boom, a leg to my thigh is what I got,” Kemp said, smacking his palms together, imitating the blow.
“A lot of people don’t realize how dangerous it can be,” Kemp said. "Getting hit constantly can’t be too good for you. The skill is being able to defend yourself against any potential attackers.”
Kemp said he has yet to encounter a real life scenario where his fighting skills could be used to defend himself or anyone around him. Yet, Kemp experiences minor to major injuries almost constantly as he is training for a large portion of his free time.
“On average I probably upset my body –injury wise– at least once a week,” Kemp said. “Last week it was this whole issue with my leg, and this week I’ve had to ice my left hand after every practice.”
Kemp has been to the doctor twice for his right leg injury that recently took place. Kemp’s doctor advised against any training for at least a weeks time.
“Sometimes I listen to the doctor’s recommendations and sometimes I just do what I want,” Kemp said.
Soft tissue injuries, similar to Kemp's, are extremely common in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai boxing and other related mixed martial arts sports. MMA fighting is a contact heavy sport that can range from friendly competition at the gym to competitive fighting in a ring. For many people, like Kemp’s girlfriend, the high contact sport isn’t their personal preference for exercising.
“Trust me, he’s not driving himself to his doctor’s appointments… because behind the scenes, I just so happen to be the one driving this injury bus” Lindberg said.
She is sure to include a humorous tone, as Kemp can hear her from across the plastic, padded mats. She has a sarcastic personality that dominates Kemp’s quiet demeanor.
Arguments against such disciplines have sprouted up in the media in response to more aggressive approaches in MMA fighting. The argument goes: the more aggressive the approach, the more serious the injuries that occur. According to an article printed in the Journal of Combative Sport in 2004, the most common injuries in MMA fighting are broken bones, tears of the knees, sprains of the shoulders and ankles, and assorted infections.
Some people believe that MMA fighting should be discontinued altogether because of the prominent levels of danger that are involved. According to an approximation by Brian Kodi and The American Journal of Medical Association, boxing deaths are at a rate of 13 percent, and MMA risk for death appears to be at least two times higher than that of boxing.
Kemp doesn’t like to weigh in on the controversy. He instead makes a point to mention the positives of what he does. He remains unsure as to why he has made a change to live a life of discipline.
“At the time, it just felt right," Kemp said. "I needed something new, something better for myself than what I was doing. A lot of people didn’t expect me to be so serious about this whole training thing, but I love it. It has taught me the importance of discipline in every aspect of my life.”
“Most importantly, we don’t train to hurt each other. We train to prepare each other for what can happen, and we train to discipline ourselves and teach us things about ourselves,” Kemp said.