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Body by choke hold

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Student Mike Luchuk practices a hold at Ronin Athletics in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Lynch)

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Instructor Chris Encarnacion teaches students Brian Hutchings (left) and Brandon Loadholt (right) in class at the Renzo Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Lynch)

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Head instructor Christian Montes demonstrates a move to students at Ronin Athletics in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Lynch)

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Student Brian Hutchings practices a hold while instructor Magno Gama looks on in class at the Renzo Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in New York City. (Photo by Matthew Lynch)

On a recent rainy Saturday afternoon at Ronin Athletics, a mixed martial arts school in Midtown Manhattan, Ruthie Niebla, 26, punched a padded wall target. She had just spent an hour in Kickboxing 101, sparring with a man much larger than her who was sporting sleeves of tattoos. The day’s workout hadn’t exactly been non-contact, which was to her liking.

“If I don’t feel the pain, then I’m not going to defend,” said Niebla, who is 5 feet 7 inches tall and 140 pounds. “Everyone’s too concerned with not hitting the only girl here today.”

As the popularity of mixed martial arts has soared in recent years, the sport’s impact has trickled down to schools, gyms and local training spots across the country.

Fans of the ferocious, televised bouts of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) league have appropriated rigorous mixed martial arts training for its fitness benefits, to improve their self defense skills--and also to better understand what UFC heroes like Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz are doing in the ring.

“The fan becomes a better fan,” said Dante Venturelli, 38, director of marketing for California-based LA Boxing. The gym has sold 99 franchises in 19 states and Puerto Rico since 2004, in large part by marketing to the mixed martial arts viewer. “When they’re watching now, they’re saying, ‘Wow, he’s going for a rear naked choke’ or ‘Wow, he’s going for a kimora,’” says Venturelli.

Mixed martial arts has been called the fastest growing sport in America. As the name implies, it’s an any-technique-goes combat sport. Competitors are generally compelled to use at least two techniques in the course of a fight: some sort of standup sparring, such as kickboxing, and some sort of ground-based grappling, such as jiu-jitsu, for when the fight goes to the mat.

Christian Montes, 31, is the owner and head instructor of Ronin, which he started by leasing out space in a gym in 2003. Three years later, he and about 40 pupils moved into their own space, where the school has since grown to 100 students, diverse in age, size and occupation.

“I have millionaires and messengers working side-by-side,” said Montes, who has competed professionally. “I’m at the right sport at the right time.”

When the International Fight League, a new mixed martial arts venture, held tryouts in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York last year, more than 1,000 candidates showed up. But instructors say that most of the interest in gyms comes from those who simply want to train, not compete.

Academies that cater specifically to the mixed martial arts market have flourished, while martial arts schools that teach the sport’s components, such as Muay Thai kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, are seeing more customers come in asking to train like the fighters they see on TV.

Students of mixed martial arts pay monthly membership rates that range from $60 to more than $140 to attend classes that often provide a more relaxed and social environment than traditional martial arts lessons. “I don’t make them call me master,” said Brad Daddis, a gym owner and trainer in Philadelphia. “They call me Brad.”

Daddis, 32, opened the Daddis Training Center in 2000. At first, he resorted to fliers to attract customers to his new niche of the martial arts world, but he now has an in-demand service. He opened a second training center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 2003 and the facilities share about 600 students.

No matter how affable an environment the gym may be, the sport can be dangerous. Any fan who has seen the punches and choke holds on TV knows that. Most trainers are conscious of their students’ limits, but the occasional bruise or broken finger remains a possibility.

“As much as I like it, I can’t make a career out of this,” Brandon Loadholt, a 24-year-old trader on Wall Street, recently joked after an hour-long jiu-jitsu workout at Renzo Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Manhattan. The academy teaches Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Muay Thai kickboxing to more than 900 students. “I can’t go into work with black eyes.”

Brian Hutchings, a 33-year-old lawyer and Loadholt’s partner in their workout that evening, explained his strategy for avoiding such ailments, “I try to train with people who seem to understand that we’re not all here to join the UFC and go all out. It’s just exercise.”

At Ronin, Ruthie Niebla credits that exercise with helping to change her lifestyle. An hour of kickboxing can burn up to 1,000 calories and she’s in the gym three times a week. That regimen has led her to become more active and health-conscious in other areas of her life and mixed martial arts training has additional benefits for her as a woman. Said Niebla: “My mother-in-law always tells me: ‘Boy, I feel sorry for whoever considers mugging you,’”

E-mail: mbl2128@columbia.edu