Kolton Higginbottom is being choked and is struggling for breath.
From the seats surrounding the ring, hundreds of people are watching intently as Higginbottom twists and turns, attempting to escape his opponent.
His coach, Darwin Douglas, tries to direct him from ringside at the River Rock Casino in Vancouver.
"Keep your head up Kolton!” yells Douglas, “You’re gonna be OK!”
Higginbottom is one of several aboriginal fighters who Douglas coaches at his gym, the Four Directions Martial Arts Academy.
Douglas, a 41 year old member of the Cheam First Nation near Chilliwack BC, is also a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter.
After six years of fighting professionally, Douglas’ dream now is to pass on the lessons he's learned from MMA to the next generation of Aboriginal youth, through his Four Directions gym.
"Our ultimate goal is to promote health and fitness through MMA and self-defense," said Douglas, “And to promote confidence in the youth that participate.”
Bringing mixed martial arts to aboriginal youth
Douglas was raised on the Cheam First Nation reserve just outside of Vancouver, where he watched his dad and uncles compete in regional and even national amateur boxing competitions. After his dad’s fights he would collect his winning trophies and carry them around.
- Mixed martial arts (MMA) competitors utilize different martial arts like kickboxing, muay thai, and wrestling to grapple, strike, and submit their opponents.
- Through promotions like the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), MMA has become one of the fastest growing sports in the world.
- MMA is immensely popular in aboriginal communities.
“I always kind of looked up to boxers and people in combat sports,” he said.
His passion was further sparked during the 1990’s, when a champion kick-boxer named Gordy Gong started training aboriginal youth on reserves around Vancouver. Gordy, who is part aboriginal himself, motivated the youth with his martial arts teachings and inspirational words.
“First of all you need to learn how to defend yourself, defend your family, defend your community, and then defend your nation,” said Douglas, quoting one of Gordy’s sayings.
Douglas still continues to fight professionally. He won his most recent match in a unanimous decision, but these days he wants to focus more on coaching.
Through his Four Direction gym Douglas has started the Mixed Martial Arts Youth Leadership Program, where each week — like Gordy before him — he travels to reserves all over the Fraser Valley and teaches mixed martial arts.
The Chawathil reserve sits along the banks of the Fraser River and is surrounded by towering, snow-peaked mountains. Inside the community centre gym, Douglas shouts directions during an MMA class.
“Chins down and hands up!” he yelled, “I want you to do six punches — OK?”
In front of him are thirty aboriginal youth, all punching and sweating and running — some wearing boxing gloves; others holding blockers.
Rhonda Bob, who trains with her son Darius at the classes, wasn’t surprised to see so many people show up.
“UFC is very popular, and a lot of our people watch it,” she said. “A lot of kids look up to Darwin here."
Natasha John, an eleven-year-old elementary school student, trains with her friends each week at Douglas’ Chawathil classes.
“I mostly like the kicking and the punching – it makes me feel happy to learn self-defense,” she said.
Changing perceptions of the sport
'In the beginning it was a very tough sell. People thought MMA was too violent, that it was just a bunch of bad guys in the ring beating each other up.' - Darwin Douglas
But while MMA is growing in popularity, it is still perceived by many as a violent sport. Images on television of fighters pounding each other’s faces, or wrestling mats stained with blood, make some legislators uneasy.
Until 2013 MMA was still technically illegal in British Columbia, according to the Criminal Code of Canada.
“In the beginning it was a very tough sell,” said Douglas. “People thought MMA was too violent, that it was just a bunch of bad guys in the ring beating each other up.”
But he sees the stereotype of the MMA fighter as a barroom brawler diminishing quickly. He said UFC fighters like George St. Pierre — a three-time Canadian Athlete of the Year — are helping gain the sport legitimacy.
“People are realizing that MMA fighters are some of the best conditioned athletes in the world.”
The funding challenge
The entire gym in Chawathil echoes with the sounds of gloves connecting with blockers, and the screeching of shoes hitting the gymnasium floor.
“One—two—under! One—two—under!” shouts Douglas, directing a punching pattern.
Despite the success of the Youth Leadership Program, Douglas and his wife Francine still have trouble finding funding.
'There are just so many good things about [MMA]. It comes back to building healthy people — physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.' - Darwin Douglas
Organizations like the Aboriginal Sport, Recreation & Physical Activity Partners Council are reticent about funding MMA, though sports like badminton, basketball and soccer are well supported. Some band councils have also been slow to provide funding for his classes, despite their popularity. This year funding was cut for his program at the Seabird Island Community School.
“You know, it’s an ongoing battle, but we’re in it for the long haul,” said Douglas. “We want to see MMA continue to grow — and not only in Chawathil, but in other First Nation communities."
Douglas is also a councillor for the Cheam First Nation, as well as the owner of Cheam Trading Inc., a salmon and seafood business. The money he makes from Four Directions goes right back into the gym.
“Every ounce of time I spend in the gym is volunteer,” he says.
Higginbottom's big fight
Back at the River Rock Casino in Vancouver the crowd erupts into raucous cheers. Kolton Higgenbottom has slipped out of the chokehold he was previously trapped in and is now leveling pointed jabs at his opponent.
The bell rings signaling the end of the first round. In the coaches corner a look of relief falls across Douglas’s face.
Two rounds later, Higgenbottom, who hails from the Ts'kw'aylaxw band in the BC interior, has won by unanimous decision.
Douglas hopes to see many more aboriginal fighters like Kolten find success through MMA. Maybe even for some of the young fighters from Chawathil, like Natasha.
"I see the great benefits of having First Nations youth train MMA,” he said. "There are just so many good things about it. It comes back to building healthy people — physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually."
This series on aboriginal youth produced in partnership with the Reporting in Indigenous Communities course at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism.