Gym of the Month: FightworX

By U of MMA Staff
Photos Courtesy of Carl Garcia & Matt Hambelton/FightworX

If you were to ask fans which combat sports were the fundamentals of MMA, Krav Maga, the hand-to-hand combat discipline pioneered by the Israeli military, wouldn’t list high in the results. And that’s just fine with FightworX head trainer Matt Hambelton, who’s studied the style for over a decade, and has based his training and match strategies to string together an impressive series of wins for his fighters in the U.

FightworX head trainer Matt Hambelton during a Krav Maga class. (Photo courtesy of Carl Garcia/FightworX)

“MMA was based on hand-to-hand combat. Two people going in, taking whatever you knew, with no safety equipment whatsoever, except for a little padding on the knuckle. And Krav was two people fighting on the street, which was similar to what MMA was,” explains Hambelton. “It responded better to the fighters, because Krav was ‘beat the hell out of you as quickly as possible.’ Win as quick as I can. I don’t want to spend 15 minutes getting myself beaten up. I want to beat my opponent as efficiently and quickly as possible.”

Opened in the early 2000’s by an entrepreneur named Brian Natto and  Krav Maga specialist Jason Koepke, FightworX was originally known as SoCal Self Defense Academy. Hambelton, who as a youth was fascinated by martial arts, was one of the studio’s first students.

“They actually were one of the very first licensees to teach Krav Maga, besides the national facility,” he says.

Throughout his childhood, Hambelton trained in an array of disciplines, including taekwondo, karate, and Muay Thai kickboxing. In his teens, an illness sidelined Hambelton for a year, during which time he fell out of his dedicated training regiment and gained weight. However, as fate would have it, his roommate at the time discovered a new martial arts studio which specialized in Krav. The style served as a return path to fitness and the martial arts, as Hambelton took to it immediately.

“We never saw a martial art like Krav before. Everybody who took it said ‘this was awesome.’ As brutal as it was, and the type of instruction. You take 10 martial arts and [are] meshing it into one,” he explains.

One year later, Hambelton and Koepke bought the studio from Natto, who moved to Colorado. Not long after, Koepke relocated to the East Coast, at which point Hambelton rebranded the gym as ‘FightworX.’

Juggling a full-time construction job during the day and managing the studio in the evening and night, Hambelton and his partner steadily built a fight team that included Aaron Witherspoon and Mark Talamantes. They soon began competing in local shows like King of the Cage and Gladiator Challenge.

Hambelton eventually was forced to close down the Glendora location, but he still kept the FightworX team, moving his studio into a two-car garage that at one point hosted a roster of 26 fighters. During that time, he also started traveling to schools in California, taking classes and analyzing teaching and business methods of other martial arts studios, “After about a year of traveling, I started getting kicked out because everybody figured out who I was and nobody wanted me in their gyms.”

Finally, a Pasadena-based fight gear supply company called Pro Boxing, Inc. approached Hambelton about running a gym they planned on opening behind their storefront. That partnership lasted through 2011, when Hambelton moved FightworX to its current location, a fitness studio called Matador Performance Center.

Hambelton (right) demonstrates blocking techniques with his longtime training partner Carl Garcia. (Photo courtesy of Carl Garcia/FightworX)

Today, Hambelton has a bigger support staff to help him run the gym and train the fight team than in the past. Until recently, he’s run most of the fight training, though Carl Garcia and Wes Allard both supplement classes. As one of Hambelton’s original training partners, Garcia is a Krav Maga specialist and senior instructor at the gym, while Allard, a black belt in judo, is an apprentice jiu jitsu instructor. Likewise, Hambelton’s girlfriend, fighter-in-training, Brooksie Bayard, teaches an X-Fit curriculum and handles much of the gym’s business end. She’s also an apprentice Krav Maga instructor.

“I was a personal trainer many years ago, and then I left,” she recalls. “So when I came into FightworX months later, I decided to join with him fulltime. Since I have so many years previously training, and really have a passion for nutrition and health, and the whole fitness life, I just decided to be just 100% FightworX.”

Hambelton’s rebuilding of the FightworX team has so far yielded impressive results. The two most active and prominent fighters of the team, Bayard and Ericka Newsome, remain undefeated in amateur MMA. Newsome, who made her pro debut in July 2012, went 5-0 as an amateur, with two of those matches taking place at University of MMA events in 2011 (including main eventing the U’s inaugural event, ‘I Will Be Victorious!’). This year, Bayard made a very auspicious debut with a juggernaut performance at the U’s ‘Champions of Tomorrow!’ in May, winning by second-round TKO. For her impressive skill set and showmanship, Bayard won Freshman Honors (given to the debuting fighter who demonstrates the most overall potential) on the U’s Dean’s List performance rewards that night.

Ericka Newsome (top) and Brooksie Bayard are two of FightworX’s biggest prospects right now (Photo Courtesy of Matt Hambelton/FightworX)

According to Hambelton, the quick rise of Bayard and Newsome in the regional women’s MMA scene is a fortunate coincidence. Finding matches for Newsome, who’s trained at FightworX since 2008, was difficult enough as it was. But when Bayard was ready to start sparring and decided she wanted to fight, they made for the perfect training partners.

“They can punch the shit out of each other and laugh about it,” he notes.

“We want each other to do really well,” explains Bayard. “As much time as we put in, we both wish the best to each other. She says it to me. I say it to her. So it’s a good support system.”

Meanwhile, Hambelton is optimistic about his eight other aspiring fighter prospects. Included in that team are the Muller brothers, a trio of Hawaiian siblings (Dylan, Brian, and Nate) who’ve already made strides in amateur Muay Thai and Pankration. Nate is 6-0 in amateur Muay Thai, with two CA state Pankration titles to his name.

Hambelton is very serious about expecting a true commitment in time and effort from his fight team. That said, his process for filtering out the less committed is a gradual, accommodating one. He recognizes that many members simply want to lose weight and/or enjoy a good workout. And that’s okay. His philosophy is that it‘s better to identify that earlier than later as one goes down the path towards fighting.

Exhibition kickboxing matches give students the chance to determine whether to pursue fighting. (Photo courtesy of Carl Garcia/FightworX)

Every several months, the gym hosts a kickboxing exhibition; where fighters can spar with headgear, shin guards, and 16 oz. boxing gloves. Fighters are paired up by weight and experience level, and all are directed to fight with approximately 70% speed and power. Winners and losers aren’t determined, allowing matches to be more an exercise in fighting in front of fans, rather than a mark on one’s record.

“It gives the athlete a chance to see ‘do I want to continue this?’ he explains. “If they get in there and say ‘this was fun. I like it. I want to do it,’ then we know they’re going to take it seriously. If they come out and say ‘this was a horrible experience. I don’t like to get hit,’ or ‘I don’t like to hit anybody,’ then that’s a better way to find out.”

Likewise, Hambelton takes his own guidance just as seriously. He won’t let fighters debut unless he feels they’re fully ready, including cardio, technical skills, and the mental preparation of competing in front of fans. And as long as his fighters are following his instructions, then he takes responsibility for any shortcomings, as if he’s in the ring himself.

“Everyone always has an excuse for losing. I want to take all those excuses before they even get in,” he says. “If you go in the ring or octagon and you listen to me, and you lose, it’s not your fault. It’s my fault. Because I’m the one coaching. I’m the one directing you.”

The FightworX of today is very much a legacy of Hambelton’s diligence and commitment to building his team. From the days of juggling a construction job and keeping a studio open to training out of a garage and finally having a home for fighters to keep regular, dedicated schedules, the team has evolved several times over. But if you asked Hambelton, he’d say he’s just getting started.

FightworX is sponsored by Hands of Babs massage therapy/body sculpting (818-405-3777), Pro Boxing Equipment (www.proboxingequipment.com), Forever Faith Clothing (www.foreverfaith777.com), Contract Killer Clothing (www.contractkillerclothing.com), Pasadena Family Chiropractic (www.pasadenachiro.com) Matador Performance Center (www.matadorperformance.com), and www.LACriminalDefenseAttorney.com.

FightworX is located at 2620 East Walnut Street, Pasadena, CA 91117. For more information, visit www.FightworX.net or call (626) 991-1598.

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