Just after 6 a.m. on a Friday, Kalispell’s downtown is shrouded in fog, the streets dark, and a deep silence enveloping the neighborhoods.
Then you get closer to Straight Blast Gym and you see the lights. And set against that light, you see flashes of people sprinting, falling to the floor to get back up, squatting, and wrestling with heavy medicine balls.
Music pumping inside, the building on the corner of First Avenue East and Fourth Street East is awake and alive, full of a special breed of people. These are the people who for the last few months have risen five days a week to go to this lively building at 6 a.m. and sweat, punch, get punched, wrestle, and kick.
This is the inaugural Wimp 2 Warrior class, a group of 20 people who started Montana’s first licensed branch of the program. With an average age of about 40, they are military veterans, former truck drivers, law enforcement officers, counselors, and even a judge — a group of people from ages 19 to 56 who wanted to submit themselves to the punishing and rewarding training of mixed martial arts, or MMA, and prepare to fight.
“Everyone on the mat has a fight scheduled,” Travis Davison, who owns Straight Blast Gym (SBG) with his wife Kisa Davison, said during the early-morning practice.
The program doesn’t require fighting experience, or martial arts experience. It merely requires a steadfast desire to get better. Everyone has a different reason, but they work together as a team to get to the same goal. Physically, the participants get stronger and lose weight; everyone participating has lost at least 10 pounds, with some participants dropping 30 to 50 pounds.
The culmination of the Wimp 2 Warrior program is an April 6 finale fight card at the Flathead County Fairgrounds featuring the program’s participants; all except two will be fighting opponents from their program, while two other fighters are coming from Portland and Spokane to ensure everyone gets their turn in the cage. The fight also features SBG’s Marnic Mann in her pro MMA debut.
“It provides something to train for, and it also gave them the ability to be part of something bigger than themselves,” Davison said.
Wimp 2 Warrior began with Australian fighter Richie Cranny, who believes people can participate in MMA training the same way they continue to play basketball and soccer into adulthood. Cranny started the program with the idea that you didn’t have to be a professional to get professional results.
Now, the program has spread across the globe, and Cranny visited the Kalispell Wimp 2 Warrior class on the first day of class to provide inspiration, Davison said.
“I’m a firm believer that if you don’t get out of your comfort zone, you won’t change,” Davison said. “If there’s no environmental pressure, there’s no incentive for change.”
The class started 22 weeks ago with 24 people. Now, having lost a few people to injuries and personal issues along the way, the 20 remaining participants are split into the Red and Blue teams. Together, they’ve been through physical, emotional, and mental transformations as they’ve sweated and cried and bled.
As the eldest student at 56, Melissa Berentsen wasn’t sure what the class would hold for her; she just knew she needed to change up her life. Recent developments in her life had her headed toward two possibilities: self-destructive choices or deciding to make something out of nothing.
It was either go do something stupid or go to something like this,” Berentsen said after class. “I lost myself, and I found myself here. This is my new family; they made me believe in myself again. I’m back to me.”
Berentsen learned to fight as a kid, but nothing like this. She didn’t know how much this program would demand of her, and she definitely didn’t know she would rise to the occasion.
“I’ve always been fascinated by [MMA training], because you’ve got to dig deep into your soul,” Berentsen said.
Lincoln Seals, 38, found the program just as he thought he was losing track of his life. Leaving the U.S. Air Force in 2014 after serving for six years pushed him into a different life, and it was a tough adjustment.
“I had never thrown a punch until last May,” Seals said. “It was never in my wheelhouse. But something in the back of my mind said, ‘You need to do this.’”
It’s been difficult, and Seals has had to deal with injuries and setbacks over the 22 weeks of training. But it’s been worth every moment of doubt, he said, because his four sons are watching their dad struggle through adversity.
“I was ready to quit. I hit that point of ‘I’m done,’” Seals said. “But then you realize, I can, and I’m going to do this, as hard as it is.”
That’s the breakthrough that affects the Red and Blue teams the most. Even though they’re likely fighting the person working out across from them, each participant has made a new community, one that supports them through 35 minutes of pure cardio, that has been there to see every struggle, and that will be there to cheer on their teammates at the April 6 fights.
The next Wimp 2 Warrior program begins in June, with tryouts on May 18 and 25 and June 6, because Davison expects double the number of participants. Tryouts are open to people of any age, gender, and fitness level, and will be chosen based on their attitudes and desire to participate.
“This is a bucket-list thing for a lot of people, and you can do it without having to fight,” Davison said. “People do it because it scares them.”
When their Friday practice was over, they had one week until weigh-ins for the fights. Davison gathered them and told them that even though half the people in the room would lose, just stepping into the cage means they’ve already won.
“Show up and do your best — that’s all anyone can ask of you,” Davison told the class.
For more information on Straight Blast Gym’s Wimp 2 Warrior program, visit www.sbgmontana.com.