Local UFC Gym building a following, making a difference for members

Seven months in, UFC Gym is finding success and looking to expand in Maryland.

Tiffany Palmer was looking for a fight, which is why she joined UFC Gym in Crofton. But the Gambrills resident's opponent wasn't another fighter. It was her own limitations.

A runner, Palmer is a veteran of gyms and fitness crazes. But after a while, she needed something different.

"I work out five days a week, and I work out on the weekends," said Palmer, a 29-year-old nanny and the cheerleading coach at Arundel. "I wanted a change. I wanted to try something new."

After driving past UFC Gym on Route 3 in April, Palmer took her first class with her sister.

"I was hooked after the first workout that I had," she recalled. "It was a kickboxing class. I'm in really good shape, and it was probably one of the hardest workouts that I had ever had, which was awesome."

Palmer's testimony is the kind of success story UFC Gym wants to champion. The first of the franchise associated with Ultimate Fighting Championship to open in Maryland, UFC Gym celebrated its grand opening Oct. 3.

Since a soft opening in March, the gym has sold more than 800 memberships, according to owner Greg Yette. The response has been overwhelming, he said.

"That's huge," said Yette, a 47-year-old owner of an engineering firm and an NFL referee who was part of the officiating crew for the Cincinnati Bengals' 36-21 win against the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday. "Obviously, we were looking for a big turnout this past weekend and despite the rain, we still had a great turnout. A lot of new members signed up. What's driving our success is the word of mouth from current members. We have a Facebook page with just our close group, and people are bringing people to the gym to sign up. I'm not saying it's easy, but that's a confidence builder when members are singing your praises."

The 5,000-square-foot facility offers free weights for lifting, heavy bags for boxing and kickboxing, and mats for various exercises. There's also The Octagon, a 24-foot caged platform for members to learn mixed martial arts techniques such as taekwondo, Brazilian jiujitsu and judo.

Yette, who lives in Bowie and played football at Howard University, has agreed to open four more franchises in Maryland, though he declined to disclose the locations. One of the obstacles he faces is getting passers-by to avoid being intimidated by the UFC name and The Octagon.

"They see the name and they think of a big, burly guy with tattoo tears, but that's really not what the model is," Yette said. "Once you come inside, you see that most of our members are women and moms. You see a lot of soccer vans parked outside of our gym. It's attractive because it's a family environment. We make sure that we recruit trainers that are people persons. So they engage, they become friends with members. … They're invested in the success of the members. And members recognize that. These are adults and they recognize when somebody is being frank and genuine."

The community vibe shared by members and trainers is what appeals to Willie Rush, who signed up in August. The 29-year-old small-business owner trains seven days a week and sometimes twice per day.

"I've never had a gym that excites me and makes me want to come to the gym," the Bowie resident said. "There's a social aspect to it where you see the different members and you interact and work out with them. It's an environment that encourages you to want to come back."

Collene Fanzo, a 44-year-old stay-at-home mom from Harwood, had been boxing for a year before joining in May. After several weeks, she persuaded her husband Matt, 47, to try it, and now he and their three children — 13-year-old Tucker, 11-year-old Brooke and 9-year-old Jordan — regularly work out at UFC Gym.

"They love it," Fanzo said of her children. "Sometimes when I don't feel like going, they push me to go because they want to go. … And you're all there together. There are no separate rooms. You can see your kids working out and they can see you and you can work out together. It's really cool."

Tenyeh Dixon, an Owings Mills resident who is 12-13-0 as a professional mixed martial arts fighter, is the head instructor at UFC Gym. He said he enjoys introducing the sport to newcomers who might not be completely sold on it.

"It's great to see people who have never been in anything physical their whole lives try mixed martial arts and not only get good at it, but really appreciate the whole aspect of martial arts," Dixon, 37, said. "That's a great thing, just bringing something new to people."

Palmer, Rush and Fanzo said working out at UFC Gym has helped them achieve personal goals. Rush said he has shed 14 pounds from his 189-pound frame. Fanzo said she is in the best shape "in a long, long time" and that her confidence level is higher than it has ever been.

Palmer has gone from one pull-up to 15. In May, she qualified for the Warrior Dash World Championship in Tennessee this weekend, and Palmer credited the training at UFC Gym for helping her.

"I'm a runner, and that's great, but this has gotten me so much stronger," she said. "The obstacles that I do during the mud race are so much easier now because of the D.U.T. [Daily Ultimate Training] classes and the kickboxing."

Dixon, the instructor, said he also learns from the members.

"I learn how to be a better trainer because you run into different types of people," he said. "Even though I've been training people and been in this business for a long time, I'm still learning every day because everybody doesn't respond the same and they can't do the same things. When people come in and commit themselves and start to get results, you feel great because not only are we doing our jobs as trainers, but also it kind of recertifies the experience."

Testimonies such as those from Palmer, Rush and Fanzo are what Yette likes to hear.

"The comments by the members are the reasons I opened the gym," Yette said. "I am thrilled to know that we are making a positive impact in people's lives."

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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