Growing up on the inner city streets of Baltimore in the late 1960s, life was tough for 6-year-old Willie Johnson. The rough and tough atmosphere exposed Johnson to abuse and drugs in a place that supported violence. But his life changed when he encountered the contact sport of mixed martial arts.
"Everybody knew how to box [and] everybody knew how to wrestle," Johnson said, recalling his childhood days. "The only difference was that in competition, when you went to the ground, they stopped. …I remember people, who were drinking and wanted to challenge you, coming in from off the streets."
Johnson clarified the differences between sparring and fighting, explaining that sparring is a sense of physical boxing motions done inside a dojo — a training location —while fighting takes place in the streets. Challenging his "inner talent" that was recognized by his instructor, Grand Master Dennis Brown, Johnson fought to stay up, later earning the nickname, Bam, after displaying high levels of energy in the dojo.
"Martial arts was abusive," he laughed. "You got a broken nose, a couple of broken ribs, but you survived it and eventually got technically correct."
After years of discipline, training and competitions, Johnson, now 53, is sharing his experiences and knowledge with others at his new school in Laurel, Point MMA Krazy Athletic, as well as on his own show on Laurel TV, "Inside the Dojo."
Johnson and the other instructors offer a blending of martial arts courses, focusing on self-defense, street combat and traditional Kung Fu. All classes incorporate light contact and technical skill development under "wholesome pressure," Johnson said, lessening the violence he believes has enveloped the true meaning behind mixed martial arts.
"As a parent and as an instructor, I don't really think a kid should deal with that kind of violence," he said. "That should not be something that a kid should be exposed to. …I'm not trying to train another generation of mixed martial artists; I'm trying to train another generation of good human beings who can deal with whatever pressure comes through life's adversities."
After dealing with bullying at her elementary school, 9-year-old Shivaani Selvan said her time at Point MMA has helped her learn how to stand up for herself.
"I was in school and I was getting bullied a lot," Shivaani said. "Then, we learned about this school and I started coming here. I became interested because they taught me how to stop bullies from bullying me in a non-violent way."
Her mother, Subathra, said the family searched for martial arts classes as an effort to restore her daughter's confidence, but had no luck until they found "Professor Bam."
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Martial arts instruction has drastically changed since the 70s and 80s, Johnson said, morphing from an inner city to suburban culture. In order to earn a black belt, for example, a person had to demonstrate the technical skills worthy of the title.
"People really knew how to fight and make sure they were learning more effectively," Johnson said. "As things began to change, they started doing less fighting and more saying, 'Everybody is a winner. Do a good job, Johnny.' But Johnny wasn't doing a good job. His technique and his punches and everything weren't really proven to be effective because they didn't want to break the kids down and build them back up."
As the ineffective instruction took hold of the martial arts community, Johnson said Grand Master Brown urged him to establish a brand of direction that would "bring [the sport] to the people." Point MMA then came into play.
"Point MMA is a complete martial arts program based on mind, body and spirit development from the inside out," Johnson said. "The slogan is, 'Are you technically ready?'"
In addition to the art's technical structure, Johnson said he also realized how the sport triggers kids' athleticism as a healthy form of exercise. Each class is 45 minutes long, beginning with 10 minutes of the program's "krazy athletics," including intense rounds of burpees body weight exercises, sit-ups and push-ups.
For Arianne Harmon, 11, martial arts has become a part of her life.
"I just wanted to know another way to defend myself instead of just fighting," Harmon said. "It's not like any other sport, like basketball or football. It's something you can use in real life."
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"Krazy Athletics allows us to get crazy and have fun and take the body to the max," the instructor said. "If I can help a kid avoid the pitfalls that I went through and build families by first building up their child, that's the ultimate goal."