I never realized that there was a nice way to deprive someone's brain of oxygen. One class with Peter Martell teaches me otherwise.
"See how his face is getting all red?" asks Martell, politely. "That's how you know it's working."
Martell is clenching my friend Walter Muschenheim's neck between his forearms and huge biceps. Walter starts to gurgle and Martell releases him from "the lion killer," a move taken from Brazilian jiu-jitsu designed to "put people to sleep." It compresses veins in your opponent's neck, which cuts off blood supply to the brain.
"I felt like my eyes were bulging out of my head!" Walter says once he's released.
We're at Palooka's Boxing Club on Gottingen, taking Martell's mixed martial arts class, which is free since it's our first. Walking into the class may have been terrifying, because of the impressive roster of pro fighters who would be practising with us---such as Roger "The Hulk" Hollett, who's won the Extreme Cage Combat and Maximum Fighting Light Heavyweight Championships and Peter "The Wrath" McGrath---but our fears quickly dissipate due to the easygoing nature of our instructor and classmates.
"There's not much ego here, just a lot of people who are friendly and helpful," Martell says, referring to more experienced fighters keen to help newcomers learn the ropes.
We show up during the holiday season, so there are only seven people in our class. I'm the only woman there tonight, whereas I understand there are usually a few. While Martell teaches me loads of moves, none of the men seem predisposed to actually start fights with me. Martell says they need to be careful, because of the differences in our body weights. They do seem to enjoy tossing Walter around, who isn't that much bigger than me. Walter ends up with a black eye, a rare treat for a King's College philosophy student, but typical at Palooka's.
Mixed martial arts is exploding in popularity---if the regular bouts broadcast on American cable are anything to go by---but has often been given a bad rap by the media for being dangerous. In fact, it has been sanctioned by the Nova Scotia Boxing authority since Halifax's Extreme Cage Fighting Competition in 2006, which Martell helped organize. This hybrid form of fighting draws from muay thai, jiu-jitsu and Greco-Roman wrestling. Mixed martial arts fighters wear smaller gloves than boxers and competitors fight standing or grappling. In other words, they roll around on the floor, trying to get one another in a position from which there is no escape without injury.
Ideally, one's opponent would tap the ground to say uncle before getting injured. In a real fight when no one calls uncle, "you'd break the arm," says Martell. He can also recall putting someone to sleep by accident in class recently, as he was demonstrating a hold. The victim never tapped out and Martell was surprised to find the student's body suddenly go limp. But he assures us that people always regain consciousness quickly. Other classmates nod in agreement and I make a mental note to remember to beat the floor with my hand when in doubt.
After trying it myself, the sport's detractors start to sound like a bunch of killjoys. The class is loads of fun. Martell teaches Walter and me how to flip each other through the air. We also put on gloves and pads to take turns bashing ourselves and others around. We pulverize punching bags.
It turns out some of the techniques are useful in the outside world. I learn a series of moves that Martell considers to be of particular importance to women, who may need to ward off violent aggressors. They're all a bit complicated, but definitely worth picking up. Palooka's actually hopes to attract more female participants, giving discounts to women to encourage more of them to attend classes.
Erika Lemon, who works out at Palooka's all the time, tells me that many of her friends at Dalhousie are too intimidated to go there with her. "They think you have to be in really good shape or something, which is not true at all," she says.
After doing mixed martial arts, Lemon and I take Boxercise with instructor Ocean Samuel. Samuel is an enthusiastic, petite woman, who also teaches pilates. Most classes at Palooka's operate on a non-profit basis, so boxercise costs only the $5 admission fee to get into the club. It's a small class, which translates into tons of individual attention from Samuel, who will make sure your form is perfect and will adjust the class based on the fitness level of participants. Plus, Samuel's casual teaching style makes you feel like you're working out with an old friend.
She also lets people blow off steam by punching her. "People seem to like punching me after class," she says, laughing.
Samuel and Lemon recommend Palooka's muay thai kickboxing to me. I take a class from ultimate fighter Ryan "Big Deal" Jimmo, who I've seen beating someone's face to a bloody pulp on YouTube. I'm a bit scared of the Big Deal, but like everyone else I'vemet at this gym, he turns out to be friendly and easy to chat with.
He also has a sadistic sense of humour. Jimmo seems to take pleasure in concocting torturous warm-ups, which often involve people throwing medicine balls at me. Breaks are not acceptable. One woman flees class for some water. "Water is for sissies!" jokes Jimmo. I stop to tie my hair. "You can tie your hair later! Skip! Skip!" he says, with obvious glee.
I'm the laughing stock of a party the following evening. I fall down a flight of stairs before even having a drink. My muscles are so tight that the stairs prove impossible. Yet, I don't hate Jimmo. It feels good to have been pushed to my limits, because usually I'd be too lazy to force myself to exercise that much. Sadly, the Big Deal has announced he'll be leaving Palooka's for Thailand, where he'll hone his art further.
Fortunately for kickboxing enthusiasts, there's a similar class available at Titans Gym, which shares many of Palooka's instructors. The class is taught by one of the men who trained Jimmo himself, Rob Walker.
Palooka's is also adding two new classes to its schedule, which promise to be equally intense. For five bucks per class one can take 20-20-20 or Bootcamp, both of which are taught by women and provide a full body workout. For a workout that promises to bust everyone into shape---from grandparents to Olympic athletes---try Walker's Crossfit at Titans. The first class is free every Sunday. Or, if you're left craving more mixed martial arts, take a class at Palooka's from legendary local fighter Ralph Hollett. Hollett, The Hulk's father, is a three-time Canadian middleweight champion in boxing, a kickboxing champion and a Toughman champion, so watch out.
Despite being covered with eyebrow-raising bruises, I'd recommend classes at Palooka's to anyone looking to get in shape and maybe earn a cool nickname to boot. Just make sure you aren't a sissy and don't forget your sense of humour.