By PHILLIP BANTZ
Wrestlers, boxers, martial artists and street brawlers — all glad they’ve found a place to fight, and it’s legal.
This barn is a hidden jewel, an oasis for the small group of combatants that Ben Knight invites into his home and his life. And there’s no membership fee or any hidden charges. It’s all free.
A former Keene High School wrestler, Knight, 30, now has five professional mixed martial arts fights under his belt. But after losing every match, he decided to train harder before stepping into the ring again.
He needed five stitches in his forehead to close a gash opened by his opponent’s elbow during a November fight in Atlantic City.
Mixed martial arts, led by the flagship promotion Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC, has expanded in the past decade into a thriving industry.
From monthly pay-per-view shows to regular television programming, there is much available for followers — some of whom are inspired to try it themselves.
“It’s a brutal sport,” Knight said. “You have to be ready to go out and give a beating and take a beating.”
Shortly after 7 p.m. Wednesday, the fighters begin to file into Knight’s makeshift gym on Water Street. It’s quiet and you can hear the hum of a space heater. One of the guys jabs a punching bag hanging from a rafter. Another sits on a donated wrestling mat stretching his legs.
Within 10 minutes, the small barn with plywood walls and no insulation is crowded with more than a dozen men, ages 18 to 37. A rap CD begins to play on a boom box on a shelf in the corner. They form a circle and launch into a series of warm-up exercises, shadow boxing and hopping in place to get the blood flowing.
Some of the fighters are wearing pajama pants and others have on gym shorts or sweats. They’re all wearing socks.
Henry Poitras, 25, of Keene leads the group, yelling “uppercut” and “hook.”
A Marine with a background in grappling or submission wrestling, Poitras joined Knight’s club, which has no official name, about six months ago after hearing about it from a friend.
Others, like Greg Somerset, 24, also of Keene, responded to Knight’s recent classified ad in The Sentinel asking fighters to come and train with him.
Of the 60 curious men and women who called about the ad, only six showed up to fight and three have stuck with it, Knight said.
Somerset had been used to fighting on the street, he said, but now he’s learning the art of combat, the myriad of styles and techniques with one efficient purpose: knocking out or making an opponent tap out in the ring.
“This is legal, legitimate,” he said. “We’re learning some useful skills.”
During a recent training match, Somerset was caught by another club member’s fist and his nose was broken.
“I heard a pop,” Somerset said, “and I just kept going.”
After warm-ups and a few grappling demonstrations, the fighters shed their socks, split into two groups and begin fighting on the ground. Each member fights every person in his group for 30 seconds.
A small cut opens up between Poitras’ eyebrows during his first match. It’s impossible to tell exactly what happened — the action is quick — there’s just a smear of blood across his forehead.
Despite first impressions, the training and fighting is relatively safe and most injuries are sprains and sore joints. The fighters use mouthpieces and wear shin pads, gloves and some use headgear.
As the guys toss each other around on the mats and throw a few punches and leg kicks, Knight’s girlfriend, Jessica Ashline, stands quietly in a doorway looking into the barn as a self-described “innocent bystander.”
“I know that it always looks worse than it actually is,” she said. “It’s really grown on me.”
Make no mistake, the club isn’t about a few guys getting together to beat the pulp out of each other. They’re here to hone their skills and, maybe, become professional fighters.
Adam Castor, 29, has been training “seriously” for the last four months. Like Knight, he wrestled for Keene High School. Now he’ll be fighting his first amateur bout March 15 in Plymouth, Mass.
“I just want to challenge myself,” Castor said, smiling. “I want to go and see what happens. It’s not always about fighting. It’s strategy. If you go out there swinging, you’re probably going to lose. It’s usually the smarter guy who wins.”
Many of the club members are training to fight as amateurs, then professionals. Others have simply found something constructive to do with their lives.
“It’s something to do in this town,” Jesse Warren, 22, of Keene said. “Without this, I’d be doing nothing, sitting at home.”
Napoleon Methe never misses a training session in the barn. The slim 22-year-old from Fitzwilliam said he’s working on a dream.
“This is what I want to do with my life,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to do anything, and now I’ve found something to do. I’ve just always wanted to be a fighter ever since I was little.”
As the night’s session closes, Knight’s no-frills gym is a din of noise. The fighters are laughing, joking with each other and throwing a few mock jabs and grappling moves. The place smells like a locker room and it’s considerably warmer than it was two hours ago. Everyone seems energized.
“I want to come here all the time,” Methe says. “Just being able to make friends with these guys makes it worth it.”
Knight hopes to have a proper gym some day and a sponsored team of professional fighters. He also wants to host a live fighting event in Keene, perhaps at The Colonial Theatre or the high school gym where he used to wrestle.
But for now, Knight said he would settle for a few more wrestling mats and some insulation for the barn.
“I don’t want to make a business out of it really,” he said. “I just want to do it for fun.”