And somewhere along the line, Green found something he'd never known before: happiness.

By accepting her father — fighter warts and all — Madeline allowed him to accept himself. Now, says Green, "my whole standard of living's changed. I started looking out for the world better. She's made me a kinder person. She's made me appreciate life."

The boy who was picked on in grade school, the teenager who took out his anger on other people's faces, the young man who'd never known how to love — finally found it.

For more images, visit MMA for Kids: A Family Story.
Kholood Eid
For more images, visit MMA for Kids: A Family Story.
For more images, visit MMA for Kids: A Family Story.
Kholood Eid
For more images, visit MMA for Kids: A Family Story.

"She's the first person I said 'I love you' to, and she's the first person who told me they loved me and meant it unconditionally," he says.

Mean Mike Green, one of the toughest men in St. Louis, now has tears in his eyes. "I can't hardly talk about her," he concedes with a sniffle. Asked what chokes him up the most, he says: "When I see myself in her."

Mike Green made pains to ensure his daughter didn't feel forced into MMA fighting, which his friends confirm; Madeline says she made the decision to become a fighter on her own. And she's hardly alone for her age group. Across the country, as the sport continues to grow, more and more children are signing up for MMA classes.

"For years kids have grown up doing either tae kwon do or karate or judo, but MMA training mixes it all together and gives kids an avenue to see if these self-defenses really work," says Steve Crawford, the vice president of the amateur sanctioning body International Sport Combat Federation.

The youth movement hasn't come without controversy. Two years ago, a video was released depicting boys as young as six slugging it out in a converted garage in Carthage, Missouri. The fights were being staged by ex-professional MMA fighter Rudy Lindsey. National news crews parachuted in, exposing the fighting ring and spotlighting Lindsey, who asserted the operation was entirely safe. But doctors cried foul.

"There is great reason to have concern over a sport that places a growing person at risk for head injury," Dr. Matthew Dobbs, an orthopedist at St. Louis Children's Hospital, says today. "A lot of things can go wrong with a developing brain. The literature shows that repeated head injuries lead to behavioral issues, more problems concentrating in school and lower grades."

The video appalled enough people to force Missouri's Office of Athletics into banning organized MMA fights for kids younger than eighteen. Since then, all but a handful of states have outlawed such fights as well.

Even some MMA enthusiasts have applauded those decisions.

"It takes a certain maturity for kids to train in MMA," says Andy Foster, the director of the Georgia Athletic and Entertainment Commission. "You're not learning how to throw a punch; you're learning how to break someone's arm."

Oklahoma-based youth trainer Piet Wilhelm recalls a time a few years ago when kids were trotted out into a cage in front of beer-guzzling yahoos. "To see kids get arm-barred and cry in front of adults who are yelling 'kick his fucking ass' — I don't want to see that," he says.

But now, those critics' voices are being matched by a chorus of trainers asking states to reevaluate their policies on organized competition for kids. Rebutting the assertion that the sport is too dangerous, these trainers point to a new generation that's seeking out MMA training — and finding it.

In Daddis Fight Camp gyms in the Philadelphia region, where kids fight in cages, youth enrollment has jumped from 150 to 500 in the last year. Capital MMA in Alexandria, Virginia, has witnessed a near quadrupling of youth applicants and now offers eleven children's classes a week. (Like Anic's Mini-Finney's class, the trainers at Capital MMA don't allow strikes to the head.) Las Vegas's TapouT Training Center, run by former pro fighter Shawn Tompkins, recently produced a video featuring eight- and nine-year-old brothers duking it out in a cage; the pair has been training since they were eighteen months old.

"We tried to teach traditional martial arts, but, oh, man, was it boring," says Brad Daddis, of Daddis Fight Camp. "Before, we were catering to parents who are now grandparents. Then we suddenly realized that parents are now our age. They have tattoos. They're familiar with MMA. They realize that traditional martial arts training, with all due respect, isn't very effective."

The biggest argument from MMA-for-youth advocates is that kids are already entering competitions testing individual fighting skills, including jiu-jitsu and kickboxing. Why, then, can't they enter tournaments that simply bring these skills together?

Still, Tim Lueckenhoff, executive director of the Missouri Office of Athletics, doubts regulation will happen for kids, especially in light of the Carthage scandal. "The biggest concern is the manipulation of the joints – the twisting and the kicking," he says. "And headgear would be a nightmare to keep in place."

But Crawford believes that by instituting a clear set of safety requirements — no choke-holds or strikes to the head, for example — regulators could be persuaded. "We need to have a powwow with the parents and athletic commission," he says. "Because these kids want to fight. And they will."

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