In the movies, martial arts schools always occupy mysterious hovels; Chinese restaurant basements; ancient temples, yet the reality is as far from that as you can get. Once again, my journey to visit another New England MMA institution had landed me in the place dreams go to die: An industrial office park. Places like VapoTonix, S.E.K.O.R, and DynoTherm dominated the landscape and my GPS was of no use picking one nondescript build from another. A rickety A-Frame on the side of the road, half the letters lost to a brisk wind or perhaps blown asunder from errant 4th of July fireworks from the night before, signaled my destination in lonesome plastic letters. Muay thai. MMA. Jiu-jitsu.
I had been apprehensive to visit South Shore Sportfighting, given the nature of its main proprietor and my sporadic interactions with him online; never having made a physical connection despite occupying the same room on a few occasions. Incredibly funny, seriously jaded and often blunt, my time talking with Bill Mahoney on social media and via text saw me as the recipient of endless rants and target of criticism seemingly at random. Yet curiosity, and a few invites from students, had spurred me forward to visit the school, situated in Norwell, Massachusetts. Would I be walking into a gauntlet of punishment or have an opportunity to pick one of the single sharpest fight minds in the sport?
Manny Bermudez, newly minted as a professional fighter, opened the gym and let me into the wide-open facility, covered with wrestling mat from front to back, with a full cage dominating the rear of the gym. Heavy bags had their place, while a weight bench with plenty of plates took up a spot of reverence against the wall; a rare sight in an MMA gym where space is often at a premium. It wasn’t long before the facility was abuzz with fighters and recreational martial artists alike, all coming in for the Sunday open mat. Cage Titans promoter Michael Polvere made an appearance to put some young bucks through the wringer while several key members of the fight team shook off their July 4th hangovers with some July 5th matwork.
The diversity of styles in the room spoke to one of the elements of SSSF that has always interested me. Often schools have a hallmark style that fighters fall into; flavored by outside experience, yet SSSF holds a unique blend of competitors across all sizes and technical leanings. Young female competitor Danielle Hindley showed off her masterful entanglements, hitting armbars on Ryan White from anywhere the grappling bout played out; a style in stark contrast to the gut-churning pressure fighters like Frank Sforza and Lee Metcalf. The stable ranges from the spastic and elusive Johnny “Cupcakes” Campbell to the wall-with-legs Jeff Soivilien; heavyweight grappling assassin Jay Philips to fistic sniper Joe Giannetti, and several players in-between. The intriguing aspect isn’t so much that myriad approaches exist within one gym, but the fact the school is one of the most successful in the region. The idea any and all improve within the walls of the gym is a testament to the depth of knowledge within the instructors, one of whom I collapsed next to for a much needed breather, and to gather much-anticipated answers.
Bill Mahoney is my favorite kind of martial artist. No bulging muscles, no obvious and overly masculine tattoos, no quasi-Asian flair picked up from studying Eastern styles; he would never stick out in a crowd, even though he’d be the most dangerous man in any given room. We talked about my own lackluster grappling chops, which had barely kept my head above water against his students, and came to find a unique similarity in our own martial path: We’d both learned some of our grappling from VHS.
Given the limited scope of martial arts in New England in the early UFC era, to learn to grapple often involved one being condemned to spend copious amounts of money on instructional videos. Intrepid grapplers would try to piece the mysteries of ground work together with friends; mat burns and half-baked techniques your reward, though the step towards realistic combat would change many marital artists’ paths forever.
“I remember the first time I grappled an actual blue belt.” Mahoney mused among the clamor of his own students learning the craft. “I thought he was incredible, but looking back on it now, we were all terrible.”
The time of a novice Bill Mahoney was as long gone as the VHS format itself, yet the truth of the sport’s evolution played out around us; a room full of men who might have done some serious damage with a time machine and a berth in an early UFC. The art of grappling has been refined exponentially over the last twenty years, yet Mahoney wasn’t one to put the mental brakes on that progression like other martial artists drawn to combat sports. He sought and found missing pieces of the fight puzzle, whether it be in schools in dicey neighborhoods, or in some poorly-produced video.
That ability to not only evolve, but keep ahead of trends within the sport is a crucial one for a coach, and our flowing discussion showed Mahoney was clearly in the know in terms of both the martial and business sides of MMA. We talked at length about the often grimy “back room” of combat sports and the canyon-esque gap between perception and reality for the fans. Shifty matchmakers are always looking to sell beers at the expense of young careers; people willing to roll the dice with their health; top fighters looking to play games to hold their perch.
“I’ve had top fighters turn down bouts with my guys, and then turn around the next day and tell everyone they can’t find an opponent. They’re top guys, and they won’t fight because they’re afraid to lose.”
One interesting aspect of “old guard” trainers like Mahoney is what they’ve taken from the sport over the years, and what has been left behind. Having been subjected to decades of information, some coaches hold onto traditions for the sake of tradition, or abandon old ways for the new. An aspect of SSSF that I found peculiar was the lack of walls around the trainers. Despite my earlier sentiments, Mahoney was incredibly approachable and functioned as much as a buddy and confidant for his students as he did an instructor. He wasn’t “Master” or “Sifu” or “Coach” as often as he was just “Bill” with his team, and it made for a relaxed room, free of the old school trappings of bowing and deference.
“We’re all equals here. I might know a little more than these guys about fighting, but that doesn’t make me better than them. They’re my students, but they’re also my friends, and we treat each other as friends.”
Ryan White was quick to chime in. “If we don’t say awful things to you on a daily basis, we probably don’t like you.”
It was a modern approach to a timeless endeavor of personal and martial growth. No belts, no ceremonial courtesy, just the camaraderie of shared sweat, and tangible results, given the team’s stellar record. While others are resting on laurels gone to decay, South Shore Sportfighting continues to field some of the true elite in the region, with the next generation being shaped on much-loved mats every day.
Southshore Sportfighting is located at 104 Longwater Drive in Norwell, Massachusetts. Visit http://www.sssfighting.com for more information, include class structures and schedules.
Special thanks to SSSF for allowing me in, and thanks to Prime Athletics for providing me with the gear to train within New England’s finest gyms.