In the past decade, the combat spirt known popularly as Mixed Martial Arts has skyrocketed in popularity, as live crows and pay-per-view TV audiences shell out millions to watch fighters kick, punch and choke each other into submission.
But parents and lawmakers alike have found themselves alarmed recently as children, some as young as 7 years old, have climbed into a cage, where matches take place, to pummel each other.
Unlike amateur boxing which requires thickly padded headgear and oversize boxing gloves, children’s MMA requires no more protective equipment than the grown-up, professional version of the sport: just shorts and a light pair of gloves without fingertips.
That at least was the version on display when photographer Sebastian Montalvo ventured to kids' MMA tournaments in Sacramento and San Bernardino, California, where he saw such competitors as Mason "The Beast" Bramlette, age 7, and battle it out in front of screaming crowds of enthusiastic parents.
In fact, Montalvo told CNN, “The Beast” started crying during a losing match, the referee offered to let him stop fighting, but the boy’s father told him to keep going.
Parents are the driving force behind children’s MMA, the photojournalist said.
“They're mega-competitive,” said Montalvo.
However, not all MMA programs for kids take the sport as far as the Adrenaline Combat Sports and Fitness-sponsored tournament pushed it.
At Spartan Fitness in Hoover, Alabama, children are taught the techniques of MMA, but do not engage in actual combat.
“It's an outstanding way for them to get in shape,” said MMA teacher Chris Connelly. “Childhood obesity now is a big issue [this can] get them on the right path conducive to fitness.”
At Fight Hard MMA in St. Louis, Missouri, child competitors wear head gear and, according to instructor Kenny Nowling, so not engage in “full-on mixed martial arts.”
But according to Montalvo, such half-measures may not be good enough for MMA parents.
"A lot of these MMA parents want their kids to go pro someday," Montalvo said. "They want them to earn million-dollar paychecks."
SOURCES: CNN, KMOV-TV