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Ultimate Fighting Championship enters the group fitness ring

With the opening of its first Manhattan gym and dozens more across the country, UFC hopes to bring Mixed Martial Arts to the masses—and more women.
The group fitness area at UFC Gym in New York City’s Financial District.


During a recent Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) class at the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s new gym in New York City’s Financial District, I kicked and punched a 150-pound-bag to the beat of “Get Lucky” along with Lululemon-clad women in their 20s, young finance dudes, and fighters in training.

It’s not exactly the image people are used to when it comes to UFC, but it’s a new face the brand is presenting: group fitness for the masses based on the tough conditioning drills used to prep for matches. “We take what the pro fighters and pro athletes do and tailor it to the general public,” says Dominick Rizzo, co-owner of the John St. Gym with Jason Losco.

The Sport and its History

If you’re not familiar with MMA, the sport combines fighting styles like boxing and Muay Thai. UFC is its main organization—like the NFL to football.

When UFC first launched in the early 90s, there were very few rules in MMA fights (fighters could pull hair and kick opponents who were already on the ground, for example), which led to its reputation for being bloody and brutal, and to its being banned in many states. Since then, the sport has adopted a slew of rules and regulations that make fights more akin to boxing matches, and its popularity has skyrocketed. It added a women’s division earlier this year. New York is now the only state in the US in which professional fights are illegal.

The Gyms

The Financial District gym opened in April as New York City’s first, and they plan to open at least five more in Manhattan within the next two years. Across the country, there are now close to 100 locations. The company purchased L.A. Boxing at the end of last year, and is gradually converting its locations into UFC Gyms.

The John Street UFC gym’s cardio and free weights area.

And these are not gritty like the Hillary Swank Million Dollar Baby gym. The John Street gym is spacious and full of clean design features. While there’s a boxing ring and a floor space for fights, the central space is designed for group fitness classes, with 36 bags hanging in neat rows. There are also cardio and weight machines, jump ropes, and free weights. And—surprise!—the women’s locker room has marble walls and showers.

Classes include MMA, boxing, kickboxing, and Muay Thai, and all are taught by professional or amateur athletes with rocking playlists. The MMA class I took had me sweating within the first few minutes and was a seriously challenging workout, but it was also accessible to those who claimed newbie fitness status, and it was a ton of fun. Which is what the brand is going for, in hopes that the introduction to MMA via fitness (paired with endorphins) will change more people’s minds about the sport.

The Goal

That goal is super important in New York, where the UFC is trying desperately to get the ban on the sport repealed, since legality would mean a rush of revenue for everyone involved.

Rizzo tells me about a woman who came in for classes at the UFC Gym in Norwalk, having never heard of MMA. “Six months after taking class, she’s talking about the latest UFC fight,” he says. “It’s really cool to see the change like that.”

Of course, the change group fitness lovers care most about will be the one in their body. But it seems like they’ve got that covered, too. —Lisa Elaine Held

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