It’s like entering another world. Floor mats, punching bags, weights, speed-bags, striking dummies and Ultimate Fighting Championship posters line the walls. A full-size fight ring fills one corner in the former warehouse. The strong smell of sweat and Clorox is overwhelming as 10-12 chiseled fighters punch, kick, train or pound on every piece of equipment in sight, or on each other. And that is just the ground level. Upstairs, an entire floor of mats is dedicated to sparring, wrestling, grappling and the training classes given almost every night of the week.
This is home for Cody Houston. Houston is the head instructor at West Coast Fight Club, a mixed martial arts (MMA) gym on Franklin Street in Bellingham, that teaches Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Muay Thai kickboxing, Judo, wrestling and boxing. The WCFC puts on several events a year, made up of various martial arts fights in MMA through Fight Night Entertainment, a Washington-based non profit organization focused on promoting MMA events.
Hosting MMA classes, sponsoring an amateur MMA team and providing a facility for exercise and training, the WCFC promotes itself as a place where anyone from beginners to professional fighters can train, learn and enjoy the sport of mixed martial arts.
"One thing we have based this gym on since day one is a family and team environment," Houston says. "This type of training really develops strong bonds -- everybody here is literally family."
Not what you might expect to hear from a veteran of the sport of hand-to-hand combat, in which the goal is to either knock the opponent out, choke them unconscious or submit them by tap-out. But Houston says at its core, MMA is a sport that breeds humility.
"There is always someone out there who is bigger and badder than you," Houston says. "I've seen guys who have never even spoken to each other, then fought, and now they've been friends for years."
Houston says seeing the difference in society’s acceptance of MMA since he began training 10 years ago has been astounding. To watch UFC videos, he had to rent them from a porn shop because they were considered indecent.
"People just called it a 'blood sport,'" Houston says. "But that was simply because they didn't understand what we do."
Houston says sometimes he worries that MMA’s increase in mainstream popularity could contribute to the sport losing its heart. Television shows such as The Ultimate Fighter can misrepresent what MMA fighters do.
"We don't bring in the egotistical fighter,” Houston says. “We do our training in here, so there is no reason to go out and prove anything on the street."
Exemplifying the progression of MMA is WCFC boxing coach and fighter
Stephanie Eggink. Eggink, 21, was formerly on the U.S. Olympic National Team and a professional boxer. In 2007, at just 18, she was named number one in the nation in amateur boxing and competed for the US in the Pan American Games in Brazil. In January, Eggink won her first professional boxing match at the Silver Reef Casino.
But Eggink traded it all for MMA. She retired from professional boxing, and now focuses all her training on mixed martial arts. Eggink says she experienced too many politics in boxing and too much arrogance.
"MMA is a much more humble than boxing," Eggink says. "In boxing it takes just your hands, in MMA it takes your entire body. You have to give it all."
Eggink says one of her biggest challenges in MMA is overcoming the stereotypes of women's sports.
She says comments always surface regarding looks, or the sarcastic realization, "Oh, she can actually fight."
"I want to prove that girls can be just as badass as guys," Eggink says. "We definitely have to work harder to get respect."
And Eggink works hard. A typical workout at WCFC starts with stretching, warm ups and jump rope circuits. It then transitions into technique drills, perfecting punching form and body position. Punching mitt drills follow, in which fighters partner up and use a flat-surfaced glove to practice combination punching. Next, the fighters work on grappling and wrestling, in which fighters partner up and practice escapes, take-downs, and submission and wrestling maneuvers, all while striking each other in sparring style at an energy level of what Houston calls '75 percent.'
A cardio work out and more stretching finishes the day for most of the fighters in the studio, but Eggink isn't finished. Houston trains Eggink and WCFC fighter and wrestling coach Harrison Bevens a little extra as semi-professional sponsored team members.
Several circuits of roundhouse leg kicks, rope climbing, medicine ball catching and throwing and more grappling leave Eggink and Bevens doubled over or lying on the floor, but not for long.
Houston, Eggink and Bevens spend most of their daily lives at WCFC, and wouldn't have it any other way.
"I don't do much else besides work and come here," Bevens says.
"I like knowing that my teammates are focused on getting me ready," Bevens says. "And when someone else is [preparing], I am focused on them."
And it takes focus to win a fight, says WCFC fighter and Bellingham resident Jimmy Sorrentino.
Sorrentino, fighting at 135 pounds, received the nickname ‘Mighty Mouse’ from the WCFC fighters, not because of the tights- and cape-sporting rodent tattooed on his forearm, but because in his first amateur bout he defeated an opponent who outweighed him by 80 pounds.
“When I get in the ring, I get tunnel vision,” Sorrentino says. “You don’t hear the crowd or anything else but your coaches in your corner.”
Sorrentino says there is nothing like getting your hand raised at the end of a fight, but that’s not what keeps him coming back to WCFC.
“I like to test myself through fights, but I don’t have any plans to be professional,” Sorrentino says. “I love coming here because of the community.”
The sounds of fists and feet meeting bags, mats and bodies echoing off the walls of the WCFC will continue for a long time Houston says, as the WCFC continues to train dozens of beginners, hobbyists and professional fighters. Houston says the future of the gym and of the MMA sport is bright.
For now the fighters at WCFC will continue to sweat and bleed in training and working towards building up their amateur records. Every punch or kick thrown at the WCFC is step toward reaching their dreams in the world of professional MMA fighting, or a chance to knock someone out and make a new friend.