Even though there are rules, as well as safety standards and doctors at the ringside, the sport par excellence that fully represents the spirit of 'daring' is Mixed Martial Arts: it means facing danger and your fears, physically clashing with your opponent and then hugging each other at the end of the match. This is the MMA. For the 20th issue of DARE CLAN we have the honour to speak with Paolo Anastasi, world and European bronze medallist of MMA among other awards, fighter and now MMA coach.
Usually it is difficult to witness acts of violence, especially when people are involved. However, when everything is under control and done safely, the act of two people hitting each other with their bare hands until they lose consciousness is called a sport. This is the MMA (acronym that stands for Mixed Martial Arts), the most complete combat sport of all, - It is a mix of techniques, blows, rules and fighters of all the existing martial arts and combat sports. So in MMA people use grappling techniques (bringing to the ground, strangulation, joint levers) as they do in Jiu-Jitsu or in Wrestling, as well as striking techniques (punches, kicks, elbows, knees) as they do in boxing, kickboxing, and many others. In addition to techniques and blows, as said before, we also see the rules of various martial arts merge as well, making MMA the only fighting sport where pretty much everything is allowed (when this sport was born in Brazil it was known as "Vale Tudo": "everything is allowed"). In Mixed Martial Arts you can fight both standing and on the ground, you are allowed to hit and fight back and you can use the techniques and blows of all the existing martial arts and combat sports. Needless to say, it is all done with safety.
Tell us something about yourself (you, your profession, your gym and your students)
I'm Paolo Anastasi and I'm part of the 'Icore MMA' team, which I named after the Icore: in Greek mythology, it is the mineral in the blood of the gods. My typical day is divided in two parts: in the morning I work at the office – I am an accountant for the family business; in the afternoon I teach individual classes to my students everyday, from Monday to Friday. I have a gym and recently I formed my team, actually just one week before the lockdown – as you can imagine the timing was bad, because almost all the commercial activities were blocked, so it was not possible to start the business, advertise, etc... On the other hand, however, here in Italy MMA are getting better and better – It's exploding as a sport. I have many students and many of them are fighting for the FIGMMA (Italian federation recognized for MMA) in different categories depending on their level of experience. I have very devoted students who I have been training for a very long time, but also students who have just started.
How did you get into MMA? How has your journey evolved?
This is a strange story. When I was in high school I played soccer and MMA was not very well known. One day an old friend of mine showed me a video about MMA and I was immediately attracted to it, but nothing more than that. One day, however, in the affiliated gym where we did athletic training with the team, I noticed a flyer announcing a new MMA course. I was very curious, so I went to the MMA class the only day off from training. That was the moment when my love for MMA started; I began to devote more and more time to it until I stopped playing soccer. My passion was so great that I went from dedicating five days to soccer and one to MMA to devoting every single day of the week only to MMA.
What are the greatest satisfactions you had in your career?
I have had a lot of satisfactions in my career as a fighter and as a coach, and I work hard every day to get new ones. The biggest satisfaction, the one I am most proud of, was fighting for the Italian national MMA team. With the Italian flag I won 3 bronze medals: a World bronze in Las Vegas, a European bronze in Birmingham and in Prague. In addition to the medals with the national team, in 2018 I achieved the black belt rank of the MMA. Truth be told, but there is some controversy about this, because there are those who see it as a valid recognition of a career, and those who claim that there are no black belts in the MMA. For me to reach the black belt rank was a huge accomplishment, I was very pleased to receive such recognition.
Among all sports, Mixed Martial Arts seems to be one of the most particular, because of its rules and the mixed opinions people have about it. From your point of view, why is that? And what do you like mostly about MMA? And finally, what is your favourite discipline?
That's right. In MMA there are very specific rules, and this sport is anything but dogs sent into a cage to tear each other to pieces, as you might think. No, it's not like that. There are rules, and every fighter knows and accepts what he's facing when he enters the ring. Every fighter knows how to behave, and before each match, the opponent is carefully studied, as well as the match, the rules and how to behave. Unfortunately, it's a shame to see people who don't know what it means to prepare a match or even fight. You can understand this only if you see the work you do in the gym. I like this sport because you never stop learning, there are always new things to discover as soon as you step out of your usual environment. I enjoy learning new things, especially whenI’m on the team with your mates. And in addition to that, as I said before, MMA teaches respect, discipline, and how to live in this world. It gives confidence to those who need it to face obstacles. On the other hand, this sport teaches arrogant people to know and respect the rules, but also to respect the teachers, the teammates, and the opponent. This does not apply only to the gym:it also teaches that when you are outside the gym you have to show respect for the people you interact with in everyday life, because then you face inevitable consequences, both inside and outside the gym. This, for me, makes MMA a reason to live. About my favourite discipline, I must say that that once you focus on one combat sport you can't practice the others as well. However, during my career I became passionate about taekwondo, a sport I have been practicing for 3 years, and No-Gi grappling.
For those who don’t know this world, how would you describe MMA's culture? Which dynamics come into play?
As I was saying before, it's not very common in a sport to see people kicking and punching each other in the face and then hugging each other the next second. There is a lot more to what happens on the ring. MMA is an individual sport, but each fighter has a team behind him/her. It's an amazing feeling entering the cage alone but knowing you are never really alone, because in the gym there are your teammates, the ones you spent blood and sweat with, the ones you sparred with, the ones that helped you improving your technique and yourself under the keen eye of a professional master. We have only scratched the surface of all the dynamics that come into play, but I do believe the team is the basic component that makes it all work: without a team you get nowhere.
MMA is a hard but beautiful sport. In MMA you learn any sort of lesson: it teaches self-discipline and respect, to be in the world, to be more confident and to fight for your goal with all your strenght, not to mention the physical and health benefits, which are obviously a very important side effect of the sport.
Italy boasts top-level athletes in many disciplines, famous all around the world. In your opinion, how does Italy rank in terms of athletic preparation? Is it actually true that you have to train in foreign gyms if you want to take your skills to the next level?
This is a real hot topic. Speaking of MMA, we are making great strides thanks to some amazing Italian teams. There is still some way to go but our we improve constantly and our training level is no way inferior to foreign gym's. We might still have to round off some minor issues , but we are going ahead in leaps and bounds, and sooner or later we'll be on the same level of all the other countries, it's just a matter of time. If you want my opinion, I have to admit that foreign countries in general and the U.S. in particular are still one step ahead.
How do you feel the days before a match?
The days leading up to a match I am relatively calm. Since I have to be completely focused on getting prepared to do my best, I concentrate on my athletic and technical preparation, on studying the match, and on my rigid food plan so I there's no time to get anxious. I start getting nervous while walking towards the arena, and by the time the organizers enter the locker room to call me because it's my turn to go, my stomach is upside down. A rush of adrenaline mixed with a feeling of fear flows through my veins, it is an incredible sensation and it makes me feel alive more than ever.
In your career you have faced a lot of matches, in just as many different contexts. But on a general level, how does it feel like to be on the bench while your pupil is in the middle of a match? What sort of emotions do you experience in that moment?
As I said before, the adrenaline rush you get before a match is something crazy, and it usually becomes the one thing a fighter lives for. Once you get that feeling, you can never get enough. But if there's something that's even harder than entering the ring, it's standing in the corner of the ring for your pupil. I say this because a coach, seeing his pupil in the ring, would always like to fight in his place. I always tell this to my boys: that to be outside, to be in the corner, to watch the pupils' match without being able to actually do anything to help them is way worse than fighting in first person. Coaching is a very different experience, but just as exciting and beyond words.
From your many years of experience, do you think the MMA world has changed in the last few years? Is it getting more attention than in the past?
Yes, definitely. Everything has changed very much. At the beginning, MMA was born to show which fighting sport was the one that prevailed over the others, but now it is a sport in its own right. Whereas before an MMA fighter used to get a specific MUwaitay, Jiu-Jitsu and Boxing training, now they only train in MMA. Truth be told, at some point the gyms will start to do a specific training for each of the various disciplines, but not as much as they used to. Now there are gyms dedicated exclusively to MMA, because this sport has very small but significant differences with other disciplines, such as the 'guard' which is different from the 'guard' of boxing. So yes, MMA has changed a lot in a short time, and I assure you it will change again in the future. It's a young sport that is evolving quickly and its audience is growing more and more.
How is the MMA world behaving in the light of the current health crisis?
It was a very hard time, because like other sports we were forced to stop our activity completely. And since MMA is a contact sport, at the end of quarantine we were only allowed to practice athletic preparation while respecting social distancing and other safety measures. The future guidelines to follow are still unclear, but the whole world of combat sports hopes to start again in September, even stronger than before .
Our magazine is called DARE CLAN, which literally means 'the clan of those who dare'. This is a question we often include in our interviews: how exaclty do you dare when you do MMA?
In MMA, you put yourself on the line. It's a tough but beautiful sport. You put yourself on the line because it's an individual sport, it literally makes you face your fears because it's scary to get punched in the face. It is definitely a hard sport, but it helps you to defeat your demons. If in MMA you dare, if you have the guts to do MMA. enter the 'cage' and fight, then you'll get positive consequences in your everyday life. This sport gives an extra boost to those who practice it to face the daily challenges in their lives.
Follow Paolo Anastasi and his MMA journey on his instagram.