Lake Norman Magazine

Tough enough

Josh Vernon and Matt Sredzinski at The Rock MMA & Fitness Center in Huntersville.
Josh Vernon and Matt Sredzinski at The Rock MMA & Fitness Center in Huntersville.

It’s Friday afternoon and John Vernon is doing what many of us wish we had the discipline and dedication to do: he’s working out at the gym on his lunch break. Vernon played football at Catawba College and since graduating in 2005 he’s continued his commitment to physical fitness and training. “When you’ve been playing contact sports your whole life, you still have that competitive edge that needs to be filled,” he says. “Going to the gym and lifting weights just wasn’t enough.” Looking for something more, Vernon started training in martial arts around 2006. He wasn’t trying to master the craft, but it was a great way for him to keep in shape. Then a few years ago, mixed martial arts, commonly known as MMA, began to take off in North Carolina. He found The Rock MMA & Fitness Center in Huntersville about two years ago, and began training there. A year later, Vernon was competing in his first MMA fight at a biannual event known as The Rock at the Dock, held at Queens Landing on Lake Norman. “Deciding to fight and actually doing it are two different things,” says Vernon, 30. “But once I did it that one time, I kind of fell in love with it.” Showing him the ropes—or in this case the cage—is Matt Sredzinski, owner of The Rock MMA & Fitness Center and organizer of the fight series at Queens Landing. The Rock at the Dock 5 is scheduled for May 12 (see sidebar). Such events, along with the growing number of gyms, illustrate the popularity of MMA in the Lake Norman area. Sredzinski says his memberships have tripled since 2010, ranging from kids to senior citizens, and at least 30 percent of them are women. “People are seeing the kind of conditioning that it takes to be an MMA fighter,” he says. “Fighting isn’t for everybody, but they want that level of conditioning. So the cross-training here is just as popular if not more popular than the MMA. You can come here for two years and never do the same workout twice. It makes it fun and exciting.”

‘There are no timeouts in the cage’ Sredzinski started training in martial arts when he was three years old, growing up in a suburb outside of Detroit, Michigan. While in college during the late-2000s, he began to notice the growing popularity of MMA, thanks largely to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the largest mixed martial arts promotion company in the world, where most of the top fighters in the sport compete. Sredzinski was teaching kickboxing at the time, and started a small fight team, traveling to surrounding states to fight on the weekend. He eventually opened a gym, and began putting on caged MMA fights. When a friend moved to the Lake Norman area to open a motorcycle and Jet Ski dealership, Sredzinski accepted an invite to come visit, and after falling in love with the warm, Southern climate, decided to stay. He opened The Rock MMA & Fitness Center in Huntersville in February 2010, filling the space with weightlifting machines and equipment, punching and kickboxing bags, treadmills, and, most notably, a cage. “This place was designed strictly for mixed martial arts and cross-training. They coincide with each other,” Sredzinski says. While training at an MMA gym is one thing, getting punched in the face or kicked in the head is something else. But that aspect isn’t what Vernon finds most challenging. “The biggest difference is the cardio and the physical conditioning that has to be put into MMA,” he says. “There are no timeouts in the cage. You have to be prepared to go the full three or five minutes without stopping. Your body gets to a point when you can’t even move because you’re so tired.”

MMA expanding Ranard Brown moved to Cornelius in 2001, and shortly thereafter joined the Team R.O.C. training team in Harrisburg. He began training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu following the teachings of internationally renowned and legendary jiu-jitsu fighter and trainer Royce Gracie. In 2003, the Royce Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Network of Charlotte was formed in Harrisburg as an affiliate of Team R.O.C. Brown commuted to Harrisburg for several years where he trained and taught classes at the school. Then Gracie convinced him to open the Gracie Jiu Jitsu LKN Academy in Mooresville in 2010. “In Mooresville it’s a different demographic,” Brown says. “We get a lot of business professionals who love the UFC. They send their kids, so we also get a lot of the high school kids coming in to learn Gracie jiu jitsu.” Due to increasing interest, Brown says he’s about to start an MMA program at the Mooresville school. It’ll focus mostly on the training and conditioning of the sport, not on fighting like the Harrisburg school, where they’ve produced two UFC fighters: Rodney Wallace and Jordan Rinaldi. Another popular Lake Norman gym is Crossface MMA in Cornelius, where coach Steve Elliot and his instructors teach a variety of martial arts, such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Muai Thai. Chris Smith started training at Crossface MMA about two and a half years ago. He fought his first two MMA fights out of that gym. He then moved on to training at Team R.O.C. in Harrisburg, which is more focused on training competitive fighters. So far in his career he’s amassed a 7-7 record. He’s contemplating turning pro, but says if he does he’ll still maintain his job as a software developer. “Fighting is not something that’s ever going to replace my full-time job,” says Smith, 26. “It’s more of like a full-time hobby. But I train like it is my full-time job.” Like Vernon, Smith was an athlete in high school and college, competing in football and wrestling. He says in MMA he has the support of his wife and parents, “but I get a lot of ‘Okay, you got this. Now when are you going to stop,’ ” he says with a laugh. Smith doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon and he doesn’t think the local MMA momentum will either. “I definitely don’t think it’s a fad,” Smith says. “An MMA workout is the single best way for someone to lose weight and get in shape. In that aspect, it’s definitely here to stay.”

The Rock at the Dock 5Some 2,000 fans are expected to show up at this mixed martial arts competition, which features live cage fights, rock bands, strong man demonstrations and more. And this is an outside, summer event, so swimsuit attire is allowed. “It’s become not just a caged fight but an actual Lake Norman event,” says Matt Sredzinski, organizer of the event. “Instead of just having guys in a cage kicking and punching, we basically turn it into a party.” When: May 12Where: Queens Landing, 1459 River Hwy., MooresvilleDetails and tickets: