Grand Falls-Windsor -
Many a sports purists views mixed martial arts with skepticism. Where, they ask, is the athletic merit in watching two men pounding each other into submission inside a caged ring?
But the reality is MMA sells, and its appeal has created more than just legion of Brock Lesnar and George St. Pierre fans.
"In a roundabout way, MMA has actually heightened (interest in) wrestling," says Gyles Gillis.
Gillis is coach of the Labrador wrestling team - whose members all hail from Sheshatshiu, outside Happy Valley-Goose Bay - at this week's Newfoundland and Labrador Winter Games in Grand Falls-Windsor.
"Most people in MMA, the champions even, all have wrestling background or do wrestling as part of their training," said Gillis.
When the Labrador wrestlers hit the mat to train with Gillis and assistant Kyle Parsons, it was evident the boys haven't missed many Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views.
"They had some of the moves already," explained Gillis, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police member and wrestler for more than 20 years.
"In MMA, when someone goes for the legs, the first thing a guy will do to defend himself is sprawl. A lot of them have that instinct naturally."
But with the good, also came the bad.
"We saw a lot of choke holds and things we had to correct and teach them that it's a totally different sport," said Gillis
Parsons and Gillis' program only started in September, but they already have two dozen participants who have grasped the fundamentals - balance, positioning and the basic moves - and they're all "gifted throwers."
To help give them a better understanding of some of the finer points, Gillis stuck to what the boys knew - hockey.
"For example, when we circle on the mat, I relate that to lateral movement in hockey. If you're going towards a guy, you're going to move laterally left or right to try to get around."
Instruction isn't always easy. English is often the third language in Sheshatshiu. French comes second,while Innu-aimun is the most commonly spoken.
Helping with any needed translation is former nationally ranked wrestler Raymond Pashtasi.
"He brings a lot to it and inspires the kids as well," says Gillis, who notes that the history of wrestling among Canada's aboriginal cultures is quite rich.
"It's been passed down through my family," says 17-year-old Rodney Osmond. "My father, Clarence, and my uncles Fred and Simon were wrestlers.
"We've been growing up around wrestling."
The wrestlers are not without their developmental shortcomings.
"Where they need to improve is in developing a game plan, like any sport. You have to know your competitors, know what their strengths and weaknesses are, and that comes with experience," said Gillis.
The only competitors they've come up against are each other, making the Games their first real tournament.
"It's a big one," says Gillis. "It's going to be great for them, a real eye-opener and if we could record this and compare it to next time, you'll see a huge improvement."
Wrestler Matthew Nuna, 17, has a bolder prediction.
"Some of (the Labradorian's opponents) are very experienced. They've been doing this for years now, where this is our first tournament. Imagine us in a couple of years," he said, "We're going to be going to nationals or something."
The six-member team won its dual meet against Mount Pearl/South Wednesday morning. And while half the matches were won by default - the MP/S team only fielded three wrestlers to Labrador's six - there was no quit in the wrestlers who lost outright.
"He was ripped," Nunasaid of his first opponent, Sean Power, who bested him by a single point. "I thought he was going to throw me around, but he didn't.
"They look tough but they're not so tough when you grab them."
What else should be noted is that the six Labrador boys will often compete in weight classes one or two higher than those in which they would normally be slotted.
"To fill the classes, we have guys who are 44 kilos wrestling 48, guys at 50 kilos wrestling 56,' Gillis explains.
"That's a big weight difference and every kilo counts."
But not as much as desire.
"When I get on the mat, I never want to get off. I'm going to stay at this until I'm 60, 70, until I'm too old," says Nuna.