Level Ground Mixed Martial Arts – Athletic Program

Level Ground’s Athletic Program distinguishes itself in multiple ways. First and foremost, we are the only program in the city that leverages Mixed Martial Arts as a tool for positive youth development. Mixed Martial Arts has quickly become one of the most popular sports to watch in the United States, rendering it into an opportunity to serve as a hook to engage youth. However, we believe it is essential to facilitate training in MMA in such a way that emphasizes key values described above, as well as intentionally building a safe and supportive environment.

Our instructors maintain combined skill sets as highly trained and credentialed instructors, as well as experienced and passionate youth workers. For example, Michael Rodriguez serves as our Program Manager for Athletic Programs and Community Outreach. Born and raised in Dorchester, Mike started training in an Uphams Corner-based community gym at the age of 16. Mike credits martial arts for giving him direction, motivation, purpose, and drive both on and off the mat. Over the next years, Mike would become an avid competitor, eventually competing in the world?s most prestigious MMA promotion, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). After 10 years of active competition, Mike started teaching martial arts at Level Ground in 2021, and after falling in love with the mission of the organization, joined our full-time staff in September 2022. In his role at Level Ground, Mike is responsible for developing Student Trainers as athletes and athletic instructors, providing guidance on pursuing a career in martial arts and the fitness industry, and serving as a personal development mentor. Additionally, Mike is responsible for growing our athletic programs, as well as developing and executing our Community Outreach strategy to serve youth at schools and other partner organizations through MMA with the goal of making the sport accessible to any young person in Boston that wants to train. Jacobo Apito is our Muay Thai coach. As a youth, Jacobo was a victim of bullying, and it was through martial arts where he was able to develop self-confidence, find a supportive community, and develop integrity and perseverance. It has become his mission to use martial arts as a tool for positive youth development and social change, and to impact the lives of youth so that they may experience the same transformative benefits martial arts provided to him. Now a professional fighter, Jacobo understands the struggles that young people face as it relates to bullying, low self-confidence, and self-doubt, and uses martial arts as a tool for empowerment so that our youth are emboldened to take full advantage of our Workforce Development programs, and pursue their future goals.

Our extraordinary support staff include these part-time instructors:
-Hudson Henriques, Jiu Jitsu coach
-Kyle Schofield, Program Manager and Kickboxing coach
-Emmett Bell-Sykes, Boxing coach
-Daniel Chan, Kickboxing coach
-Michaela Perry, Fierce Females coach

Collectively, our staff and youth use the sport to develop a diverse and inclusive culture that is reflective of our namesake: “Level Ground.” The name Level Ground was originally inspired by our hope to use martial arts as a platform to bring together people across race, age, and socio-economic status to form a supportive community and promote empathy and understanding.

We are proud that this dream has become a reality.

On any given day, students that attend athletic classes consist of children, teenagers, and community adults from all over Greater Boston. Our youngest member is a bubbly 5 year old African American boy who started attending at age 2, and our oldest member is a hilarious and kind 60 year-old Irish gentleman. Our community includes single mothers, undocumented teenagers and adults, youth involved in group homes, college students, PhD graduates, teachers, local business owners, and others who come together to progress towards their fitness and athletic goals, and support one another in the process. Through the level ground that martial arts provides, program participants form bonds based on trust and respect, which translates into friendship and mentorship off of the mat. The sheer diversity of the community has organically given way to a friendly and fun culture, which places community voice and input as equal to that of our leadership and board. Staff and instructors welcome participants and families to give input, ideas, feedback, and constructive criticism as it arises. This occurs naturally and intentionally, as we continuously ask for input both in conversation and through formal outlets of communication (ex. surveys in newsletters).

Collectively, this community and culture creates a level ground upon which everyone who engages with us experiences inclusion, equity, and a sense of belonging.

Finally, we are mindful of using athletic training intentionally to address the social inequities related to obesity in our community.

According to the Boston Public Health Commission, less than one-third (29%) of Boston public high school students engage in regular physical activity. 27.7% of Black and 27.9% of Latino public high school students, respectively, engage in regular physical activity in comparison to 38.2% of White students. Of these youth, female and immigrant youth are least likely to engage in physical activity. 23.6% of female public high school students engage in regular physical activity, while 35% of male public high school students engage in regular physical activity. Furthermore, just 20.5% of immigrant youth who have lived in the United States for 6 years or less regularly engage in physical activity.

Disproportionately more Latino and Black residents live in racially segregated neighborhoods that are targeted for distribution and promotion of unhealthy foods. 28% of Boston public high school students report consuming one or more sodas per day, and only 18% report consuming the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables (BPHC). According to the Boston Public Health Commission, residents living in these neighborhoods generally find it more difficult getting to supermarkets and affording healthier options, yet have easier access to cheap, unhealthy foods from an abundance of fast-food outlets and convenience stores.

These unfortunate physical activity and nutrition trends in minority neighborhoods are only exacerbated by stress inequities. Boston Public Health Commission points out that:

“Additional physical and emotional stresses of racism, such as living in racially segregated housing and neighborhoods, having lower paying jobs, attending poorly funded schools, receiving lower quality health care services…have additional negative effects on health, and on overweight in particular. Hormones from too much stress exacerbate obesity.”

The obesity rates in the neighborhoods that Level Ground serves are:
North Dorchester (where Level Ground is located): 33%,
South Dorchester: 32%
Roxbury: 31%
Mattapan: 40%

In some cases, rates of obesity are nearly or more than double that of predominantly White neighborhoods, including:
South Boston: 18%
South End: 17%
Back Bay: 8%
Fenway: 7%

It is important to note that this data was released pre-pandemic. With most youth remaining in a state of quarantine for nearly one year, we may assume that physical inactivity and obesity trends have worsened for Black and Latino youth.

In order to combat these trends, Level Ground goes beyond merely providing fitness and athletic programs to the community. In conjunction with our Student Trainer program, we invest in holistic, longitudinal education of youth within these vulnerable demographics so that they may understand how to properly construct safe/evidence-based physical training and nutrition curricula for themselves, and ultimately, for their peers, families, and community. This innovative approach also provides youth with a structured exploration of career opportunities that exist in the fitness and wellness fields, and positions them as leaders that directly address health disparities within their community.