Most nights during the week, Mike Lee is at church.
That’s not unusual, considering Lee is a Christian worship leader for one church, youth pastor at another and part of a praise band that has just put out its first CD.
What is unusual is what the Fort Wayne man does on many of those nights.
He teaches mixed martial arts – in other words, cage fighting.
Arguably one of the most violent sports around, MMA might seem an odd fit with Christianity. With its personal combat combination of striking, kickboxing, wrestling and jiu jitsu, MMA doesn’t seem to follow the teaching about turning the other cheek.
Then there are the sport’s deep roots in Eastern spiritual traditions and connections to sometimes-unsavory elements.
Nonetheless, Lee, 26, trains fighters in the gym of Liquid Church, formerly known as The Vineyard, through an arrangement with the evangelical and charismatic Protestant congregation on Indiana 27 in Fort Wayne. And, as a member of the church who leads worship services there, he doesn’t see what he does as antithetical to his deep Christian convictions.
Indeed, he brings them to every fight, every class and every person he trains, he says.
Ever since Lee and his two brothers started training friends in their dad’s garage years ago, “We saw (MMA training) as a way to love on people,” he says. “When you’re sweating together and, sometimes, bleeding together, we saw it as a way of getting a common bond.”
That bond can lead to lives changed by God and the development of “strong Christian manhood,” he says.
Today, Lee Brothers Submission Academy, comprising Mike and his older brothers, Randy and Brandon, trains about 30 fighters. Some fight professionally or in regional amateur tournaments such as those sponsored by the North American Grappling Association, also known as NAGA.
Other students pursue training for self-defense or for the physical strength and endurance promoted by the discipline. Several, Mike Lee says, came to the academy when other area MMA gyms closed during the last few years.
But, Lee says, he does things a little differently from many gyms.
He doesn’t ask for or take money from fighters he manages for professional fights. And prayer – not the Eastern-style meditation promoted by some in MMA – is a regular part of the program.
“Before we go out (for a fight), we pray, and our prayers are that God would let (the fighters) see clearly and compete cleanly,” Lee says.
He adds that he trains fighters to be competitive. But they don’t go out intending to physically destroy an opponent, he says – just find a way to make him submit, or tap out, in the sport’s parlance.
Prefight sessions are as much about calming competitors down as psyching them up, Lee says, because calm focus is so important in being effective in the cage.
Lee says he also tries to separate his fighters as much as possible from the sport’s competition atmosphere, which, in professional matches, typically includes scantily clad ring girls and lots of drinking by the spectators.
“When you go out to these (fight) shows, yes, there’s a whole lot of darkness involved,” Lee says. “Since 2009, the Indiana Gaming Commission has sanctioned the fights, and they’ve been elevated somewhat, but they’re still in (settings with) bars, and alcohol is still a big moneymaker. We try to keep our guys away from that.”
Lee’s fighters say he is not heavy-handed about religion. Bernard Cevic, 24, of Fort Wayne, who has trained elsewhere, says the difference is in how students are treated.
“It’s honest. They tell you what you need to work on and what you need to get better at,” he says. “And there’s lots of support. Sometimes, for me, I like it because it’s just people coming together to train. … It’s a brotherhood.”
Cody Groves, 21, from Fort Wayne, says the Lee brothers “taught me everything I know.” The fighter with more than five years of MMA training, a 1-1 professional record and gold medals from amateur competitions credits Brandon Lee with leading him to Christ.
“They’ve turned my life around astronomically,” Groves says of the brothers. “In high school, I was involved in not-so-Christian things in life. (Brandon) sat me down and we had a real heart-to-heart, and, soon after, we both came to Christ.”
Groves, who now attends Liquid Church, says the sport, like Christianity, encourages “a lot of discipline and obedience and giving yourself over to a higher power, a higher purpose.”
As for some of the less-savory elements, he says, “I want to turn the sport around.”
Lee, who says the trainees use equipment including a row of five heavy bags and a boxing ring at the gym, agrees.
“Like any ministry,” he says, “we try to be a light in the darkness.”