By Keith Ritchie
Driving down Big Hill Avenue, just about anyone can miss it. An endless stream of cars start and stop, tapping brakes as they make their way to the bypass, oblivious to the building they’re driving past.
Nestled beside a used car lot is a little-known Richmond gym: one that most people know nothing about.
This gym is the AFS (Analytical Fighting Systems) Academy and it specializes in the mixed martial arts (MMA).
MMA has skyrocketed in popularity throughout the decade with the huge success of Ultimate Fighting Championship, or UFC.
For those who don’t know, UFC is the NFL of MMA.
If anyone doubts the surging fan base for the sport, simply head out to any Buffalo Wild Wings or Hooters on the night of a big fight, and good luck finding a parking space.
The sport’s popularity doesn’t end with a diehard fan base.
There’s a whole new generation getting into the sport as participants, including some of Eastern’s toughest students.
Scott Elliott, AFS Academy owner, would love to see the trend continue.
Elliott said the gym, which opened in 1994, now has about 150 members. He said Eastern students make up somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of his members.
Elliott has taught classes on campus for years and caters to the college crowd with $29 programs.
“It fluctuates from night to night, but I expect about 10 to 20 people per class,” he said.
Inside the AFS Academy, one wall is dedicated to the long list of accolades Elliott received throughout his career as a mixed martial artist. It serves as a reminder of Elliott’s prestige in the MMA community – one he has helped establish in Richmond.
As Elliott made his way through his gym before leading a class, he exhaled.
“Lots to do; never ends,” he said under his breath.
Elliott’s life has been an example of that expression.
Elliott said his interest in MMA goes back to his childhood, in northern Indiana.
“In grade school, they included wrestling as a part of class,” Elliott said. “The passion constantly evolves from the beginning. It gets in your blood and you love it.”
By 12, Elliott said he began learning his first style of martial arts, Wing Chun Kung Fu.
This style was made popular by martial arts legend Bruce Lee.
Dana White, the president of UFC, has called Lee the father of Ultimate Fighting.
Elliott said his passion has given him opportunities to train with some of the best in the sport, including Dan Inosanto – widely regarded as the late Lee’s best friend and No. 1 student.
Elliott said he and Inosanto traveled the country together, and even collaborated in Richmond from time to time.
Erik Paulson, who has coached UFC stars such as Brock Lesnar and Ken Shamrock, also enjoys working with Elliott and visits the academy a few times a year.
Elliott still travels around the country to refine his skills.
“There is no ceiling with MMA,” Elliott said. “Like anything, the more you put into it, the more you get from it.”
Elliott’s years of experience with some of the biggest names in MMA draw students to the academy.
Tyler Voth, a junior Eastern student, frequents Elliott’s academy.
He said he also has had a life-long interest in MMA and began learning jujitsu at age 8.
In the sixth grade, Voth began boxing.
Voth wrestled in college for the University of Indianapolis and Campbellsville.
“My passion wasn’t wrestling,” Voth said. “To be honest with you, I just did it to help my fighting.”
He also said MMA is different from school sports.
“There is much more freedom. No one is telling you when to practice, you just do it.”
Voth treats his MMA passion like many student-athletes treat scholarship sports.
“I go to classes in the morning,” he said. “I lift weights on campus in the afternoon and train at the academy at night throughout the week. It’s difficult, but it’s rewarding and fun.”
Voth said the academy is great for newcomers to the sport as well.
“Scott Elliott is great at working with people with all different skill levels. “It’s difficult, but (that’s true) whether you have all kinds of experience or none at all.”
Voth said he hopes his training will allow him to fight professionally some day.
So does Jason Layne, a senior Eastern student and four-year member of the academy.
“I had the opportunity to play football at Eastern,” Layne said. “I walked on, but in less than a week I quit to focus on MMA.”
Layne admitted he is addicted to the sport.
“I absolutely love it,” he said. “If I’m not at the academy doing it, I’m home watching it.”
Lately, Layne has had to watch more than he’d like after suffering a torn ACL and meniscus. He said he expects to be out of action for six months.
“I just can’t wait until I can do it again,” Layne said. “It’s hard to watch from the side. I hope to be back in the ring for competition in April.”
Layne said he is blessed to have Elliott as a mentor.
“It has been such a great opportunity to train with Elliott,” Layne said. “It’s a waste to get into the sport without having him in your life. I’ve learned a lot from him, things that will stick with me for my entire life.”
Elliott’s message seems to go beyond the ring, partly because of his own life’s trials.
In 2006, Elliott was diagnosed with a deadly form of cancer.
“The doctors told me I had a 50 percent chance to live,” Elliott said.
Elliott underwent treatment for an entire year in 2007, but still managed to train young fighters.
“I went through chemotherapy, injections in the stomach and still went to the academy,” Elliott said. “It was a really hard time.”
As of now, Elliott is cancer-free.
“The doctor told me I was like Superman to be doing this well,” Elliott said. “I think my lifestyle helped me deal with the cancer.”
Elliott no longer competes in the ring, but looks at his life with meaning.
“I’m 40 years old,” Elliott said. “My main focus is to coach and help others. I love every minute of it.”
Eastern is rewarding Elliott’s ability to teach young athletes. Beginning next semester, Eastern will offer an introductory course called “Mixed Martial Arts,” taught by Professor Scott “Superman” Elliott.