EASTHAM — When Ernie Waterman retired in 2020 after a 30-year career as a construction engineer working on Defense Dept. contracts in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, he found life in Eastham a little too quiet. He started working out at home, punching a heavy bag, but says he didn’t really know what he was doing.
Last winter, he heard about a gym specializing in mixed martial arts. It was in Hyannis, but the idea appealed to Waterman. Unlike traditional martial arts schools with their colored belts, minimal contact, and emphasis on formalized movements known as katas, this place, says gym owner and trainer Jeff Wahtola, offers mixed martial arts classes that are “strictly fighting.”
“And that,” Waterman says, “is what I want to learn — the body mechanics, the movement, the challenges of boxing.”
Wahtola, a former mixed martial arts fighter who competed in the New England Championship as a bantamweight in 2009, and his partner, Natalie Bickel, a former competitive body builder, run Hyannis Mixed Martial Arts together. They are both trainers, now working with more than 50 fighters ranging in age from 9 to 85.
Wahtola started out learning Tae Kwon Do, a traditional Korean martial art that emphasizes kicking and punching, when he was young. As an adult, he got into kickboxing and found his way to John Burke’s South Yarmouth basement gym called the Dungeon.
At their gym, Bickel runs vigorous cardio and muscle toning workouts based on a circuit training model. There is a large LED timer on the wall, set at one-minute intervals. With 1990s electronic music in the background, the fighters move minute-by-minute from punching heavy bags to crunch and squat stations, into variations on jumping, and to quick striking sessions in pairs. Wahtola’s classes are also circuit-based but more fighting-centric, with exercises having a striking component — including even sit-ups, where two punches are delivered to the gloves of a partner at the apex of each repetition.
Both circuits are about constant high-energy motion. As the intervals increase to three minutes, Bickel and Wahtola urge everyone to “keep moving.” By the end of the session, everyone is gassed but smiling, the intensity of the workout balanced by a feeling of camaraderie.
Students’ reasons for wanting to learn to fight are as varied as their ages. For some, the goal is to lose weight and enhance cardio conditioning. For Waterman, it’s the workout, but also the fun of working to improve. It takes repetition, he says, to get from the basics of fighting to more serious sparring.
Agatha Buisson, 33, started training at Hyannis Mixed Martial Arts with a particular fight in mind. A resident of Yarmouth, Buisson was born in Korea and grew up in Paris, France. After college, she says, she started to “collect skills.”
Buisson has learned jazz and lyrical dance, worked as a cook, trained as a sharpshooter, and practiced fencing. But she had never boxed before signing up in January to participate in an event called “Belles of the Brawl.” Sponsored by Haymakers for Hope, a Boston-based nonprofit, the brawl in question will raise funds for cancer research.
When Buisson steps into the ring on Sept. 29, she will have been training for only nine months. The other fighters on the card will be competing for the first time, too. But all will be taking the challenge seriously. A sparring session in July will determine the matchups.
Buisson can’t know if she’ll come out a winner, but one thing she’s sure of: Wahtola, Bickel, Waterman, and many other fighters from the gym will be on hand in Boston to cheer her on.