Coach Leon Aragon stands outside the cage as fighters Angel Jones and Katie McCord spar

Small Town Gym with Big Show Dreams

The Gym

Mixed martial arts, as plain of a description as the building it’s written on. Driving by you would never imagine the intensity and hard work going on inside this small plain colored building. This Amarillo, TX gym is known as The MAAC, Martial Arts and Athletic Center, and its coaching staff has over 75 years of mixed martial arts experience. You’ll see boxing, wrestling, jiu jitsu and even the more traditional martial arts like sambo, haikido and tae kwon do. The gym has been open for over 30 years and has been a staple in the Texas panhandle fighting scene.

The Coaches

At the helm of the coaching staff you have Master Mike Lister, a seventh degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. His assistant coaches are Leon Aragon (boxing), Gabe Vasquez, and Daniel Klaehn (wrestling). While they might not be household names they have trained fighters for years that have walked the fine line between regional success and national recognition. Andy Anderson a product of Master Lister fought for the UFC back in its infancy at UFC 5. More recently Cody Pfister made it on to the 15th season of The Ultimate Fighter but lost his fight to get into the house to Vince Pichel. The knockout skills and amazing stand up game of UFC and Strikeforce vet Paul Buentello can be attributed to the coaching and training he received from Leon Aragon.

Just a few years ago Leon and Mike had their own gyms and some even thought of them as rivals. Competing in a lot of the same regional shows, and constantly seeing their fighters leave one gym for the other. But as the sport evolved it became evident that the way of the predominantly stand up fighter was fleeting. Then Leon’s gym Prime Performance came under some hard times and his cross town rival welcomed him with open arms, starting the partnership they have today developing fighters with crisp stand up as well as solid ground game.

These men have all been to the big show and at one point the gym was home to nothing but professional fighters that were competing around the nation. But these days Lister and his team dedicate themselves to a new generation of fighters and have submerged themselves in the world of amateur fighting. Coach Leon has found a renewed passion for the sport with his new team “I can say that I’ve had a world champion, I can say that I’ve been to the UFC, I always said that if I made it there I’ve lived my dream, but now that I’ve got all these new guys and girls, I want to go back.” So they dedicate themselves to building fighters that do it for the love of the sport and not the money.

The Promotion

So with all these amateur fighters in the gym it was hard to find them fights that were less than five hours away only to have the fight fall through at the last moment, something that is all too common in the life of an amateur fighter. So Lister decided to do something about it and started his own amateur promotion, Ignite Fighting Championships. Ignite is a promotion that is centered on local talent and getting them ready for a successful pro career. He’s trying to make it easier for Amarillo and the entire Texas panhandle fighters to book fights and get some cage experience.

They have had six successful events with their seventh coming up on March 8th. Out of the 15 bout fight card The MAAC will have 7 of their fighters on display, I was invited to one of the last days of sparring for a preview of what I would see on fight night and what I saw was some talented fighters with promising futures.

The Fighters

In our conversation a few days prior Master Lister had said “we need guys in here training everyday even when they don’t have a fight, training because their teammates have a fight“ and I was able to see two perfect examples of that. Tanner Varela and Katie McCord are two MAAC fighters that are not on the March 8th card but were in the gym outworking the people who are fighting next week. Both recently removed from their own fights they went right back into the gym to continue improving and push their teammates.

According to the coaching staff one of their top talents at the gym is Michael MacArthur, a wrestler from Michigan who has trained at several notable gyms but didn’t have a developed striking game until he joined the MAAC. Watching the training session, while all the athletes were impressive, some stood out more than others. There was Anthony Ortiz whose high intensity and powerful kicks were hard to ignore. Or Sanaz Khamisi, a former ballet student who turned to martial arts about 4 years ago earning her black belt in tae kwon do under Master Lister and then transitioned into MMA. But it was the smallest of all the fighters that had the biggest presence in the gym.

Angel Jones; a small, scrappy, and foul-mouthed straw weight has the potential to be a star. Her eccentric personality and hardnosed approach to training is what set her apart from the pack. During the sparring session, one minute she floored a girl with a beautiful overhand right and the next she shows off her submission defense and ground game. All while mixing up her strikes with kicks, elbows, and spinning back fists.

The Road Ahead

Needless to say there was a lot of talent in this small gym in Amarillo TX, and that’s just one of the countless MMA gyms in the nation. It’s just one group of fighters working hard every single day not for the glory or money, but for the love of competing and the feeling of self fulfillment that comes with getting your hand raised in the end. While they aren’t recognizable names at the moment and for some never will be, it won’t deter them from working hard every day and continuing that journey of self-improvement.

They might never make it to the big show or they could be the next big thing. But till then they’ll keep showing up and leave it all on the mat. They’ll continue to shed blood, sweat, and tears with only the promise of showing off what they have worked so hard for, because for an amateur fighter that’s the ultimate goal. To prove to people that they are ready for when the big show comes calling. Master Lister summed up his fighters perfectly when he said “Martial artists train for life, fighters train for a fight, and we’re martial artists here.”


Be sure to follow our new Twitter page @cagepagesfs as well as myself @jlorenty and good luck to all the MAAC fighters competing next week. 

Tags: Amateur Ignite Fighting Championships MMA The MAAC

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