CAMP VERDE - Clifford Larson and his wife Pita Ogle opened up Champs Gym in Camp Verde in 2011, holding fitness classes and training kids in boxing, kickboxing, and Muay Thai. Larson said they have tried to attend at least two tournaments a year to give their kids a chance to fight a more diverse group of competitors rather than the same opponents multiple times.
Recently, Larson took five fighters to the 2015 Muay Thai Classic in Des Moines, Iowa where 498 competitors were in attendance. Champs Gym brought back four championship belts and six overall wins.
A month later, they attended the IKF World Classic in Orlando, Florida, and 12-year old Adam Hines defeated a 13-year old from Virginia Beach to bring another championship belt back to Camp Verde.
"We started up in 2011 and we were trying to provide something different for the kids other than the regular, baseball, basketball, football, soccer." Larson said. "It was a hard adjustment for local kids to get use to boxing and kickboxing. It's tough you have to do all these fundamental drills and then go into the ring and apply those skills, it's a lot more difficult than your average sport."
Almost four years of hard work in the gym, from kids in the area and from Larson, is starting to pay off and the kids are starting to reap the rewards. Larson said that the gym has had kids come and go but not many kids want to go out and get kicked and punched.
"There is a small percentage of kids who want to do this, who want to go out there and get kicked and punched," Larson said. "We have had kids that have stuck around and actually made the commitment to become fighters and now they are seeing the results of their efforts."
Kainen Cummings, 11, Avery Hines, 11, Ethan Zepeda, 10, Adam Hines, 12, and Lauren Willis were all fighters from Champs Gym that competed in the Muay Thai Classic in Iowa.
Lauren, Kainen, Avery, and Adam all were able to bring championship belts back to Camp Verde. The whole team was able to capture the Junior Team Trophy for most junior points in the tournament.
"They are starting to get diverse competition by fighting guys from all over," Larson said. "Traveling outside the state to get more experience, Attending IFK and TBA every year. They are starting to get to a higher level, We have started to become a club where you're not going to come in and get an easy win against."
Larson said coaches have started to call him for opportunities to challenge his boys, and all of the experience will only help in the long run as Larson and his fighters will be trying to attend a competition in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in October.
"It's crazy a small gym from Camp Verde is getting this kind of recognition. We were the only gym from Arizona at the TBA and we were able to go out there and succeed and bring home belts." Larson said. "Our kids are starting to have that extra drive you need to succeed, they put in the hard work and we try to provide as much as we can for them. We offer the opportunities to travel, to compete as a team, and to become champions."
Larson explained that it is a lot of work to fundraise to get their kids all over the country to fight. Car washes, selling fry bread and anything else they could do to raise money was done by Larson and his wife, but Larson said a lot of help was given by the community of Camp Verde.
"It is the community that gives us the opportunity to do these things, my wife and I committed ourselves to doing this. We have been very successful, at getting the community to support our kids." Larson said.
Other than training, Clifford and his wife offer fitness classes for residents in the area and for kids to get familiar with the workouts that their fighters perform on a consistent basis.
Lauren Willis was an example of that as before competing in the Muay Thai Classic, she just participated in the fitness classes that the gym provides.
"We asked if she wanted to give it a try. With no other competitors in her class other than one at Iowa she was automatically into the championship" Larson said.
Willis ended up defeating Tayler Gerow from Kawartha Combat in her championship match at Iowa.
The work never stops at Champs Gym though as Jordan, Adam and Kainen will be competing on August 16 in Flagstaff and then will be traveling to Tempe in September for the SIAM Northern American Championships. Kainen is set to face-off against Mason Pardy, a fighter from Illinois who is considered to be one of his toughest opponents yet.