CAMP VERDE- You have to look very carefully to find Larson's Champ's Gym on the east side of downtown Camp Verde. It's tucked away behind another storefront but you can't miss the lined up vehicles in front of the gym on the side of the building.
Painted on the glass door is the name of the place and underneath it states, "Improving lives one round at a time". It's a great catch phrase and Clifford and Pita Larson of the Yavapai-Apache Nation own and run this gym.
Step inside and you first notice the intense heat like a hot day in June in downtown Phoenix. The temperature is turned up for a reason says Larson.
"When you're fighting, that's how hot you get. We want our students to feel that heat," he said. "It can get worse than this but this is actually kinda cool. You have to train yourself at that specific heat"
This day, mostly teenagers and a couple of adults are exercising with push-ups and various stretches. Some of the students are inside of the boxing ring where they're doing leg-lifts and more stretching.
Larson stands in the corner looking at his timer on the cell phone as it ticks away seconds. He yells out commands, which changes the stance of the students. Some drop to the mats while others put on boxing gloves and whack the heavy bags intensely. No one is loafing and it seems like it's mind over matter in the gym.
Larson was also a kick boxer from age 16 until he retired when he was 26. Now, 33, Larson wants to continue to teach the art of kick boxing and his fighters travel to far off places to compete in tournaments.
On the walls are the various belts that have been brought home by the various fighters. Adam Hines, a 12 year old, figures heavily in the scheme of training and performance here.
In July of last year, Hines went to Florida where he won a belt.
There are Silver and Red Belts that have ornate designs on them signifying their participation in world tournaments. These are the belts in possession of Larson's fighters.
A non-tribal member, 14 year old Shayla Murdock of Camp Verde is one of the star competitors in Larson's club.
She competes in Arizona Junior Rodeo, barrel racing, goat tying, calf roping and break away roping.
"She also knows the demand for success and applies it to her Muay Thai," Larson said about the style of kick -boxing.
Murdock is home-schooled and is the daughter of Steve and Kelley Murdock of Camp Verde.
Another contender is Jesenia Gonzales, an 11th grader at Camp Verde High School who is the daughter of Renee and Luis Gonzales.
"It's fun and it's a lot of serious punching and going to tournaments," she said.
Muay Thai style utilizes various moves with kick -boxing, using the knees but no elbows or clenching and uses protective headgear.
Murdock and Adam Hines are the shining stars that Larson has all of his hopes pinned on.
"They need a break. After this show, we'll get ready for the national tournament in Virginia," Larson said.
"We're winding down now until this coming March," says Larson. Their usual schedule requires 10 fights a year. "That is consistent. We're making a name for ourselves," Larson said.
Each weekend, they conduct various fundraising activities that pays for their travel expenses.
More recently, they cooked breakfast for the tenants of the Nation's RV Park located across the interstate highway from the casino.
"It was mainly to promote what we were doing and to let them know we were accepting donations. We usually do pretty good," Larson explained about the fund raisers.
The Florida trip last year cost the club $2,000 for 3 fighters and 2 coaches.
"The longer you wait to register for a fight, the costs goes up," Larson said.
Larson is especially thankful for the Yavapai-Apache Nation as they contributed for a trip to San Diego this September for a tournament.
Soon, the team will be traveling to Sacramento, California on November 21 to compete in the nationals with other fighters. Larson says that he wants to fly his team to the tournament to avoid a lengthy 13 hour car ride that may tire out his fighters.
The club needs money for lodging, food, taxi fairs and to return home after the event.
Dominique Begay, a 19 year old, came here 9 months ago with her mom, Jennie Hudson of Coppermine near Page, Arizona.
"I'm 50 years old and it's been prevention of diabetes. I lost 8 lbs.," Hudson said.
If you simply just want to get in shape and workout, it's a matter of plunking down $45 for one month.
As a motivation, if you re-up for another month, Larson kicks in a free week at the last of the month.
"We try to help those who are trying to overcome their addictions. Through fitness, we replace what addictions they may have," said Larson.
There are 4 exercise classes during the week and it all depends how many times a person would like to come and exercise.
The only limitation is that the club only has space for about 12 people according to Larson.
The Larson's Champs Gym started in 2011 with just 2 tribal girls on Hollum Street in Camp Verde.
With the monthly paid membership, the Larsons were able to meet the monthly rent to train some kids.
"We just developed a following from the kids and the interest for the kids and just kinda grew from there-winning titles, giving kids opportunities, new tribal members winning and they are carrying on where I left off. I hope they win more titles than I won, to achieve more than what I did," Larson said with a giant smile.
(Don Decker is the editor of Gah'nahvan/Ya Ti', the Yavapai-Apache newspaper)
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