Martial arts school draws wide range of students
By: Emily Kram, Superior Telegram
With many small businesses struggling to survive and the national unemployment rate in double figures, most would not consider this an ideal time to launch a new business venture.
But Superior’s Robert Mrotek was not deterred by the grim economy. He saw an opportunity and recently opened a new martial arts studio on Tower Avenue.
“I’m not really concerned,” he said. “My prices are really fair, and I have different payment plans so people can afford it.”
Mrotek has many other martial arts schools to contend with, but he hopes to stay afloat by offering a wide variety of classes that appeal to a varied demographic. Currently he offers instruction to a group that includes everything from children just beginning karate to adults hoping to enter mixed martial arts (MMA) competitions.
“A lot come for a really good workout, some come for self defense,” Mrotek said. “I have a bunch of guys who are doing it because they want to compete, do tournaments and MMA competitions.”
Mrotek has trained in martial arts for about 18 years, and he gained experience instructing others while at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. At UWS, Mrotek was president of the martial arts club and taught a number of martial arts courses, including jujitsu and women’s self defense. He earned his black belt in karate in 1998 and plans to test for his brown belt in Gracie jujitsu this year under Cleber Luciano.
“By teaching at the university I had a lot of students already,” Mrotek said. “They wanted me to be more accessible at different parts of the day and have my own gym.”
In October Mrotek signed a lease to take over occupancy of the old Sterling Silver Dance Studio space at 1210 Tower Ave. He spent about three months remodeling the space: removing dozens of unused nails, knocking down walls, repainting the interior and installing mats.
The martial arts studio, Inner Strength Martial Arts, opened officially on Jan. 5. Mrotek is the lead instructor, but three assistants help him in the larger classes. The martial arts studio offers instruction in Gracie jujitsu, Muay Thai kickboxing, American karate, women’s self defense and mixed martial arts. Jujitsu and karate classes are available for both children and adults.
So far the most popular offering has been jujitsu, followed by the children’s programs. Mrotek said a total of 31 people have signed up for Gracie jujitsu classes. About 14 children are signed up for karate.
Sarah Banks is one of Mrotek’s adult students. She participates in the kickboxing and women’s self defense classes. Banks said she has long been a fan of MMA contests, mainly Ultimate Fighting Championship shows, but she only recently began martial arts training herself.
“I like the full workout, the health benefits,” Banks. “It’s more of an art than just learning to beat somebody up.”
Banks is one of the few women in the kickboxing class, and she said it has been an empowering experience. Her nine-year-old daughter, Tianna, is also taking jujitsu and participates in the women’s self defense class.
“As a mom that makes me feel better,” Banks said. “We get to do the women’s self defense class together, so it’s reassuring to know if something should happen, we’ll be able to defend ourselves.”
Banks enjoys spending time together with her daughter and said she hopes more women will considered learning a martial art. For her, it provides a great stress release as well as a challenging workout.
“I love it. I always tell everybody about it,” Banks said. “I get upset if I can’t come. It’s pretty addicting.”
In the children’s classes, Mrotek teaches discipline and the ideals of respect and service to one’s community along with the physical aspects of martial arts. He also plans to hold movie nights and game nights in the studio so kids have a place they can go to have fun while learning about teamwork and unity.
“I focus a lot more on the mental aspect of martial arts than the physical,” Mrotek said. “With my kids’ class we do a lot of group interaction sessions, where we sit and talk about important life lessons.”
Each week, Mrotek discusses a different topic with the students. This week centered around the importance of actions. Mrotek himself organizes charity events to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the children’s hospital logo is prominently displayed in the studio.
“I think it’s something that’s important for kids to be successful,” Mrotek said. “I want them to do great things rather than get in trouble.”
When kids test for their belts, they must master the physical skills but also have to present a written paper.
“It gets them thinking about mental aspects of how to be successful in society,” Mrotek said.
He hopes his emphasis on the mind and body approach to martial arts will help set him apart from his competitors.
Another element that may set Inner Strength Martial Arts apart is Mrotek’s familiarity and involvement in the world of MMA.
Six adults who train at Mrotek’s gym will compete in an MMA event Saturday at Black Bear Casino in Carlton, Minn. Jeremy Johnson is among the students scheduled to fight. He has been training with Mrotek for about a year and has a long history of wrestling and kickboxing.
“I’m looking forward to it, but there’s always a little bit of the nerves, especially the last week before,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he’s always been drawn to more physical sports, and he enters Saturday’s competition with a 2-2 record. In an average week, he spends about 18 to 20 hours working on jujitsu, wrestling and other MMA techniques.
It’s quite a time commitment, but he enjoys his time working out at the gym with Mrotek.
“Rob’s a good trainer,” Johnson said. “This is the best gym I’ve been to.”
Others taking part in the MMA competition are Ryan Lull, Ryan Miller, Kevin Peterson, Scott Follett and Eric Berg.
In Minnesota, MMA competitions are regulated by the Minnesota Combative Sports Commission. As in boxing, athletes compete in weight divisions, and athletes are required to be tested periodically for hepatitis B and C and HIV. Further regulations require a physician to be present at all times during a match, and both the physician and the referee can stop a fight.
Wisconsin currently does not regulate MMA fighting, but the state is in the process of passing legislation similar to that of Minnesota. The bill has passed through the state senate but still requires the governor’s signature.
NOTES: On Saturday, Ultimate Fighting Championship hall of famer Ken Shamrock is scheduled to train at Inner Strength Martial Arts. He will also be at Benna Ford at 11 a.m. Saturday.
at Black Bear Casino
l Ryan Lull vs. David Garza — 185 lbs
l Jeremy Johnson vs. John Hamilton — 155 lbs
l Ryan Miller vs. Tim Rasmusson — 160 lbs
l Kevin Peterson vs. TBD — 205 lbs
l Scott Follett vs. Aric Frasl — 210 lbs
l Eric Berg vs. Alex Sikora — 185 lbs