By Mckenna Hunt
Tucked away amidst car shops and warehouses along the waterfront of Bellingham Bay is the Bellingham Mixed Martial Arts gym. Its location is slightly hidden, but for the patrons of the studio, it’s their haven.
Bellingham MMA trains a diverse array of professional, amatuer and inexperienced athletes who come from far and wide to be coached by Hunter Clagett and his team.
On a sunny day, the large warehouse garage doors of Bellingham MMA open to reveal a martial artist’s paradise.
A large grappling mat takes up the right half of the gym, while the other half is fitted with workout equipment, punching bags, weights and just about anything one would need for strengthening and conditioning their body. A glass trophy case showcasing championship title belts and metals from local fighters stands in the back of the room.
Covering the gym walls are pictures of well-known fighters within the community and flags to represent the homes of martial arts students .
Included in the memorabilia lining the walls are photographs of gym founders Charlie Pearson, Jeremy Saunders and Landon Showalter. All three are professional fighters that established the gym in 2010. According to the Bellingham MMA website, the men have provided a solid foundation that the gym stands on today.
The ownership of the gym has since been passed down to 32-year-old Hunter Clagett, head coach and professional fighter at Bellingham MMA, who has trained under Pearson, Saunders and Showalter and continues to be trained by Saunders in his professional career.
Clagett is an experienced fighter who has been practicing martial arts for over 15 years.
His love for the sport began in his college years at Western when his interest in kung fu films led him to take an introductory Muay Thai class with his mentor, or shifu, Michael Frison.
From there, Clagett was hooked.
“I just kind of fell in love with it,” Clagett said.
Clagett explained he was never an athlete growing up and claimed the title of “nerdling.”
“In high school I was captain of the Hi-Q team,” he said. “Academic competitions, stuff like that.”
Although Clagett is now a well-trained fighter who has a professional career and years of extensive experience, he said it took some time for him to get where he is today.
“I have known many people who have progressed much faster than I did, but I just kept doing it,” Clagett said.
Clagett’s amatuer career began in 2014 when he took his first fight.
“After a few years of training and connection with my current coaches who do live MMA fighting, I decided to take a fight because they said I was ready,” Clagett said. “It was my first physical confrontation so I had no idea how I’d react to it, but I ended up doing well and I enjoyed it.”
Clagett said that in the fight he had his nose broken right away by his opponent and there was blood everywhere.
“Blood from my nose was pouring into his face and he was not into it and I was like, ‘This is the best thing ever,’” Clagett said. “That’s when I knew I was kind of hooked.”
Although Clagett is the head coach of the gym, he has others on his team like John Keay, Clinton Sana, Gunnar Doggett and Talor Kebel to run different classes.
“Some of them are my students that became more experienced and had something to offer,” Clagett said. “Clint is a very adept kickboxer and his Muay Thai kickboxing is very good, so I have him teaching for me on Saturdays.”
On the Bellingham MMA website, Clagett said the gym is more than a place to train, it is a family and that can be exemplified by the relationships within the fighting community.
“We have family connections so there’s a constant lineage in martial arts of, ‘My instructor’s instructor is someone who matters,’” Clagett said. “We have connections to these different gyms.”
Clagett said that his students go to his instructors’ gyms and that everyone is intertwined in the fighting scene.
“Charlie Pearson is the overall head coach of our little family,” Clagett said. “He’s granddaddy and then Landon and Jeremy are like my uncles.”
Clagett explained that Pearson received his lineage from Matt Hume, who is a renowned world champion and trains at AMC Martial Arts in Kirkland as a coach to Ultimate Fighting Champion Flyweight Champion Demetrious Johnson, as well as other athletes.
“It turns out to be a pretty decent pedigree over time,” Clagett said.
With a gym comes gym culture and Clagett has made it clear in Bellingham MMA’s philosophy that he wants to create an atmosphere of friendliness and mutual support. Bullying will not be tolerated.
Margaret Rockey, communications professor at Western and student at Bellingham MMA, attested to Clagett’s inclusive gym atmosphere.
Rockey said the people, as well as Clagett’s physically challenging workouts, were what made her choose Bellingham MMA over other gyms she had tried.
“They are really, really nice,” Rockey said. “It doesn’t feel like that big of a deal, even though I am one of the newest people there. Everyone is very patient and eager to help and show me things, and it does really wear me out by the end of class.”
The gym’s philosophy is something that Clagett has developed organically over time and centers around respect, humility and equality within practice.
“I feel like I really push the message of inclusivity,” Clagett said. “I really do not tolerate body-shaming, ability-shaming or shame in general. Everyone starts somewhere.”
Clagett and his wife, Lara, also strongly believe in moving away from the culture of misogyny and homophobia that surrounds fighting.
“I consider myself a feminist ally, so I wanted to make sure that people feel comfortable and safe here,” Clagett said.
Although Clagett says there is definitely a lot more men than women in martial arts, the gym has seen far more female students than ever before and it may be due to Clagett making it clear they are welcome.
Simple changes like not allowing people to take their shirts off, maintaining a clean gym and providing tampons and pads in the restrooms are just some of the things Clagett has done to make everyone in the gym feel more comfortable.
As far as the classes at Bellingham MMA go, Clagett offers Jiu-Jitsu, Gi-club, Kickboxing and Fighter Flex, which is a yoga class taught by Talor Kebel. Gi-club is welcome to students of all ages, while patrons have to be 12 or older to take the Kickboxing, Jiu-Jitsu or Fighter Flex classes.
Jason Lin is a Bellingham MMA student that has been involved in martial arts since he was a kid and recently switched his focus to the Jiu-Jitsu classes that Clagett has to offer.
Lin commutes from Vancouver, British Columbia. He found Bellingham MMA when he was working a summer job in Bellingham two years ago. Even after he went back to Canada, he found that compared to other MMA gyms, Clagett’s was the best one he had trained at.
“This is the first place that was really intuitive, a lot of realism and the training was really great,” Lin said.
Affordability is also something that Clagett believes in. He said he tries to structure pricing so people have access to the training.
“I’m pretty laid back about tuition coming in,” Clagett said. “It probably hurts our bottom line, but I graduated with a math degree, so if I wanted to make money I would be in software or elsewhere.”
Clagett says that regarding the gym’s future, he wants the gym to grow and to have more students, but he doesn’t want to have it franchised.
“Awhile back we had an investor gentleman who wanted to franchise us, and I said no, because I don’t want that,” Clagett said. “I’m not a capitalist that way.”
With Clagett keeping the gym small and standards high, Bellingham MMA continues to maintain its worthwhile reputation while welcoming new students with open arms.