A boxing, kickboxing and mixed martial arts gym that describes itself as “high-octane” could seem scary to a newcomer—especially when you realize that entering the gym means descending a flight of stairs to an underground training space.
But Redline Fight Sports isn’t intimidating at all. In fact, it just might be one of the most inclusive workout facilities around.
Since opening in 2008, Redline and its coaching staff have fostered an inclusive atmosphere for mixed martial arts and fitness training. It’s currently one of two in the state listed on on SafeToTrain.com, a new online directory of sports centers nationwide committed to creating safe, supportive workout arenas.
Owner and coach Chris Gully says the boxing gym’s welcoming environment is just a natural part of its heritage. “It’s who we’ve been since the beginning,” he says simply. Before Redline opened, he and co-owners Tara Gully Hightower and Joshua Bartholomew were part of a local group of competitive martial artists. Looking for a home base where they could settle down and train, they moved to Mass. Ave., steps from the Central Square Red Line stop. Gully, a professional architect, renovated the subterranean location—then a labyrinth of offices in various states of operation—to get the gym in fighting shape.
In a single day, Redline trains both professional athletes and interested newcomers in Brazilian jiu jitsu, Muay Thai, kung fu, kickboxing and more. “The workouts are not boring,” Gully says. “Here, in this environment, you can almost get distracted by how much there is to learn.” He remembers receiving pre-opening advice that encouraged the owners to choose either a tough, competitive or lighter, cardio-focused approach. Instead, he, Gully Hightower and Bartholomew crafted a hybrid, finding an equilibrium where professional fighters and newbies practice side-by-side. Beyond the main matted area, the space boasts a boxing ring, a grappling room and a kung fu room outfitted with traditional training equipment. With all in use at once, Redline transforms into what Gully calls a “three-ring circus of fun, high-energy activities.”
The benefits of the exercise extend beyond the mat. “Parallel to training is the mental component,” Gully notes. Through that high-octane physical exercise, fighters can learn to better handle stressful circumstances both in and out of the ring. “That can be applied to social situations, business, public speaking—anything that can scare someone or give them that adrenaline rush,” he adds.
Mental strength is one of the key values at Redline Fight Sports, which, despite its name, is about more than literally fighting. “It’s about battling yourself, your apprehensions or anxieties,” Gully explains. The power of martial arts practice to reframe a student’s notion of their own strength was part of the impetus behind SafeToTrain.com, which was founded in November by Richmond-based writer, marketer and Brazilian jiu jitsu-er Michelle Nickolaisen as a resource for those feeling unsafe after the 2016 presidential election and the accompanying amped-up cultural tensions.
“As someone who trains—and who is under the LGBTQ+ umbrella—I know that martial arts has made me feel much more able to handle an altercation or unpleasant encounter and can help people with that,” Nickolaisen says. “But I also know how scary it can be to go to a new gym, period, especially if you don’t know if it’s going to be a safe place for you—or your children—or not.”
Nickolaisen says her personal experience with Brazilian jiu jitsu has made her feel much safer and more confident overall. “Obviously, I wouldn’t go out and pick a fight or anything like that,” she says. “But once you’ve had someone twice your size and much stronger than you sitting on you, trying to choke you, saying ‘Excuse me, you need to back off,’ to that rude stranger on the bus is much less intimidating.” The interactions within the gym—sparring or grappling with teachers, other students, equipment or oneself—afford a new context for navigating interactions in the larger world and maintaining a sense of self.
As part of her online guide, Nickolaisen highlights the importance of regular training rather than one-off classes “to make it ‘stick’ and make it so you can react quickly in the moment” should the need arise. Redline helps athletes achieve those fitness, self-defense and self confidence goals in a safe place with a slew of varied workouts taught by high-level instructors every week. Outside of its regular classes, Redline engages with the broader Cambridge and Boston network with one-off community events. In the past, it’s hosted smokers— amateur sparring match-ups—and donated proceeds to nonprofit organizations like women’s shelters, cancer research initiatives and fire relief funds. In January, Redline is collaborating with the Cambridge Police Department and the Central Square YMCA for a free self-defense seminar. The gym has long exemplified a spirit of openness, and Gully recognizes the crucial role that the martial arts gym can play for those feeling endangered or at-risk in the current political climate.
“We want people to feel like they have the tools and the knowledge to be safe in a kind of frightening new world,” he says. “We want people to feel in control of their safety and to have practical techniques to use—both if something happens and to have that self-confidence.”
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