Welcome to the Asylum

About eight years ago, after I quit video games and lost 135 pounds (or about one Sofia Vergara) by dieting, hiking, and weightlifting, my buddy Peter decided to quit his I.T. job and go to Japan to teach English to schoolchildren and train to fight in mixed martial arts.

asylum sign

Before he flew out, he explored local dojos for a realistic, no-BS approach. He had trained in karate since high school, and then in the backyard of a mutual friend who taught variations of Kali, Pencak Silat, and “whatever works fu.” I’d gone a couple times but I am a very slow learner when it comes to physical activities, and needed a little more structure. Peter found Advanced Fighting Systems, run by Phil Dunlap. At the time, Phil was building a fight cage on his house’s first floor, and transitioning to training fighters full time. But we met at a class at Malandra’s martial arts in Suffern, where Phil taught a few days a week. I had seen Peter come home from class with bruised shins and a big smile. This wasn’t katas. It wasn’t like the Krav Maga class I tried, where the teacher was fatter than me, made us pay him to make us do push-ups and jog in circles, and never spar. No, this was something different.

The first thing Phil asked me to do was punch him in the face. I mimicked the karate punches I’d learned, six inches from his face. Phil gave a classic eye roll and said, “Would that have hit me?”

Peter and Phil smile

I threw a punch that would have struck 3 inches past the base of his skull. He parried it, slow enough to show me the move. We hit focus mitts, but when it came time to learn roundhouse kicks (which strike with the shin) we put on thin pads and kicked each other in the thighs. I came home with the bruises Peter had. We knew they worked when we winced and fought the urge to complain. When it came time to learn submissions and chokes, Phil performed them on a student so you could follow, then on you, so you could feel it. And if you’re not doing it right, he lets you perform it on him, until you make him tap. I’d never been at a dojo where the teacher allowed that.

I was sold.

peter and phil choke

Nowadays there are a lot of MMA dojos, some of them converted karate factories, some hardcore fighting gyms, but I’ve found none as casual, cool, and friendly as the ironically named Asylum Fight Gym. One of the students came up with it. The class is addictive, because there’s so little ego there. If you want to spar or grapple (we say “roll”) with the teacher, you can. It was a badge of honor, to wait in line at the end of class to have your rounds with Phil. Because like the best teachers, he transformed his style for each student. He was that guy who was just a little better than you, a little faster, smarter, and yes even stronger, whether you can out-bench him or not. It’s incredibly frustrating at first, until you concede that you will never win. It becomes a challenge to make Phil whip out one of his better moves to finish you. And if you do the move right, he lets you do it… until the counter moves come in.

asylum heavy bags

The gym is a family, no less dysfunctional or nurturing than any other. Want to train on Christmas Eve? Come on in. We call it “Season’s Beatings.” We take care of each other, go to each other’s fights, help each other out. And then we jump in the cage to punch each other in the face, or relish locking down the scorpion leg lock until you tap. I’ve made a lot of friends there. Derek, Jodi-Lynn, the many Kyles (we have young Kyle, li’l Kyle, medium Kyle, and big Kyle) and of course, Phil himself.

If you live anywhere near Mahwah, New Jersey and want a gym to learn mixed martial arts for sport or self-defense, Burmese boxing and grappling (Kachin Bando), Sambo, Celtic wrestling, or fitness kickboxing, drop in to Asylum Fight Gym to train as hard as you want to.

And if you can’t make it, do me a favor and vote for the gym in Mission Main Street Grants. The gym could use a boost!

Phil and me