More Than Gold: The story behind the U.S. Youth Worlds win

Nations that competed at the inaugural IMMAF-WMMAA Youth MMA World Championships made history last month. With Team USA taking first place in the medal table, exemplified by the nation’s unbeaten female talent, Dane McGuire (IMMAF.org U.S. Correspondent) looks back on the nation’s accomplishments with some of the figureheads that made it happen.

The United States Fight League (USFL,) youth affiliate of the national team, was founded in 2002. Originating as a series of open mat events held on military bases, the focus eventually shifted to the development of youth as athletes and upstanding people.

The mainstream popularity boom of modern MMA and the UFC was still a few years away, and so, getting youth involved in a misunderstood sport brought its share of controversy.

USFL President Jon Frank told ESPN.com in 2012, “When we first started [about a decade ago], people were saying we needed to be put in jail and the parents needed to be prosecuted for child abuse. But I feel we’ve come a long way.”

Eight years have passed and the above statement still rings true. Despite falling short of fundraising goals, the USFL brought 34 competitors to the first IMMAF Youth Worlds and were the largest team to compete. They won 28 medals overall, 16 of them gold.

Frank told IMMAF.org, “We set the bar high and it’s going to be difficult to repeat this level of success unless we continue to forge forward. Our kids and coaches must treat this world championships as the end of their season and understand that only the same process of hard training with rigorous competition will get similar results in the future.”

While all did well, highlights of the event were overall sportsmanship and the success of female athletes in a male-dominated sport. Lea Bivins (main image, right) voluntarily took a silver medal rather than fight her teammate Shaniyah Carlson (main image, left) in the finals of their Youth A (age 16-17) strawweight bracket.

USFL East founder and promoter Ruben Saldaña said, “The USA youth females, without‌ ‌doubt, set the example for the entire world by going undefeated with 13 wins all by submission. The next day our only female [USFL East] competitor, Alana Delva became the first athlete to win gold in two different divisions.”

Two-weight youth world champion, Alana Delva (youth C)

Delva, who competed in the -125lbs and +125lbs Youth C (age 12-13) divisions, took up the sport after experiencing bullying. Cementing her place in history as the first IMMAF-WMMAA youth ‘champ-champ’ gives her a global platform to spread a message of empowerment.

Delva said, “I think that in Rome we [girls] showed not just our opponents that we are capable of more than just dancing and cooking. Not all of us were made or born to be beauty icons. Some of us were born to be killer butterflies.”

For Saldaña, the character displayed by his athletes in victory validates not only his coaching methods but his own experiences and mentoring efforts. He left behind a criminal past after 19 years in prison and finding faith in God.

Jon Frank, a former Marine and law enforcement veteran, brought on the former gang leader because of that background. Saldaña uses martial arts to reach those in Miami, Florida who might be making mistakes he once did.

Saldaña said post-event, “The magnitude of this show will encourage so many other youths who didn’t have a chance to showcase their talent and deserve to more of a reason to develop their character, stay out of crime and keep competing to qualify for the 2020 World Championship.”

Before training comes spiritual enrichment. This is followed by training outside in the absence of a home gym. He finishes with character development which emphasizes respect and responsibility. This approach has now created champions in more ways than one.

“Fighting helped me find joy, happiness, friends, but most importantly it helped me love myself the way I am,” Delva said. “Now I fight for me and to show those who are like me that we don’t have to be shy. We don’t have to hide or be afraid to be different.”

Dane McGuire, IMMAF.org U.S. Correspondent

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