The Social Benefits of Fighting at the “Las Chankas” Gym in Peru

Fightland Blog

By Nick Wong

Photos by Nick Wong

Mixed martial arts are on the rise in Peru. From a series of Peruvian fighters appearing on The Ultimate Fighter reality show to organizations like the Peru Fighting Championship and the “InkaFC” maintaining a healthy schedule of events, the country appears to be making a significant stamp on the MMA landscape. It didn’t surprise me that when visiting a local boxing club in Lima, I found that a handful of the fighters also trained as mixed martial artists in a nearby neighborhood. It was through this connection that I found the “Las Chankas” training center in the San Martin district of Lima.

An open-air training ground, the gym aims to imitate the Muay Thai training camps in Thailand to provide a free-feeling atmosphere for its participants. “Las Chankas” refers to a group of indigenous warriors that were around during the times of the Incans, but were actually enemies of the famed empire and known for their brutal war tactics. Scattered throughout the gym are images of characters from the Street Fighter II franchise and other off-brand comic books, characters like Balrog, Sagat and M. Bison stare down at the training ground and the space carriers a definite disregard to popular opinion and culture.

The gym is run by 32 year-old Luis Alberto Guzman de Zela, a 15-year veteran in Muay Thai who picked up a Pan-American kickboxing championship, a South American kickboxing championship three times, and a number 6 ranking in the sport’s open division during his run. Training in traditional Kung-Fu since the age of six, Zela picked up Muay Thai at 15 and has been with it ever since. While still actively competing in the professional circuit, Zela also acts as a full-time trainer, making house for a group of fighters who show up everyday to progress in the sport and their lives.

“The motive was to take my adolescence away from the bad paths. It gave an opportunity to a young person,” says Zela when I asked him the motive of starting in combat sports. “As part of the selection team, I got a free scholarship to university, I have support from the state, and there are people that don’t have money. Through sport and education, you can do something with life, right?”

About 15 guys show up to train, everyone from students to the working class, to teenagers to young fathers glove up to learn the fighting trade. The session starts off with a bit of rolling where pairs enter the cage to head off against one another while the other look on and shout out advice. Later it transitions to full-contact Muay Thai sparring in the same format. The gym isn’t located in the worst part of the city, but it’s not the best either. Zela kind of gives a shifty response when I ask him if there are any students from upper-class backgrounds training at the center.

“It’s mostly lower-middle class students,” Zela confirms.

One of the gym’s most dedicated charges, Josue Perez, fits the profile. With a two-and-a-half year background in Muay Thai kickboxing, Perez has been training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling for the past four months in order to make an adequate shift into the MMA cage. He also resides in the one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden areas of the city—Ventanilla—about a couple of hours from the training grounds. For him, training at the center has proved beneficial for his life.

“The truth is that [training] helped me a lot. I used to be into a lot of bad things, but thanks to this sport and my family, I’m able to leave,” says Perez when I ask if his involvement with the gym has changed his life. “Now I have a life that where I’m really happy and healthy.”

A similar story is recycled throughout the gym with most of the club’s participants coming from all areas of the city, some even making up to a two-hour commute to train at the gym. Some have dreams of becoming national and world champions, other just show up because they know they should. In the end, I’d say that all of them know that wherever they end up, in all likelihood, is better than where they were headed.

“Practicing kicking boxing has changed a large part of my life. It’s my complement, a passion, now it’s my philosophy,” says Guillermo Gonzonlez, another fighter who is on his seventh month with the group. “You can be stressed out because of work, worried without end about things and only the training can free you. Training makes me forget about everything around me and I only concentrate on what I have to do.”

Others put the social benefits a bit more succinctly, like 26-year old Rolando Vasquez who comes in search of a better self-control to keep him from fighting on the streets. But for Vasquez, the equation is much simpler.

“Training is peace,” the fighter tells me.

For outsiders to the sport, it may seem counter-intuitive that learning a skill in the combat arts would somehow bring a greater sense of inner peace, but that is indeed how the world of paradoxes works. It’s always a bit of a task to explain to someone how participating in a fighting sport would somehow make a person more peaceful, but I suppose the best way to explain it is that in the constant exposure of enduring pain and dishing it to others, you develop a certain respect the human body, or at the very least, once you reach a skill level to hurt another person, you remember how it felt to be on the receiving end and that memory harnesses in applying those skills with a deep respect. Perhaps the biggest irony is that these hard-hitting exchanges are done between some of those closest to you, and there probably isn’t a more tight-knit community than one inside of a fight club.

“This is my second home,” continues Perez, “here I learn a lot of things, get to know excellent people and we’re all like brothers that help each other in everything. We’re like a family.”

Currently, the gym is supported by some local politicians and small businesses, but the bulk of the funding comes from fundraising events put on by the gym’s fighters, and the fights themselves. Zela tells me the sport has been gaining momentum over the past two or three years, which has led to more fighters joining the sport, and thus the public following their stories. The hope is that the exposure works towards MMA becomes more accepted as a national sport, and that perhaps the government will catch on to the potential benefits in sponsoring a promising fighter to the world stage. According to Perez, there have already been many missed opportunities in the past.

“I would like the Peruvian government to support all the sports equally and have more incentive to support contact sports,” says Perez when I ask him what he hopes for the state of MMA in Peru. “There are already many promising youth that were invited to international events, but they don’t have the economic resources to travel.”

As the session winds down, fighters are going between each other to catch up on the old, hear about the new, and make sure everyone made it out of the two hours uninjured. There is a clear bond between the men who train here, a sincere care that is unseen in many other male-dominated environments. Zela stands in the background with a wide grin, pleased it seems to have made it through another session and help his fighters get a step closer to whatever goal they’ve made for themselves.

“My dream is to have a gym, have my students, have guys that are national champions,” says Zela in regards to his aspirations in the sport and his gym. “I’m giving a little knowledge so they can work maybe as coaches one day, to be someone in life and transmit the sport that I love, right?”

Regardless if any champions, international or otherwise emerge from the gym, hearing the stories of change in the fighter’s lives, and seeing them carry one another through their respective journeys in life, it seems that the latter portion of his goals have already been met. At the very least, it’s safe to say that his two-year investment in the place has certainly not gone to waste. As MMA continues to rise in the country, more attention garners more possibility for places like “Las Chankas” to exist, and in witnessing how it shapes the character of a generation of young men, I’d say that’s a good thing.


Check out these related stories:

The New Generation: Fighting against Poverty in Peru

Women Boxers Are Breaking Barriers in Peru

Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca

A Cameroonian Boxer in Rio