“Fort Andross is such a giant building that a lot of people don’t really know we’re there,” said owner John Raio. “I mean, unless you happen to walk by our door and see all the bags hanging, you won’t know that there’s an MMA gym in the building.”
For Raio, mixed martial arts (MMA) always carried a certain appeal. He wrestled in high school and college and was interested in competing in mixed martial arts.
“It looks barbaric watching it from the outside, but when you get into it, it’s actually pretty interesting,” said Raio. “It’s made up of separate disciplines. I mean MMA is composed of different sports like wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and karate.”
Mixed martial arts was not always prevalent, or even legal, in Maine. But when the Maine state legislature legalized and created regulations for MMA in 2010, opportunity struck and Raio decided to take action.
“I started training when I found it was legal, and then I found a gym in Brunswick and started training there. Then I jumped around to different gyms in Maine, so I could get well-rounded. And then I started my own gym five years ago,” said Raio.
Today, First Class Fitness & MMA is a bustling gym that boasts over a hundred members from all over New England. His patrons also come from different walks of life—some are policemen, carpenters, teachers, Bowdoin students, and even children.
In addition to running the gym weekday evenings, both Raio, a employee at Bath Ironworks, and his wife, a teacher, work full-time jobs. He knows how hard it can be to maintain work-life balance, and is especially proud that his gym provides normal people with the opportunity to participate in MMA or pursue a healthier lifestyle.
Yet for Raio and many of his patrons, the gym isn’t only a place to train.
“For some people, life can just be stressful depending on whether you’re a police officer or a teacher. Some people come here and they don’t have a lot of social connections,” said Raio. “And then, you come to our gym and realize that everyone is just really friendly and helpful and it becomes more of a family to be honest.”
This welcoming environment is part of the reason why his gym is so successful.
“We’ve had classes that have just doubled in the past year largely through just word of mouth. My wife and I just really enjoy being around people, so I think that just helps business grow,” he said.