The specter of Manuel Noriega and the memory of death and the scattered pedals of the Ispiritu Santo still haunt Panama like a bad dream three worlds away. But it’s not like that for everyone however; the wealthy still prosper while the poor still struggle to find an escape. And the sport built on the blood, sweat and tears of the masses has become the elitist’s country club. Mixed Martial Arts is no longer a working class sport in Panama, they have simply, been priced out.
“We just want to help kids through the sport of MMA and get them off the street,” says Adriana Lucia Espinal. Adriana and her husband, John Barragán started The White Lion-Team Lopez Gym three years ago in La Chorrera, Panama, a small town northwest of Panama City. “We started in a small local area, then we put our savings into the building. It was all ripped apart, we made it from nothing.” Adriana admits that it has been a struggle. “When we first started this project people were laughing at us and telling us we were crazy. Now they have respect for what we are doing.”
Financial disparity in Panama is one of the worst in the world. Over a quarter of Panama’s more than three and a half million people live in poverty, mostly in the rural areas like La Chorrera. The minimum wage in Panama is about $2.31 per hour and monthly membership fees to an MMA gym range from $60 to $300 per month. The White Lion Gym charges $20 per month to those that can afford it. But former Pro fighter and White Lion co-owner, John Barragán has taken it upon himself to pay for those who can’t.
The White Lion-Team Lopez Gym has helped over 100 students over the past three years and is now working on non-profit status. Adriana explains, “The meaning of the lion on our logo is because we give our boys a Christian foundation, we want them to know there’s a God who guides us. It represents the lion of Judah.” Team Lopez competes in leagues in Panama and Costa Rica and they have been winning. “When our kids win, it makes people respect what we are doing even more,” says Adriana. Adriana tells us, “We have some sponsors that give us T-shirts, gear and even supplements but we are on our own when it comes to the operating costs.”
John no longer has time to compete. He spends all of his time working with the kids. Barragán feels that MMA clears their heads and he has become a shining example for these kids to follow. They find common ground with him and are able to open up to him about their lives, hopes and dreams. The White Lion-Team Lopez gym holds these kids to a higher standard. Barragán says, “I am the only coach for about 25 kids at a time. They have to stay in school and get good grades to train with me.” And according to Adriana, they do. “We have only had to let a few go but they come back when their grades are up.”
While the disparity in Panama may seem insurmountable to some, the hope that organizations like the White Lion-Team Lopez can give to these kids is immeasurable. For them, it is not about the money, the title or the fame, it is about pride and honor. This is the pure sport of MMA. And this sport built on the blood, sweat and tears of THESE kids will never be found in any country club.
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