Ashley Holbert

Editor’s note: This story was originally filed in March during the spring 2020 semester.

(Fort Mill, S.C.) — Under the fluorescent lights in the Battleroom MMA fighting gym, partners grapple on rubber mats and fight to pin their opponents.

Mixed martial arts professional Crystal van Wyk and her husband and trainer Hentie van Wyk pace the room and pause occasionally to fix a student’s technique or form.

Occasionally, they’ll raise their voices over the music to shout, “Keep pushing! You can do this!”

The van Wyk’s opened Battleroom MMA in Fort Mill in February as a nonprofit organization, with classes available for students of all abilities.

The gym was closed for a while during the COVID-19 pandemic, but on a March night after it first opened the couple coached a group of 10 or more students from various ages, backgrounds and skill levels.

By the close of the workout, the group is sweating, laughing and encouraging one another.

Partners who faced each other in combat minutes ago talk about their families and weekend plans as they pack up their gear.

The van Wyk’s said their goal for the space goes far beyond just learning a sport.

“The mission and the vision of Battleroom MMA is using combat sport to help people overcome, whether it’s a fitness goal they’ve got, whether they struggle with addiction or whether they just want to relieve their stress,” said Hentie van Wyk. “So it’s not for us really about chasing the money and having a full class. We just love coaching.”

The van Wyk’s moved to Fort Mill from South Africa four years ago. After failing to find the right fit at various gyms in the area, they opted to open their own.

Hentie and Crystal van Wyk
Hentie and Crystal van Wyk have trained together daily to prepare Crystal for her professional debut as an MMA fighter (photo: Ashley Holbert).

The couple says their Christian beliefs played a key role in their decision.

“For someone like me whose very sensitive spiritually, I would go into these harsh environments, I found that I started to lose a love for the sport,” said Crystal van Wyk. “I wished that I had my own gym or facility where it would become a safe place to come train and overcome without the intimidation, without the competition and without all the things that comes with a normal gym.”

The van Wyk’s secured a room in the Heritage International Ministries Conference Center in February. They purchased rubber mats for the floor through community fundraising efforts and opened later that month.

Students in group classes pay a $10 drop in fee. The van Wyk’s offer scholarships and discounts for those who cannot afford training.

“I like the group class because it makes me feel like I’m a part of something,” said student, Dillon Towne. “As a group we can grow together and build relationships and help each other get better through life and through the sport of MMA.”

Hentie van Wyk brings 16 years of coaching experience to the gym, after overcoming a health condition that ended his jiujitsu and MMA career in South Africa. He began coaching his wife five years ago.

“Crystal started off as a dancer — a hip hop dancer — and that’s what she loved doing. She didn’t know anything about mixed martial arts and I started coaching her from scratch,” he said. “Win or lose, obviously we love the wins, but we just take each fight as it comes. I need to do a lot of research myself into the signs behind the sport, the physical techniques, and systems and coaching principles.”

Crystal van Wyk came close to walking away from the sport after losses and personal setbacks, but decided to keep training for one more year in 2019.

“To just train morning to night was my job. I won a Muay Thai championship last year and then an MMA fight and I did really, really well,” said Crystal van Wyk. “So I’m turning pro this year, in April, and I’m just happy with what God’s doing in our lives right now.”

The couple train together during the day and host classes at 6 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday. The exercises focus on MMA striking, wrestling, submission and full body workouts to build conditioning.

MMA students
Battleroom MMA students Danielle Wilcox and Jamie Groenewald practice a grappling move during a class in March (photo: Ashley Holbert).

Beginners learn techniques alongside more advanced students.

“With Battleroom MMA, what we’re doing is creating an environment where anyone can come train: a mother, a child, anyone from the street or someone struggling with addiction,” said Crystal van Wyk. “It doesn’t cost a lot of money, and we sponsor a lot of people who don’t have it. It’s about sowing into people, and giving them some kind of purpose and goal.”

Battleroom MMA was closed until social distancing measures from the COVID-19 pandemic were lifted.

During that time, Hentie and Crystal van Wyk continued to train daily and stay in touch with their students until their gym was able to open again.