VIRGINIA — Tyler Kotnik diligently went through his ‘ninja moves’’ at the Mashkawizzi Academy in Virginia recently as trainer and facility owner Tat Romero skillfully moved his focus mitts all around the Eveleth 9-year-old.
“Step in. Do it again,’’ Romero said as Kotnik moved his body and black and green boxing gloves to the music in the workout area. “Shoot, shoot, shoot,’’ he stated, while encouraging Kotnik to grab his leg and lift. “Good,’’ he calmly added as the young boy completed each move and looked to do more.
Kotnik, who suffers from autism and is partially deaf, has been working since October with gym owner Romero, who also works as a Fond du Lac Tribal Reservation drug and alcohol recovery case manager and is a retired MMA fighter.
“I started having him work with Tat when he was getting bullied in school. With having autism and a learning delay, he’s more simpler and kids can tell nowadays, and kids are already cruel as it is. In order to help him defend himself, I started having him train with Tat to learn self defense moves so he wouldn’t get ... bullied in school anymore. It has done wonders for him,’’ said Tyler’s mother Alyssa.
“His confidence has gone up, his self-esteem has gone up, his grades have gone up,’’ she added.
Romero doesn’t even focus on Tyler being autistic during their 30-minute sessions each week.
“I really don’t see it that way. I knew he was on the (autism) spectrum, but I treat anyone that walks through these doors the same.’’
“He definitely catches on a lot quicker than anybody, adults even, that I’ve worked with,’’ Romero said later. “Yes, he’s young and his form needs a lot of work, but he knows the combinations perfectly. All I have to say is one number ... and he hammers them out. He knows what he’s got to hit and where to move. Once he gets older, we’ll start buttoning up on the form.’’
Why do the mixed martial arts help Tyler’s confidence?
”I think it all boils down to just cultivating that little bit of resiliency. We all have it. It’s just a matter of tapping into it. I think any kind of martial arts are key.’’ Romero said.
Kotnik has seen a lot of success from her son in just a short time.
“Just working with Tat, learning boundaries, learning self discipline, using what he learns here in daily life. You have to learn your own discipline,’’ she said.
In addition to improved confidence, Tyler’s grades have improved, which includes his reading and math abilities.
“He was struggling in school and now he’s getting more confident, asking for more help. He’s defending himself more. It has made a huge impact on his life,’’ his mom said. “It’s nice to see where he was to where he is now. He’s a different child.’’
Kotnik found out about Romero through Tyler’s personal care attendant and she was able to touch base with him through Facebook. Romero wasn’t sure if he worked with autistic kids or not, but Kotnik really wanted to give it a try because her son didn’t want to go to school and came home frustrated and upset.
Romero was ultimately more than willing to work with Tyler, who also has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He spent a couple session studying Tyler and getting to know who he was at first.
“Not a lot of people can handle autistic children,’’ Kotnik said. “They take a lot more time to teach. Tat’s been amazing with Tyler. He has time. He has patience. He has skills. He has helped Tyler so much grow into who he is now.’’
“Tyler loves coming to see Tat,’’ she said. “If he could see Tat all the time, he would.’’
“I really look forward to working with him each week,’’ Romero said. “If I could flood my gym with kids like Tyler, I would be blessed. I’d stick to that and only that.’’
After his session was finished, Tyler said it’s been “good’’ working with Tat.
His mom also state Tyler compares Romero to his favorite pro wrestler John Cena. “He never lets you give up,’’ she said.
“You can’t see me (Cena’s catch phrase),’’ Romero said from across the room.
“You’re his superhero,’’ Kotnik said to him in return.
Asked what his ninja moves are, Romero cautioned Tyler to not say too much. “You can’t tell them what they are though because everybody will know then.’’
When Romero officially opened the Mashkawizzi Academy at the beginning of December, he originally wanted to just do personal one-on-one sessions with kids in need, especially low-income housing kids.
“Basically kids in our community that are at high risk for being picked on, delinquency. The high risk kids that need some supervision. Kids that struggle with resiliency.’’
Romero saw a need for his services, “especially on this side of the Range.’’ He said there is very little for those kids over here that isn’t through-the-roof expensive. Romero’s private sessions are “middle range’’ cost for what he offers and the experience he brings from his personal career, he said.
“The overall goal for me is just helping kids. That’s always been my goal in life. I just want to help kids.’’
Regarding the Mashkawizzi Academy itself, Romero said, “it was always a dream to open a gym and have a gym by myself. I was always wrapped up in the two gyms over in Hibbing, but I just thought I’d give it a shot.
“Just to work with kids and run my MMA team (Iron Range Wolfpac) out of here. I just decided to stay here permanently and offer jiu jitsu, as well. Hopefully that will take off. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.’’
Romero, known as “Mean Bean’’ in MMA fighting, retired from the sport in 2018 after a 18-year career. However, the 39-year-old may or may not stay retired.
“I was playing around with fighting again this year, but we’ll see what happens.’’
The new business is a smaller platform than he’s used to, but it’s been quite rewarding.
“I love it. I love it,’’ he said of working with Tyler.
“From the time he came in, he wouldn’t even look at me before. Now he likes looking at me, responds very well to me and does everything I ask him to.’’
He also jokes about just how hard Tyler works during the sessions.
“How many kids are you going to see smiling the whole time they’re doing burpees,’’ which is a difficult, full-body exercise. “It really motivates a person.’’