Jarred “Bear” Fiorda poses inside his Cathedral City gym. Credit: Courtesy of Free MMA

Mixed martial arts instructor and fighter Jarred “Bear” Fiorda was feeling pretty good when we chatted recently.

His nonprofit Free MMA gym was again open in Cathedral City after being shut down due to COVID-19, and his free martial-arts classes were gradually gaining more participants. Oh, and he just started training in earnest for a major MMA bout, where he’ll fight at 185 pounds, on Oct. 2.

The gym, at 68545 Ramon Road, No. C101, offers both free workout space and a variety of free-to-all courses every Wednesday through Sunday. Mixed martial arts, taekwondo, ground work and children’s self-defense are the focus. Some classes are taught by Fiorda; others are also taught by experienced MMA combatants.

“It feels kind of like it did in the beginning, like when you first started out,” Fiorda, 24, said about the gym reopening. “You start building your name and getting people’s attention. … Just before the pandemic, we’d have classes of 15 to 30 people, and now it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 people per class—and sometimes even less than that. And the donations are not the same. Everyone got hit hard, so not everyone’s able to put in what they used to, or what they’d like to. There’s great enthusiasm from the individuals who are coming in, but the numbers are a little bit less due to the nature of the pandemic.”

Summer Helene is a marketing-media strategist who works closely with Fiorda to create, monetize and guide his rapidly expanding social-media footprint. His short video posts on TikTok, Livit, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have netted him roughly 1 million followers across the platforms.

“All of the money that Jarred makes from social media and from his fights goes to the gym,” Helene said. “Everything he does goes toward that gym. He built the branding and put all the money toward the gym, including any branding deals. The only deals he won’t take are with marijuana companies and things like that, because most of his followers are children, so he’s a little choosier about the brands that he works with.”

Alexis Romero is Fiorda’s manager. She handles logistics for the gym and his fights, and training arrangements, among other things. We asked her what the funding foundation was for Free MMA.

“He does have a line of merchandise,” Romero said, “and he also has livestreams that he does, and people donate money specifically to the gym. He brings on different sponsorship partners, and he gets paid just to do the social media itself. The TikTok Creator Fund pays him, and he (posts on) another application called Livit that’s currently paying him to do livestreams. Also, Crush soda had him do a couple of ads to promote their products. Everything is really a joint effort, but I think Jarred has done an incredible thing, not only with the gym, but with his social media. And behind every great person, there’s always a team.”

Fiorda credits his mother with starting him down the MMA path at a young age as he grew up in Desert Hot Springs.

“When I was 5 years old, my father passed away, and a large portion of the family that I knew at that time had also stepped out of my life and out of my mom’s life,” Fiorda shared. “That left me very, very angry and aggressive as a kid. In school, I was physically acting out. I was getting in fights and attacking other students. So my mom decided that, if I’m going to be this aggressive, she was going to put me some (place) where I could do that productively. That’s how I actually started martial arts itself, and that was at a taekwondo school. I fell in love with it, and I started competing at 7 or 8 years old.”

Free MMA gym founders Jarred “Bear” Fiorda and his mother, Michelle. Credit: Courtesy of Free MMA

Fiorda said his mom worked extra hard to keep him in MMA classes when the Great Recession arrived in 2008-2009. However, not all of his friends stayed in the classes.

“It becomes a matter of paying for electricity and (to keep) the roof over their heads, or paying for martial-arts classes,” Fiorda said. “When that happened, some (fellow former students) got into gangs, or drugs, or violence, and a couple of them passed away. To me, if they had stayed in martial arts, that would never have happened. They would have gotten the same opportunities and the same chances that I did—that I was able to act on, and that give me the life I have now.”

These experiences are why Fiorda and his mother, Michelle, started Free MMA.

“Simply come in, work hard and reap the benefits of what you put in on those mats—and we did it as a nonprofit for that reason,” Fiorda said. “We don’t charge for the classes at any point. You come in today and take your first class, and then come back a year from now, and it’s the same price—free.”

Helene described Fiorda’s mother as “terrifying and incredible, all at one time.”

“She’s great. She’ll stand on the sidelines at his fights. She’s his No. 1 fan, and I love their relationship,” Helene said. “He’s the only man I know who would go into business with his mother willingly. She’ll yell to him in the ring to put his hands up, and he’ll respond to her quicker than he will to his coaches. It’s just that ingrained. It’s amazing. … She worked at Animal Samaritans for many years (as) an accountant and bookkeeper. So, she helps him with the gym; it comes out of her pocket, and it comes out of his pocket. And, of course, there are donations. But this past year, it’s come entirely out of their pockets.”

Fiorda uses his deep roots and connections in the region’s martial-arts universe to get other teachers—and frequently, these experienced hands also use the Free MMA gym as their training base.

“We have people who are either ex-combatants or current combatants at different levels, be it amateur or pro,” Fiorda said. “One of my earliest instructors for Muay Thai kick boxing was a 10-year competition winner in the ring, and he is an active participant in the gym. He’ll come by and train with us, or run a class if need be.”

One of those relationships enabled Fiorda to establish an exchange program, of sorts, with another well regarded MMA gym, KBX Fitness in Indio.

“KBX Fitness is run by UFC fighter Cub Swanson and his brother, Steve Swanson,” Fiorda said. “Just before the pandemic began, they were coming out (to our gym), and we were holding friendly group sparring sessions where 30-40 people would be in our space throwing their hands and feet. Also, we’d travel out to their gym and do the same thing.”

At the risk of dampening the Fiorda’s mood, we asked him if—in the face of the Delta-variant-driven COVID-19 wave—was he concerned that he may have to shut down the gym again.

“I’m absolutely concerned,” Fiorda said. “But even when we reopened, we didn’t say, ‘OK, come on in! Throw your masks off. No need for vaccination.’ We never said anything like that, and we never promoted anything like that. When we reopened, we had people wearing masks indoors during the operation of the gym, and we still do. Even in the lessons, (the students) are spaced apart and doing their drills and activities with very minimal contact. During the lockdown, we actually livestreamed all of our classes. So, people still had the opportunity to go on our Facebook page and follow along with the lessons we put out there for everybody. If it comes time to do another lockdown, then we’re ready and willing to start doing so again immediately, the same way we did before to ensure that everyone stays safe.”

To date, Fiorda’s career as a fighter has lagged behind his accomplishments as an entrepreneur and teacher.

“This upcoming bout is a big fight for me,” Fiorda allowed. “There are supposed to be cameras onsite to televise it. It’s going to be one of the biggest fights I’ve ever had. Personally, to me, this is another bout to not only test myself to make sure that I’m still growing and still a great fighter, but (also whether) I’m still able to represent Free MMA and represent my students, and make sure that I can perform at the optimal level that I need to be successful.”

The way Fiorda sees things, the more successful he is as an MMA fighter, the more successful the gym cam be.

“They are absolutely entwined,” Fiorda said. “But my fighting represents the gym. My fighting brings money into the gym—the sponsorship money, any online product deals I make. That all goes to Free MMA. The fighting (should) take precedence, as that’s my way to represent the gym.”

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/FreeMMAGyms.

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...