LONDONDERRY — Alyssa Marini said the very first time she stepped in the door at Woo Kickboxing Academy, she was already thinking of finding the way out.
But that changed quickly as the Kingston woman found a fitness haven and home that forged her way into a championship mixed martial arts arena.
Last month Marini, 28, took the top prize in a Combat Zone amateur mixed martial arts fighting championship in Manchester and is currently listed as one of the Woo Academy’s “success stories.”
Combat Zone MMA is a long-running martial arts promotion in New England with events now presented at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester after calling the now demolished Rockingham Park home for several years.
It was Marini’s first time in the “cage” on that fight night last month in Manchester. In less than three minutes, she had knocked her opponent cold to win the championship.
For Marini, it was finding her way into the Woo studio that changed everything.
She said one day about four years ago she came to the gym for a free first class try-out session, saying she was “overweight, severely asthmatic and unhappy.”
Marini had been a very active, three-sport athlete in high school and also a college softball player.
“But since graduating in 2010 I struggled to find something that would get me to push myself again like I had back in school at practices,” she said.
She said that very first class made her a bit nervous, but challenged nonetheless.
“At the first class, I was looking for the exit,” Marini said, “but then I came the next day and here we are. I’ve been here ever since.”
Marini continued on with her classes, improving her stamina and cardio, and eventually sat down with Academy owners Roger and Barbara Woo to set up private training sessions as well.
“One week turned into another week,” Roger said. “She’s been coming to class every single day.”
When Marini stated a desire to take on the competitive world of mixed martial arts fighting, Roger said he knew she had the determination to succeed.
“And there are not a whole bunch of girls that wanted to fight,” he said.
For Marini, the atmosphere at a fight, seeing the athletes spar in the “cage” gave her the drive to want more.
“We went to the Combat Zone and saw a fight,” she said. “It was the atmosphere. I wanted to get in with them. It was something I had never done before but I wanted to try it.”
Marini knew she had a lot of work to do before being at the level she needed to be to become a competitive fighter.
She took on a 12-week “transformation” challenge at the Academy under Barbara’s guidance and training schedule. The challenge was not only the fitness part of the plan, but also included a meal plan and lifestyle transformation schedule.
Marini dropped pounds and put down the inhaler she previously needed for her asthma.
“I was able to complete the 12-week challenge and saw amazing results for myself,” she said.
She credits not only Barbara and Roger, but the entire Woo Kickboxing Academy family for ongoing support.
“They have inspired me to keep going and improving my health and to keep striving for more,” Marini said. “It’s a team but also individualized.”
When the night of the fight came, Marini said she was ready, and had a crowd of Woo Academy friends and supporters there to cheer her on as she faced her opponent.
“I remember that punch and the second I saw her going down,” she said. “My hands went up and I just knew.”
The Woo studio at Apple Tree Mall in Londonderry currently has upwards of 250 students of all ages, learning martial arts, kickboxing, and tackling weight and personal training.
For Marini, it’s not just an ongoing quest to maintain good health but also a regular regiment to train among friends.
“I’ve absolutely found a home and family here,” she said.
That’s the main idea, the Woos said.
“Our goal is to build students up, (so they can) do what they want to do, to make them champions,” Roger said.
And everyone walking through the Academy has a personal truth, Barbara said.
“(Marini) walked through our door, I said ‘just give me six months,’ and that was four years ago,” she said. “Everyone has a story, everyone has a place they want to be.”
Marini now has the 7-foot trophy as a testament to her success.
“I couldn’t have done it without the support from Barbara and Roger and the whole Woo Kickboxing family,” she said.