Gibson Shepherd readily identified with his MMA coach, Andrew Yates.

The 9-year-old and his coach both have wavy, shoulder-length hair.

Natalie Walls, 10, sees women training at Golden Fights gym and knows that she, too, can do that.

The two special-needs children have been training at Golden Fights, and for the hour they're in the gym a couple of times a week, they're just like everybody else.

"You look over and he's laughing with one of his friends over whatever joke somebody told or whatever the situation was. They're all friends," Gibson's mother, Brenda Shepherd, said. "Martial arts is hard, it's not an easy thing, so my child and her child (Liz Walls, Natalie's mother) are hanging with what most people would consider a normal child doing everything that they're doing. That's a proud parent moment. Our kids are just one of the other kids."

Natalie has complex regional pain syndrome type 1, in which nerves in her body get over-stimulated, causing her chronic pain. Kick boxing has helped her control some of that pain.

"It helps her kind of rework the areas that are in chronic pain flux," Liz Walls said. "It helps her keep those areas active and work the areas that are kind of over-stimulated."

More than the physical aspect of mixed martial arts training has been the psychological aspect.

"The self-confidence," Liz said. "You have this thing, it's missed by a lot of doctors because they don't think it's real. They take X-rays and nothing's wrong. It dips the confidence and coming here brings that confidence back."

Natalie said she enjoys boxing the best and "playing with my friends."

For Gibson, who suffered a noxious brain injury when he was three days old, plus had a brain bleed and has epilepsy, the time he spends at the gym has taught him better motor function.

"Playing balls," he said was his favorite activity.

"Coach Andrew (Yates) has him where he grips the balls and does a bear crawl," his mother said. "At first he could barely go and now he's going all the way across the mat. It's been awesome."

Yates and the other instructors tailor lessons for the special-needs children, but they're also held accountable to learn the drills correctly. Natalie, who's been going to the gym for nine months, is still working toward her first belt.

"She asked, 'Why don't I have a belt yet?' I told her you haven't reached that belt level," her mother said. "It's the same standards and accountability, and I think that's great. You're a normal kid here, you're going to be held accountable like a normal kid."

Brenda Shepherd was looking for alternative therapy methods for her son when she found out about Golden Fights' Hope Adaptive Mixed Martial Arts program.

"We ran into a dead end and they kept telling us all this stuff he wasn't going to be able to achieve, and we've never been OK with that," she said. "We started thinking outside the box and found that non-traditional therapies work better for him."

Her son, who has been taking private and group sessions at the gym the past two years, has gross motor delays and had trouble manipulating certain parts of his body, she said, including being able to pick up objects with his hands.

The ball bear crawl has helped him to the point that he can put his shoes on by himself, and he's working on getting his socks on and off. He can roller skate now, can ride a bike, and he's learned how to swim.

"Coach Andrew has gone online and read different ways of strengthening different muscles and we've worked on them throughout the summer and slowly but surely he's putting on his own pants and he's like 'LOOK!' '' his mother said. "He has his pants on, and he's excited."

Part of the training is helping the children — and special-needs adults — improve motor skills and get some needed exercise, but they also spar with their classmates. Natalie has days when she has nerves flare up, but she's learning how to fight through that pain.

"She has one in her leg now and she doesn't think about it while she's doing it," Liz said. "She can work through the flare-ups with physical activity, work through it with the therapy and getting her mind off it. The hour we're in here kick boxing, even when she is sparring, she'll go slower on the leg that's hurting right now, but she'll still kick with it.

"That's a big part of it, the psychological part. This is a thing I'm going to have, how do I deal with it in a real-world situation. That's what she's learning in a large part here."

Gibson, Natalie and many of their classmates will be at Cage Wars on Saturday night at Las Colonias Amphitheater. Proceeds from the event will go toward helping to pay gym fees for special-needs MMA students.

They've both been to fights before — Gibson cheered as loud as anyone, throwing his arms in the air when Coach Andrew won his bout.

"He won with his coach," Brenda said. "That's awesome. As a girl, (Natalie) can watch her coach go on to do great things. How many times can you say 'I train next to a pro fighter and they treat me as if I'm just like they are?' ''

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