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Young mixed martial artist transforms on and off the mat

Mixed martial artist Max Kolding of Marble Falls

Mixed martial artist Max Kolding of Marble Falls poses with the swords he won for first place in a National American Grappling Association tournament and two Texas Catch Wrestling Coalition awards. Staff photo by Jennifer Fierro

Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Max Kolding used to prefer staying in the background. Now, the once-shy 8-year-old lives a more social life thanks to combat sports.

The Live Oak Leadership Academy third-grader practices and competes in mixed martial arts, Texas catch wrestling, and Jiu Jitsu with the support of his mother and stepfather, Ashley and Isaac Villela. 

“His social skills weren’t there,” Ashley said of Max before he became involved in the sports. 

Asperger’s is on the autism spectrum, and people with the syndrome often have difficulty with social interactions and personal relationships. 

When Ashley and Isaac married four years ago, the couple blended their two families into one, which now includes nine children. For a child with Asperger’s, who often needs structure and a routine, being part of a large family can be challenging. On top of that, Max and Isaac struggled at first in their relationship, common for step-parents and stepchildren. 

But they developed a bond on the mat.

Ashley and Isaac own and operate Caged Boxer Mixed Martial Arts, 1510 U.S. 281 North in Marble Falls. Ashley, a Jiu Jitsu practitioner, teaches the children’s class. Isaac coaches athletes for competitions. 

Max turned his attention to mixed martial arts about two years ago, and with Isaac as his coach, strengthened his relationship with his stepfather. 

At 8 years old, Max has begun to make a name for himself in combat sports. He won the Grapple at the Ghost show in Corpus Christi on Feb. 12-13 to remain unbeaten, adding that honor to the two Texas Catch Wrestling Coalition awards he previously earned.

“It’s just fun,” Max said about the sports. “I like wrestling with people.”

His parents also have watched him transform outside of competitions.

“This has helped him come out of his shell,” Ashley said. “He doesn’t display autism like he used to.”   

Now, Kolding can have conversations with people he doesn’t know and has made more friends, she said. And, he’s built long-lasting relationships with his new family members. 

Max practices under the tutelage of Ashley and Isaac two hours a day at least four days a week at Caged Boxer Mixed Martial Arts. The athletes spend a lot of time training and practicing techniques and developing skills. 

“In class, he is taught how to correctly execute a certain move, where to put his wrists and hands, and if he does what he is shown, he will have accomplished the move,” Ashley said.

The training also gives Max structure and routine and requires attention to detail and strong focus, common characteristics in people with Asperger’s.

“My husband will give Max a set of moves,” Ashley said. “(Max is) very structured. He practices those moves and thrives on structure. It helps him.”

It’s a mix that’s helping Max win on the mat and in life.