A mixed martial arts (MMA) gym in the Mig’maw community of Listuguj, Que., is celebrating its 11th anniversary and owner Dwayne Ward says he’s not planning on slowing down anytime soon.
He runs The Vault, an MMA gym based out of his home that brings in kids from the local school, community members, and people from surrounding French, English and Indigenous communities.
“Roughly 100 people come [to] benefit from this club. [The Vault] being in the reserve, in Listiguj, in a Mi’gmaw community, that makes me proud,” said Ward, who is Mi’gmaw.
“As First Nations, we are natural born warriors. We have warrior blood in our DNA.”
Standing at 5’ 10” and weighing in at 262 lbs, Ward said he stays ready for combat, even as he approaches age 50.
“I love to train. I don’t train just for fights. I fought before, my last fight was in 2015. It’s now 2023, I’m still training because I’d love this. Testing myself. Challenging myself. Getting myself ready, keeping my blade sharp,” he said.
When the gym first opened in 2012, it was across the river from Listuguj.
“It was an old bank, the old National Bank in Campbellton New Brunswick, so we call it The Vault because it actually had two vaults right in the club, which was pretty cool,” said Ward.
Ward has been practicing jiu-jitsu, boxing and MMA since age 38. Since then, his fighting has led him to win two fights and jiu jitsu tournaments and do security for UFC fighters.
“It’s like doing something that I love to do and getting paid. It’s amazing, I’m very blessed,” said Ward.
But before that, he fought an inner battle.
“I was a very bad alcoholic, a very bad drug addict. Life of crime, getting in trouble with the law all the time, getting in trouble with girlfriends, getting in trouble with family, and everybody around me all the time. and my life was going downhill,” he said.
At 25 he went to an Indigenous addictions treatment centre in Gesgapegiag, and Ward has been sober since then. He said sobriety is what’s allowed him to keep up with the young fighters at his gym.
“I don’t come down from booze, I don’t come down from drugs, I’m always, you know, All I need is a cup of coffee and play some Metallica tunes. I’m ready to go,” he said.
He drew on his experience as an addictions counsellor and youth intervention worker and now he helps people by coaching kids and adults from all walks of life.
“So many people have come to me and told me ‘Dwayne, I was suicidal.’ ‘Dwayne, I couldn’t go out of the house and talk to people.’ ‘Dwayne, I didn’t socialize with people Dwayne, I had mental health problems.’ After class, I don’t feel those things,” said Ward.
Ward views combat as an essential life skill.
“I’ve been training my kids since they were four years old… how to hit pads, how to choke a person out, how to do things that are going to save them,” he said.
“I’m not saying it’s going to happen to everybody, but if that situation arose that they had to defend themselves it’s not going to be like a deer in headlights.”
Ward said one of his female students was able to fight off an assailant.
“She told me her training that she received at the Vault helped her with the person that was trying to physically assault her,” said Ward. She thanked me for what The Vault did for her. You can’t put a price tag on that,” said Ward.
He said MMA also teaches discipline – to win fights, you need to work hard.
“It’s all about doing your homework first, I always tell people you gotta do your cardio, you gotta do your sparring, you gotta do your pad work, you gotta do your bag work. You gotta do everything that it takes,” he said.
Ward says MMA is a great outlet for anyone looking for emotional release.
“I can go hit a person, they hit me [back], and I don’t get charged at the end of it and we shake hands.What other better kind of profession that you can get into that if you got that violent side, that alpha side in you, you train hard, this is the perfect place for to take that aggression out,” he said.