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‘Padrino’ uses martial arts to keep young people off the streets

Bail bondsman Howard Scott “Padrino” Puig runs a non-profit organization teaching mixed martial arts to troubled young people.

By Rodolfo Roman
Special to The Miami Herald
For about two months, Francisco Diaz traveled the streets of Hialeah on a bike, looking for a spot to sleep.

Diaz, 22, called the benches and sidewalks home after he was kicked out of his house because of problems with drugs and alcohol.

“My bad choices and involvement led me to drugs,” said Diaz, whose troubles with illegal substances also complicated a disease he has been diagnosed with, Lupus.

Fortunately for Diaz, a family member helped him find a place where he would learn self control: Padrino’s MMA Fight Team gym, a non-profit organization dedicated to taking troubled men and women off the streets and putting them in a gym to learn mixed martial arts.

Diaz’s new addiction is to kicking heavy bags and grappling.

“It has made me feel better,” he said. “It got me away from the people that are involved with drugs.”

He said he would smoke marijuana and use cocaine, which affected his breathing and caused hair loss.

Located within warehouses in Hialeah, 4735 E. 10th Ct., Padrino’s MMA Fight Team is spearheaded by Howard Scott Puig, a bail bondsman who also has appeared on a Spanish-language television program.

“I told myself that I would give others the opportunity I never had, so I do this for the kids,” he said.

His nickname, Padrino, means “godfather” in Spanish. He has worked with kids as young as 8 and adults as old as 32.

Puig, 48, was born in New York, but raised in Puerto Rico. To escape trouble, he learned martial arts. “I have always loved the discipline martial arts provides,” he said. “I was around gangs. Martial arts helped me get out of it.”

In Puerto Rico, he worked as a police officer and trained judo, boxing, jiu jitsu and Tae Kwon Doe for several years. While in the military, he also learned several techniques. He doesn’t have a belt in any martial arts.

“I believe in the knowledge you have in your head,” said Puig, who has lived in Miami for 23 years. “I don’t need a belt because I don’t believe in it, because anyone can go out and buy a belt.”

There are more than 120 students enrolled in his program. He personally spent about $30,000, which has paid for the location, dumbbells, pads, mats, boxing bags and other workout materials. A weight set was donated from ATI Schools and Colleges.

He opened the gym earlier this year. He was inspired after returning to train at a local workout spot.

Aside from being a bail bondsman, Puig also builds mixed martial arts cages for local promotions at the 4,300-square-foot warehouse turned gym. The money he makes goes into the non-profit. Students help him build the cages.

The gym is not only a place to learn martial-arts moves like an arm bar, but also a place where Puig lives and eats. He also allows some of his students to sleep over. Currently, he has four who call Padrino’s MMA Fight Team gym home including himself.

“They have parents, but they turn on them,” said Puig. “I think that the problem is that they need someone with a strong hand.”

Those who train don’t pay. Some of his students he personally helped get out of jail like Luis Perez, 20, who has been behind bars three times for stealing car parts.

“The gym keeps me out of the streets and it allows me to control myself,” Perez said.

He also has recently found a job, but is on probation.

Fraivel Hernandez, 39, a judo and King Fu expert, trains students free of charge.

“I do this for the love,” he said. “What is done in this school is a rarity. There is a need to take these kids out of the streets and helping them, which brings joy to us. It is better to give than to receive.”

On a recent hot muggy Saturday, students bowed and warmed up before learning new grappling techniques. A 50-minute cardio session got the class started. The course included non-stop jumping jacks, push-ups and crunches. It was followed by an open mat session to test what students have learned so far. Anyone can train. Interested students need to sign a waiver to work out.

Ana Velazquez, mother of Perez, watched how Puig made her son run laps around the gym when he came in late.

“This program has helped him a lot,” she said. “He gave me a lot of headaches. But, ever since he got with Padrino he has changed.”

Puig’s goal is to have some of the students compete in professional mixed martial arts. He already has some of the kids competing in the amateur levels.

“They are my kids,” said Padrino, who has none of his own. “These kids needed a father figure that they can lead by example. This will help them gain respect and discipline.”

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