Saturday, June 15, 2024

<p>Primed Combat mixed martial arts academy owner Gray Maynard demonstrates a striking drill during a mixed martial arts class on April 12, 2023.</p>

Former UFC fighter, MSU wrestler Gray Maynard opens gym in Lansing

“The Bully” isn’t good with computers. Luckily, his wife is

Gray Maynard, a former UFC fighter and Michigan State wrestler, blends sweat and strength together at his newly opened combat gym, “Primed Combat.” Upon entering, you are greeted by his wife, Jess Wheeler, a former Michigan State field hockey player. There, she blends smoothies and other healthy accouterments at “Blend,” a superfood cafe

These 2-in-1 businesses may seem like an odd combination, but the couple that run them are well-matched

“I'm a pretty decent writer because that keeps me engaged, but when I'm trying to figure out a billing system, (it's) terrible,” Maynard said. “It's just like a waste of time. There's so much other things I could be doing.” 

Recently, Maynard went on an adventure at Red River Gorge in Kentucky. Before that, Maynard took his 10-year-old daughter, Stella, ice climbing in Munising, Michigan. While he'd rather use a computer to plan trips, he said, it's important for the couple to have an equal grasp on business analytics

There’s just one sign above the storefront for Primed Combat. The sign for Blend is on backorder, so instead there is small writing on the window with the cafe’s name, logo and hours

What sticks out, however, is that Maynard doesn’t have his name on the gym or on any of the merchandise for sale. It’s not, “Gray Maynard’s Primed Combat” or “Primed Combat by Gray Maynard.” That's not important to him, he said

As you make your way through the buildling and soak in the stereotypical wrestling smells, pictures from Maynard's old fighting days can be seen hung on the walls.  

Maynard said these photos are not meant to boast his accomplishments, but rather act as motivation

“There's not going to be people cheering you on all the time,” he said. “And it's not going to be fun getting to these goals.” 


From Michigan State to UFC

Maynard bounced around high schools as a kid, first at two schools in Las Vegas before landing at St. Edward High School in Ohio, a prestigious wrestling school that has won 36 team state championships. Wheeler, meanwhile, is a native of San Diego, where she learned to play field hockey

So, what brought two West Coast kids to East Lansing

For Wheeler, she said it was a field hockey scholarship and a “divine connection” she felt with Michigan State. For Maynard, it was a link with current MSU Head Coach Roger Chandler. Though a few years older than Maynard, Chandler also went to St. Edward and wrestled at Indiana University before joining MSU staff in 1997. Chandler recruited Maynard to Michigan State

Soon after, Maynard and Wheeler met and have been together ever since.  

“We just kind of were the two West Coast kids and kinda gravitated together,” Maynard said

After graduation, Maynard and Wheeler moved to Arizona as Maynard trained for the 2004 Olympics. However, he didn’t end up qualifying for the U.S. team, and they moved up to Las Vegas where Maynard continued to train in jujitsu. There, he started to make strong connections with people involved with mixed martial arts, such as UFC Hall of Famers B.J. Penn and Randy Couture

One night, he was with some friends at a house in Las Vegas, guzzling down beers and watching a UFC card in the early 2000s. Maynard's buddies joked around, asking him if he could beat former college wrestler Matt Hughes, one of the fighters that night.

From there, Maynard's professional fighting career was born. Nicknamed "The Bully" since his wrestling days at Michigan State, he compiled a 13-7-1 record from 2006 to 2018, many of which were high-profile matches

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“I was kind of a guy nobody wanted to practice with,” Maynard said. “I was really a physical kind of wrestler just like, really attacking and heavy on the head.” 


A health scare from … water?

Maynard and Wheeler never thought their health could be seriously threatened from drinking bottles of water. But near the end of Maynard’s fighting career, both he and Wheeler began to feel different

“We just had our little boy (Geo, now 5 years old) and you have me and Jess just started getting this weird, like, our hands were twitchy, we couldn't look at our phone, our eyes were all blurry,” Maynard said. “It felt like we were getting electrocuted.”

One day, Wheeler’s dad insisted she go get checked out, so he took her to urgent care

“When I got to the urgent care they had asked my dad if I was drunk,” Wheeler said. “It was that bad. (They) put me in a wheelchair because my balance was off. I slurred my speech. It was nuts.” 

Before Maynard and Wheeler moved back to Lansing, Maynard planned to visit his sister, who had married one of his best friends from college and still lives in Lansing. Though Maynard arrived at the airport, he was completley out of it, and missed his flight. 

In the meantime, the two of them kept drinking the water. Why wouldn't they? They had no clue what was causing their mysterious sickness

“We were grasping at straws,” Wheeler said. “We're like, 'Oh, we got poisoned by beef jerky. Oh, we got some viral attack on our livers,' but on and on, we never thought it was water. And that's it. That's how reckless things can be, right?” 

It wasn’t until a couple years ago when they began to connect the dots. Wheeler’s brother sent a text one day with an article about numerous people getting seriously sick and at least one death, all linked back to Real Water

Maynard had been sponsored by Real Water, a company that advertised itself as an alkaline water and offered delivery to people’s homes. Today, Real Water has been linked to an outbreak of liver illnesses and is no longer on the shelves. It has faced numerous lawsuits, including one from the Department of Justice, which sued in 2021.

“Crazy,” Wheeler said


A kickboxing class

Wednesday nights at 6:30 p.m., Maynard teaches an adult kickboxing class to cap off the day. Blend is closed because Wheeler is with the kids, but the building is still hot, humid and intense.

Ten participants are there, some of whom have already sweated through their shirts midway through the 60-minute training session. They’re each paired up with another trainee and spread across the black floor mat, returning jabs, crosses, hooks and kicks to each other while focusing on form

Maynard interrupts as he notices some people are backing away from the kicks. He reminds them to step up into it, that way the kick hits more of the quad muscle instead of the bone. The kickboxers acknowledge his instructions with a quick unison shout of “1, 2, 3,” followed by a loud clapping together of their boxing gloves

Then they move to the punching bags, finishing with two minutes of shadow boxing and a light cool down jog in a circle around the mat.  

Primed Combat opened in January and, at the moment, they only have about 25 members. They’ve intentionally opted for a slower, more organic approach to growing their business. Maynard said it allows for some trial-and-error as they adjust to being business owners while balancing time with their two children.

Blend opened in the fall and does not require a membership

Wheeler said there were times in the past where she maybe considered opening a place like Blend.

Whenever she and Maynard would travel together, she said, they always sought healthy food options wherever they went. Even after moving to Lansing a few years ago, Wheeler Googled her options and was left disappointed

“There's definitely times I would go to towns and be like, 'God, why doesn’t anybody have a good organic smoothie bar?'” Wheeler said. “Maybe I'll even take away organic at this point, just like healthy food on the go, right?” 

Blend offers an array of nutritious options such as smoothies, açaí bowls, coffee, steamed tea, sparkling juices, organic chocolates and protein powder. None of Wheeler’s products include refined sugars and she aims to partner with companies that produce products free of things such as mycotoxins, molds, pesticides and insecticides

“People are looking for this health and wellness, but sometimes these products make people more sick,” she said. “And so my mission is basically to really try to provide the best that I know or at least reach out and network with people and have partnerships with people that are aligned with my belief system.” 


A taco shop, a guy with a mullet and a future

John Ward of Grand Ledge was next door at a taco shop when he noticed something new. He had been involved on and off with mixed martial arts in the past, so when he saw Primed Combat, it caught his eye. 

He’s been a regular participant in classes ever since. Ward even said he’s lost around 40 pounds of weight since joining during the winter

“There's so much I love about it,” Ward said. “The camaraderie is one. The relationships that I've built here are pretty awesome. It keeps me on track in like a physical standpoint.” 

Al Durham, who is also known on social media and across Lansing as the owner of Guy With A Mullet Landscaping, said he was at a bar when he overheard others talking about Maynard opening a gym in Lansing. It caught Durham’s attention, and stuck in his mind for a few days

Durham messaged Maynard on Instagram and confirmed the news for himself

“When (Maynard’s) season of Ultimate Fighter was on T.V.…that was me and my friends all going to his house to watch him on T.V.,” Durham said. “So that was like how I got into MMA in general was him.” 

Maynard invited Durham to check out the gym in September before it had opened. Less than a year later, Durham helps teach some of the classes

Maynard and Wheeler have utilized Durham as a guinea pig to try out all the new stuff, such as the meal plan. And whenever Maynard pauses the exercise to do some sort of demonstration, he picks on Durham to be his dummy.

“A lot of times fight gyms are like super, super cutthroat and it's all like alpha bro, like, 'I gotta come in here and prove to be the toughest guy in here,’” Durham said. “And that's not here, man. His idea and then what my idea for what a perfect gym would have always been was the same thing. We were on the same page from day one: a place where people can walk in that have never tried it before and have an ego free environment to do so.” 

Besides the physical results yielded from working out at Primed Combat and drinking healthy food at Blend, Durham and Ward both said the community is also what drives their enjoyment of the environment. Even after the last day of class, they will spend time together through activities like rock climbing

“(This guy) he makes insane sculptures and then I mow lawns and, because of this, we're friends,” Durham said as a fellow kickboxer walked by. “He's one of the most talented people I've ever met and I'm just a dumb dude. But in here, we're all the same thing. And that's what's cool. It's very communal.” 

Durham and Ward are also huge fans of Wheeler’s creations at the front of the store

“She's unreal,” Durham said of Wheeler. “She's so smart with her what's supposed to go on the body, what's not supposed to go on the body, even how to eat stuff that probably shouldn't be going in the body anyways.” 

Classes are held Monday-Saturday in the mornings and evenings. Perhaps it will expand when they grow and hire more employees. But for now, they’re just taking it all in the present time

“Anytime people reach their goals or they're on their way to their goals, I mean, that's great,” Maynard said. “Whether it's a world title or just getting to where people feel a little healthy and good to go.”