By Kevin Colley
The Scioto Voice Writer
The definition of ‘hidden gem’ is something that possesses a value or beauty that is immediately apparent, which therefore has received far less recognition than it deserves.
When one visits the Hoover Combat Athletics facility that sits not even a stone’s throw away from Carey’s Run in West Portsmouth, there’s hidden gems abound.
From the massive training facility itself – which houses karate, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, mixed martial arts, self defense, and competition training – to the instructors themselves and even down to the adults and kids who participate under the Hoover Combat Athletics umbrella, it’s clear that for any first-timer, the atmosphere that surrounds all involved is one that features upbeat attitudes as well as a humble, but confident mindsets throughout the facility.
And when a team or a program has those qualities mastered, the sky is truly the limit for not only said team or program, but the individuals who are involved in it.
With two top-ranked youths in the state realm in Gabriel Wills and Sydney Hoskins in addition to a plethora of kids who are coming on strong in a hurry, Hoover Combat Athletics Owner and Head Instructor Nate Hoover, at just 25 years of age, has built a powerhouse of a program – to the point where HCA may very well be on the verge of becoming a household name and acronym.
However, perhaps the best part – and the key part to Hoover’s success – is the Scioto County native’s ability to simplify objectives through all of the successes and keep everybody’s heads and eyes squarely on what is truly important.
“I’m just happy to have a place that kids have an opportunity to expose themselves to something like this,” Hoover said. “Southern Ohio doesn’t have anything like this. It’s an opportunity for kids to even see whether they like it or not. As of right now, I’m going by demand – whether people like it or not and where people are going to compete, where we are doing well, and where we are having problems. I have an extensive background in it, and I’ve just been going as people ask.”
Hoover, who holds a law degree from Toledo – which he earned during the COVID-19 pandemic – is clearly self-motivated.
Having trained in martial arts since the age of five, Hoover trained under the legendary John Bender near Clay Local Schools. He trained with Bender – a seventh-degree black belt and published author who runs his own martial arts school and has trained numerous individuals in international karate competitions as well as Toughman competitions – until the age of eight, then moved his karate training out to Carey’s Run, where the Hoovers have and still reside in.
“Dad (Tracy Hoover) built the front of the dojo,” Hoover said. “That gave us training space for karate until I was 15.”
Hoover then stopped training in martial arts at 15 formerly and got into bodybuilding from the ages of 15 to 19 at a competitive level before giving bodybuilding up as a competitive sport.
From there, law school – along with training – was Hoover’s main focus.
But when COVID unexpectedly shut down many hobbies that were sought out by Americans, Hoover, while working on finishing his Toledo law degree from back home in Carey’s Run, took matters into his own hands.
“During that time, everything was shut down – literally nothing was open,” Hoover said. “I just came back in here with the mindset that I was just going to work out. I had the mats out front and four sets of dumbbells. I told myself that I would figure it out, but at the time, I just needed a place to train. All of the gyms were closed, and it just started back as this being a spot that I could use for myself.”
As Hoover continued to train himself, he opened up his dojo for further training by offering classes one day a week. The building, which originally housed trailers and parts for sprint cars as Hoover’s father, Tracy, raced on local dirt tracks as a hobby, had the front repurposed in 2021, and Hoover added onto it from that point forward to create a truly state-of-the-art facility.
“I was finishing up my last year of law school, and I said, ‘I can do this. I can offer classes one day a week. Whether people come or not, I’ll be training, and if people show up, we’ll do something, if not, I’ll just keep training.’” Hoover said. “From there, it’s spawned into what it is now … I had a cousin who trained for a little while, and he was decent, so he came down and we trained together for a little bit, here and there,” Hoover said. “Then I had a couple of friends ask me, ‘Hey, you care if I come down and train?’ I started teaching them, and then there were a couple of other guys, so it ended up being about four of us. They said, ‘Let’s go to the Arnold Classic and see how we do.’ I didn’t know about any of that starting out. I was thinking, ‘Well, I know the Arnold Classic from bodybuilding. It’s a fun sport, so I said, ‘Let’s go see what happens.’ A year later, I find out that it’s one of the biggest North American grappling events in the United States.”
He, along with several friends who trained alongside him at the Dojo, ultimately ended up competing at the Arnold Classic the following year – and just like that, the rest, as they say, is history.
“We go up there and win, so that tells me, ‘Okay, we’re doing something right,’” Hoover said.
In May 2021, Hoover ultimately started a kids program. Four kids joined initially.
Now, Hoover’s having to turn kids away – because as he fairly describes it, his instructional lessons couldn’t possibly be as personalized with 50 or more kids in the program as compared to having a fraction of that amount as of the present day.
“It’s why I do this,” Hoover said of the kids. “I’ve just been going with everything, and I haven’t really reflected or taken the time to reflect on everything up to now. It’s just a constant mode of, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ I’ve had to turn down a hundred times more kids than what you see in front of you, and I wish I could find more, but at the same time, we’re doing well because it’s a small, concentrated group. Right now, each year, I’m able to provide small, very specific attention to an individual, not a group of 50. If I’m talking to a group of 50, then everything changes. The instruction changes. The method of teaching changes. Everything’s different. It feels commercialized. That’s not my goal. I do this because I enjoy it. It’s certainly a job, but my purpose for doing it is for everyone else.”
Hoover has certainly done an excellent job of providing for the youth. Need proof? One needs to look no further than two of his brightest star pupils in Gabriel Wills and Sydney Hoskins.
As of last Wednesday, Wills, a 13-year-old, 117-pounder, was ranked first in the state in gi and no-gi grappling and second in the nation in both categories while Hoskins, a nine-year old, also sits first in the state in gi and no-gi grappling with a third-place national ranking in both standings.
Recently, the duo’s performances include five gold medals and a bronze medal in a Lexington, Ky. competition across six different weight classes (Hoskins) and two gold medals in Lexington, Ky. as well as four West Virginia State Championship gold medals (Wills). The pair also combined for five gold medals at the Fuji BJJ 2023 Championship in early April.
However, the pair’s talents were truly on display at the Arnold Classic in early March – as Gabe won the 12-13 year-old, 115-pound Arnold Classic No-Gi Championship in dominating fashion with wins in every match by submission in a minute or less, while Sydney won the 8-9 year old, 75-pound Arnold Classic No-Gi Championship – all while defeating a male figure that had won 32 consecutive matches and had defeated Hoskins twice before before Hoskins defeated the male youth by submission in the championship match.
“Gabe and Sydney both compete multiple weight classes and multiple experience levels above where they are,” Hoover said. “They’re not competing against people their own size or weight, they’re going up in class. Gabe’s a 13-year-old, 117-pound kid fighting against a 15-year-old, 135-pound kid, and he’s winning. He’s only been training for eight months, so that would put him in the beginner category, timewise, but he’s fighting in the expert divisions, and he’s beating those kids. The sky’s the limit for both of them,” Hoover said. “As long as they stay consistent and just continue try to let us guide them in the best way that we know how and keep them safe, I think whatever they both choose to do with it in life, they’ll be able to do.”
However, all of the youths who are training under the Hoover Combat Athletics umbrella have made strides far beyond the norm. This was evidenced by the unit’s finish at the Cherry Valley Grappling Industries competition in late June – where Hoover Combat Athletics finished third out of 31 teams overall with a fraction of the kids competing (eight in all) compared to units that brought multiple times as many youths.
For the program’s quick success, Hoover credits Hoskins and Wills for setting a winning standard that is motivating their peers.
“We have a phenomenal group of kids, but those two are the standouts, and they’re giving other kids the courage to want to compete,” Hoover said. “It’s a very scary idea at first. You’re going into a combat sport where you’re literally showing up every day to fight. To me, there’s no more of a confrontational, physical game than that. These kids don’t come in with the intention to compete like that, and they’re not mean, bad people. They’re all baseline good kids, so to develop that, in my opinion, is a way that will allow them to live a more complete, safe, and fulfilled life and feel sure in their decisions instead of have to succumb to anyone else’s desires or what they want. Those two make the rest of the kids want to compete, and it creates a team atmosphere to where we’re all helping each other grow and learn. They see the success that those two have, and it makes those kids say, ‘Well, I want to do that, too, and it’s not because I want to be better than them, but it’s because I want to be a part of something great.’ It creates a very unique atmosphere.”
Beyond the kids, Hoover’s had great success with adults as well. Four adults involved with Hoover Combat Athletics won championships at the Arnold Classic in March, including two in the 230-pound weight class.
But while success is rolling in like a well-oiled machine at the moment, Hoover is refraining from setting the bar.
And why would he need to? The success, after all, is coming naturally – which is exactly how Hoover likes it and prefers it to be now as well as into the future.
“I try not to set too many expectations on things,” Hoover said. “It makes success feel better. If you don’t expect it and it comes, then it’s sweet. If you expect it and fail, it’s worse. I’ve been to the top of the sport in karate, so I understand where world championship performance is at. I guess that my goal would be to bring some sort of world championship here to someone, whether it be a boy, girl, adult, male, female, whatever or whoever it many be. We have competitors from a 40-year-old woman to a seven-year-old kid. We kind of take it for what it is. Right now, everyone’s winning and everyone’s doing well, so I can’t complain. As long as we’re on this upward trend, then I’m happy.”