Dr. Luke Wood in the boxing room at The Well, the multi-purpose gym facility at Sac State. (Photo by Terence Duffy)

Giving Students a Fighting Chance With Combat U

Back Longreads May 3, 2024 By Sasha Abramsky

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When Dr. Luke Wood was finding his sea legs as Sacramento State’s new president, he walked over to Urijah Faber’s Ultimate Fitness gym on Folsom Boulevard, put on his boxing gloves and sparred with the gym owner.

Faber received a bachelor’s degree in human development from UC Davis, where he starred as a Division One wrestler. After college, he got drawn into the world of mixed martial arts and fight culture, and by 2003 he was a staple in the Sacramento region fight scene.

Twenty years later, Faber’s gym had an international reputation, with people coming from around the world to engage in the specialized fight training his facility offered. Wood heard about the gym from one such devotee, a young Indian woman named Aranjot Kaur, who loved MMA and decided to enroll at Sac State so that she could be close to the gym. (A Sac State exchange student from Germany wrote about Kaur for Comstock’s student journalist Media Makers Project.)

After that encounter with Kaur, a light went off in Wood’s head. Since he was reinventing the university anyway, why not use the opportunity to partner with Faber in setting up a system so students could go to school for fighting? Wood returned to the gym, talked boxing, MMA, juijitsu and Muay Thai boxing with Faber and decided that as of January 2024 he would open up the university for what he and the gym owner would call Combat U. 

In the months that followed, they hired some of the world’s best coaches to join Sac State to teach combat sports to students and began developing a professional prep program. A newly formed faculty group began working on a Combat U curriculum, including everything from sports psychology and nutrition training for combatants to public relations classes for those more interested in promoting martial sports than in actually fighting themselves. Their aim is to encourage both amateur athletes and those who intend to make a professional career out of fighting. It has proven wildly popular so far, with more than 200 students involved in the program.

This fall, Sac State will host a series of high-profile martial arts and boxing competitions, including, Wood says proudly, a title fight. (He won’t say, at this point, which organization’s title fight this will be for.) They have also issued a throw-down challenge to UC Davis’ boxing team, and the two teams will compete against each other at the Sac State boxing facility in late November of this year.

Under the rubric of the athletic department, Combat U is putting together four fight teams — in Brazilian jiujitsu, boxing, kickboxing and wrestling. They are helping international students with visa applications, setting aside scholarship money for the fighters and developing counseling resources to help MMA fighters stay in school as they pursue their fight dreams. 

“To my knowledge there is nothing like this in the world,” Faber says. “There are a lot of kids that may not have had the opportunity to get an education; but now, through Luke’s vision, are given a real opportunity. We’re now offering aid and assistance in both pursuing combat while also going to college.”

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Dr. Luke Wood has set his competitive sights on remaking his university into an institution that can compete academically, not just with other CSUs — he is clear in his ambition to make the beautiful, tree-filled and ethnically diverse campus the flagship university in the CSU system — but with the University of California campuses and other top-tier institutions around the country. 

May 1, 2024 Sasha Abramsky