Mixed Martial Arts fighter Brock Locnikar, 8, in the octagon, takes precious advise from his corner men Clay Carpenter and Thiago Azeredo during United States Fight League(USFL) All-star Pankration show at Blue Water Casino in Parker, Arizona on 25th of October 2013. Photo: Miikka Pirinen
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Mixed martial arts fighter Brock Locnikar, 8, in the octagon, takes precious advise from his corner men Clay Carpenter and Thiago Azeredo during United States Fight League All-star Pankration show at Blue Water Casino in Parker, Arizona, Oct. 2013.Miikka Pirinen
Mixed Martial Arts fighter Brock Locnikar, 8, in the octagon, takes precious advise from his corner men Clay Carpenter and Thiago Azeredo during United States Fight League(USFL) All-star Pankration show at Blue Water Casino in Parker, Arizona on 25th of October 2013. Photo: Miikka Pirinen
Crowd cheering young MMA fighters at United States Fight League(USFL) All-star Pankration show at Blue Water Casino in Parker, Arizona on 25th of October 2013. Photo: Miikka Pirinen
Mixed Martial Arts fighters Justin Ramirez, 7, and Chris Arrey, 7, fighting in the octagon in United States Fight League(USFL) All-star Pankration show at Blue Water Casino in Parker, Arizona on 25th of October 2013. Photo: Miikka Pirinen
Youth Mixed Martial Arts fighters in the octagon in United States Fight League(USFL) All-star Pankration show at Blue Water Casino in Parker, Arizona on 25th of October 2013. Photo: Miikka Pirinen
Crowd cheering young MMA fighters at United States Fight League(USFL) All-star Pankration show at Blue Water Casino in Parker, Arizona on 25th of October 2013. Photo: Miikka Pirinen
Regina "Black Widow" Awana, 7, with her Championship belts, posing for her sponsor at United States Fight League(USFL) All-star Pankration show at Blue Water Casino in Parker, Arizona on 25th of October 2013. Photo: Miikka Pirinen
Regina "Black Widow" Awana, 7, playing with her favorite doll, Ariel, with friends before her fights. She won all fights this night. United States Fight League(USFL) All-star Pankration show at Blue Water Casino in Parker, Arizona on 25th of October 2013. Photo: Miikka Pirinen
Mixed Martial Arts fighter Cade Rogue, 9, hugs his dad Jason, before fighting in the octagon in a United States Fight League(USFL) All-star Pankration show at Blue Water Casino in Parker, Arizona on 25th of October 2013. Photo: Miikka Pirinen
"Wrecking Crew" of Power MMA gym, AZ, is one of the most talented and well known MMA teams in the West Coast. Mesa, Arizona, November 20th 2013. Photo: Miikka Pirinen
William Reid, 10, at a private boxing class in Power MMA gym, Mesa, Arizona, November 19th 2013. Photo: Miikka Pirinen
Cheyenne Bowman, 11, at personal MMA practice with coach Craig Wilkerson, a professional MMA fighter. La Habra, CA. November 11th 2013. Photo: Miikka Pirinen
William Reid, 10, picked up by his coatch Andre Maracaba at a practice at Power MMA gym in Phoenix, AZ. Some times whilst training, kids might sprain a limb, but some times it's just mental stress and tiredness that triggers them in to tears. 25.10.2013 Photo: Miikka Pirinen
Cheyenne Bowman, 11, after personal MMA practice. La Habra, CA. November 11th 2013. Photo: Miikka Pirinen
Cheyenne Bowman, 11, at personal MMA practice with coach Craig Wilkerson, a professional MMA fighter. La Habra, Calif,. Nov. 2013.
Mixed martial arts fighter Brock Locnikar, 8, in the octagon, takes precious advise from his corner men Clay Carpenter and Thiago Azeredo during United States Fight League All-star
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Miikka Pirinen
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Meet America's Young Fight League Kids

Jan 28, 2015

Miikka Pirinen’s photographs provoke strong reactions every time they’re seen. “People often think that these kids have been forced to fight,” the Finnish photographer tells TIME. “People think that they get hurt a lot or that their families are after the money.”

Pirinen stumbled upon these “cage-fighting children,” as they are sometimes called, when he chanced upon a video online of six-year-old kids fighting in a competition in California. “I started to follow the topic online through videos posts by these kids’ proud parents and spectators,” he says. And while he read many condemnations of the sport, Pirinen had to see for himself.

“As a journalist I was strict not to form an opinion before seeing it all,” he says. “After spending over a month, day and night, following the kids, the parents and the trainers in gyms around Arizona and California, I started to have a pretty good insight of what the sport really is about for everyone involved: Community.”

Pirinen found a community based on respect toward one another, with kids of all ages helping each other, and parents working closely with trainers to offer a safe environment for their children. "It's not like we're hanging out in a bar,” Clay Carpenter, the father of three young fighters from Phoenix, Ariz., told Pirinen. “Instead we come here to support our kids.”

The children pictured in Pirinen’s photographs are not bullies – in fact, most of them are among the most trusted pupils in their respective schools, the photographer says. “They look out for each other and if anyone uses their skills for the wrong reasons, they are quickly set straight.”

For Pirinen, Fight League Kids is just the latest chapter in a two-year photographic project on the issue of identity among children. “I’m interested in the different ways young people are trying to form an identity for themselves,” he says. Next, the photographer, who started his career as a camera assistant in the film industry before moving to photography, plans to continue this project, focusing instead on motor sports and American football.

Miikka Pirinen is a Finnish freelance photographer based in Helsinki. He's a member of the Helsinki Street photography collective.

Mikko Takkunen is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

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