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In this corner is 6-foot-4, 245-pound Tom Whitaker, who has been practicing martial arts for 32 years. And in the other corner is 18-year-old Gabby Labbee, who stands at 5-foot-4, weighs a scrappy 115 pounds and has been kickboxing for seven years.

The teacher and student stood in stark contrast recently as they sparred in the boxing ring at Premier Martial Arts in Collinsville.

But the size difference didn't matter to Labbee. While Whitaker, who owns the downtown martial arts and fitness center, is the 1997 U.S. heavyweight kickboxing champion, Labbee has the distinction of being the International Kickboxing Federation girls junior flyweight champion three years in a row. Kickboxing is a martial art that combines boxing with karate kicks.

“I'm never scared when I go in the ring, nervous sometimes, but not scared,” said Labbee, who trains and works as a martial arts coach at the business.

Labbee's parents, Jeff and Cecilia Labbee, said that's why they enrolled their daughter in martial arts at Premier when she was 11 years old.

“She was home-schooled and she was a shy kid,” said Jeff Labbee, “We wanted her to be able to protect herself so she could be around kids her own age.”

Premier Martial Arts was established by Whitaker and his wife, Missy, in Collinsville in 2000 and is one of about 100 Premier schools nationwide. The Collinsville location offers martial arts, self-defense and fitness classes six days a week to about 300 students.

Last month, students as young as 3 were bowing in respect before learning the self-defense techniques of karate, taekwondo and krav maga on one side of the training center and youngsters were donning gloves and padded helmets to spar against each other in the boxing ring on the other side.

Whitaker said self-defense is the main reason people come to his training center.

Heather Roso, of Troy, said she enrolled her son Jesse, 8, in the martial arts program for self-defense and got something extra.

“He's definitely more self-confident,” said Roso. “It's improved his asthma and he's got more focus.”

Jesse, aka Chainsaw, was diligently working on his punching bag prowess and kickboxing techniques as he trained for to be a member of the school's competitive kickboxing team. But Roso said there's more than just the physical development. Premier incorporates character education into its training curriculum.

“He has 'homework' where he has to complete this list of things, brushing his teeth, cleaning his room, that gives him a chance to earn points” said Roso. “And he's been telling himself the school creed: 'Winners never quit, quitters never win. I choose to be a winner.'”

Whitaker, who is originally from Caseyville and now lives in Collinsville, said he got into martial arts as a kid because he was bullied. He said he has been able to train four world champions “because we build people from the inside out.”

“When a student comes in, we start to work on self-confidence,” said Whitaker, who has an 11-year-old son. “We work on getting them to believe in themselves. We give them incentives to practice character traits like discipline and respect. We start with small goals to help them accomplish them.”

And while Labbee, who also won a gold medal in the 2012 World Combat Games in Brazil, might have started with small goals, she's about to undertake a major one.

“(2012) was the first time time women were allowed to compete in boxing in the Olympics,” Labbee said. “I hope to be in the Olympics one day.”

Contact reporter Ramona C. Sanders at 618-344-0264, ext. 136