They possess nicknames like "the Dean of Mean," "Rampage," and "the Muscle Shark." And they know that at any moment they could be leveled by a punch or a kick, have their teeth knocked out by a knee, or feel the excruciating pain of a joint being dislocated by an inescapable submission lock. But for mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters, it's what they endure before the bout that really makes them want to puke. In the last two years, MMA has become a sports phenomenon akin to the NASCAR boom just a few years back. Bouts hosted by the sport's three main organizations—Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Bodog Fight, and the International Fight League—are filling arenas worldwide and drawing record audiences on cable TV and pay-per-view.
Fighters, like NASCAR drivers, are burgeoning entrepreneurs, producing their own nutritional supplements and clothing lines as well as starring in big-budget Hollywood movies. And while its fighters still compete for purses that would be chump change to top boxers, MMA is supplanting boxing in the hearts of more and more fight fans every day. Indeed, HBO, boxing's longtime home, is reportedly in talks with UFC, MMA's biggest organization, to bring the sport to the network. It's the kind of coup that would certainly further ring the bell on boxing's popularity.
Yet despite meteoric success and potential breakthroughs, MMA is still scrapping to overcome its controversial past. It has yet to be sanctioned, for instance, by the New York State Athletic Commission, and it has received scathing criticism from the pro boxing "establishment" (such as it is)—which largely still regards MMA as a passing fad and a barbaric sideshow. "A bar fight" is how HBO boxing commentator Jim Lampley reportedly described MMA competition. And WBC juniormiddleweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. boasted that any skilled boxer could knock out a UFC athlete. "UFC fighters can't handle boxing—that's why they're in the UFC," he said last spring.
It may be easy to dismiss such comments as the last wailings of a desperate sport, but the notion that boxing remains the "sweet science" is still ingrained in the minds of many disbelievers. "Ironically, MMA is often viewed as the least complicated sport," says Greg Jackson, who runs one of MMA's winningest fight teams, out of Albuquerque, N.M. "People think, 'Oh, you just get in a cage and swing,' but it's not like that. It's like playing three-dimensional chess."
Sure, as in boxing, the occasional fightending haymaker provides a memorable finish, but a big punch is only one way to win an MMA bout. As the sport's name suggests, fighters must develop myriad skills culled from a plethora of martial arts styles. And any of them could yield a fight-ending highlight. Boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and wrestling are the major cornerstones of the sport, and punches, kicks, knee strikes, elbows, and submission holds are all viable tools to secure a win. "You have to be skilled in so many areas, and you have to have incredible physical conditioning on top of that," says Jackson.
MMA is drawing competitors from other sports seeking to ride its wave of popularity—and cash in. But because the sport is so new, they often underestimate how di.cult it is to transfer their specialized skills to the Octagon. "I see guys who are black belts in traditional martial arts walk in o the street, and they're getting beat by guys who've only trained in MMA two months," says Mark DellaGrotte, an MMA trainer based near Boston.
"Our guys train in real, combative martial arts." Earlier this year, former NFL wide receiver Johnnie Morton threw his butt into an MMA ring and was carried out on a stretcher after being knocked cold in just 38 seconds. Ex–New York Giants running back Jarrod Bunch was also beaten in the first round of his cage-fighting debut. So what, exactly, are the elements of MMA training? For starters, fighters generally train four hours a day, five days a week, when preparing for a bout.
"There's no way you could humanly do more," says Jackson. "They'll also do 45 minutes or more of just strength and conditioning." That might include performing power cleans for 30 reps, which teaches their bodies to be explosive even in highly fatigued states, followed by a 15-minute treadmill run as part of a circuit without rest. His athletes also work on kickboxing, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu at separate times throughout the day. In jiujitsu training, a fighter will practice taking on a fresh opponent every few minutes until he's sparred with all his training partners—or collapsed from exhaustion.
Many fighters train their necks to be better shock absorbers against strikes and choke attempts. Jackson's team uses machines that put resistance on the neck muscles when doing a nodding or headshaking motion. For an even more sportspecific challenge, they'll do what Jackson calls "equilibrium training." Fighters will place a hand against a wall, bend at the knees, close their eyes, and begin rotating their heads in a circle as fast as they can. "Then you take your hand o the wall and shadowbox through it," he says. "So when you're in a fight and you get rocked, it's not this 'Whoa, where am I?' deal. It's, 'OK, I'm going to relax and work through this feeling of I can't feel my legs.'"
DellaGrotte's fighters, which include top UFC lightweight Kenny Florian, have a similar method of inhibiting the flinch reflex. "It sounds silly," says DellaGrotte, "but when they're taking a shower, I tell them to look up at the stream of water as it goes into their face. I have them start with the water on their chest and then shadowbox while moving forward. It's very di.cult not to blink, but the more you do it, the better you get at not blinking when punches are coming at you."
Training that pushes the bounds of safety is viewed as a must for building a champion's hardened-warrior mentality. "We have mountains for every occasion," says Jackson, referring to the New Mexico landscape surrounding his camp. His facility sits at 5,500 feet, but to really train his fighters to breathe under duress, he takes them to an 11,000-foot peak for a three-mile jog.