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.
“Then they sprint until they can’t move anymore,” he adds. This is about when the puking begins. Jackson’s goal with all this is simple: to expand a fighter’s threshold for pain and suering. “We always want to out-suffer our opponents in training, so that when other people are sucking wind and dying in the fight, we’re used to it,” he says. “I always ask my guys, ‘Would you rather be on the mountain or in the cage?’ I’ve never gotten ‘the mountain’ once.”
Matt Hughes, a former two-time UFC welterweight champion, thinks of MMA training as “running a marathon while riding a bull.” Fighters need to be explosive, strong, technically sound, and mentally impenetrable—and above all else, resilient. “My saying is, ‘Cardio is confidence,'” says Hughes, who’s come back from near defeat to win fights in the later rounds. “I don’t enjoy running, but I might run five miles in one day. If I can do that, it shows me that I can do anything.”
Like most of his colleagues in the sport, Hughes’ only fear is showing up to the fight out of shape—not defeat, injury, or embarrassment. “I think I’ve got the tools, so I just have to sharpen them up. Being in the fight is like clockwork. Everything just seems to happen—and if you have to think about things, it’s too late.”
Hughes’ opponent in UFC’s upcoming pay-per-view battle Dec. 29 is Matt Serra, the 33-year-old current welterweight champ. Once a journeyman mid-card fighter, Serra has risen to MMA star status with his participation in Spike TV’s hit reality show, The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). In season four, when former UFC talents were pitted against each other for a once-in-a-lifetime title shot, Serra emerged as the winner. A heavy underdog, he went on to obliterate thenwelterweight champ Georges St-Pierre in the first round of their bout last April.
St-Pierre had won the title by knocking Hughes silly a few months before, so a Serra-Hughes bout became an instant big-bucks matchup. But the two men had more reasons to clash than just a big payday (six figures for both fighters).Serra began developing a dislike for his opponent during TUF season two, in which Hughes coached the competitors, including a student of one of Serra’s two Brazilian jiu-jitsu schools near his home on Long Island, N.Y. Serra claims the student fighter was bullied by Hughes during a rough training session.
Later, when Serra himself competed in season four and Hughes made a guest appearance, he says Hughes played mental games with the fighters and tried to instigate an argument between Serra and the show’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach. After that, Serra vs. Hughes was on: They have criticized each other in interviews, and to add to the momentum of their nasty feud (which they agreed to settle in the Octagon), they were chosen to serve as opposing team coaches in TUF’s sixth season.
Says Serra, “I think Matt is genuinely confused as to why I have a problem with him. He never really did anything to me, but I don’t like the way he treats people.” Serra often calls Hughes a bully and likens him to a stuck-up high school jock— not to mention “a big furry chipmunk.”
Hughes, 34, seems more diplomatic. “I wouldn’t call myself a trash-talker,” he says. “I just speak my mind. I don’t think Serra is one of the top-10 welterweights in the world.” Though he admits to sometimes trying to “get into people’s heads,” Hughes maintains that it’s only gamesmanship and not personal.
Hughes does have an issue with how Serra carries himself as champion. A devoted Christian and classic middle American (he’s from rural Illinois), he has accused Serra of being a bad role model for younger fans of the sport due to his tendency to “cuss” in interviews. “I try and lead my life like I’m in front of a class of fifth graders,” says Hughes, a father of one young boy and a teenage girl. “He doesn’t do that. He’s being seen as a thug, and I think it hurts the sport.” Serra, arguably more a sharp-tongued New Yorker than a potty mouth, retorts that he encourages his nephews and niece to watch Hughes on TV so he can point out to them Hughes’ arrogant behavior. “I say, ‘Look, kids, see how he’s acting? Don’t grow up to be an asshole.'”
Having one of the most recognizable names in the sport and a long trail of beaten foes behind him, Hughes is the favorite over Serra. But he’s not taking his opponent lightly. Though he won’t be preparing with his usual team (he left Iowa-based Miletich Fighting Systems, which has backed him his whole career, so he could stay closer to his family), Hughes says he’s as hungry as ever and will be fit for battle.
He’s about to open his own training center, HIT (Hughes Intensive Training), near his home in Granite City, Ill., and he vows that “every day, I will train with guys who want to hurt me.” When not in the gym, he’s rolling a tractor tire along the acres of his family’s farm to build up shoulder strength, or smacking it with a sledgehammer until his hands blister to develop his core. Though he claims he’s never done neck training, the 170-pounder’s collar measures a massive 18 inches.
Serra continues to train on Long Island with the crew that helped him win the title. He performs a heartbursting circuit routine (described at right) to build his conditioning. “There’s a dierent wind for each thing,” he says, “the kickboxing, the wrestling, and the jiu-jitsu. You can have the heart, but if you don’t have the lungs, you’re screwed.” Just as he did for his fight with GSP, Serra anticipates doing upwards of 80 rounds of sparring, focusing particularly on his stand-up striking.
“Hughes is a better wrestler than me,” says Serra, “so I’m not going to bust my ass trying to get him to the floor. If anything, he’ll have to try to take me down, because I’ll be beating him standing.” Undoubtedly, Serra’s kickboxing skills shocked the world when he outpunched GSP to win the title. “Hughes is an egomaniac, so he might think he’s going to stand up with me. But the second he gets hit, he’s going to go right back to trying to wrestle. Hughes is good at being the hammer; he’s not when he’s the nail.”
Hughes doesn’t deny that Serra’s power is a threat, but if he gets Serra to the ground, Hughes believes he can finish the fight. “If things aren’t going my way, then I think back to what got me into this sport and what got me good,” he says. “And that’s taking people down and beating them up.” As for Serra’s devastating jiu-jitsu skills, Hughes thinks his wrestling is the perfect counter for that, too. “I think I’m going to pick where the fight goes. And the longer it goes, the better off I am. I’ll be in better shape.”